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Plight of Tokyo's Unemployed Day Laborers - 2001-08-29

Despite Japan's economic woes, Tokyo's reputation as a modern, rich, and high-tech city still endures. But more and more people are finding themselves outside of this image looking in.

They are called the kin no tomago, the golden treasures of Japan's boom years. From the 1960s onwards, the kin no tomago - young men fresh from high schools all over Japan - flocked to a place called San'ya. The small neighborhood in northeastern Tokyo was home to the country's largest day labor market, where the kin no tomago gathered at 5:00 a.m. each morning to find construction work during the city's explosive years of growth.

But then, just as the men were getting old, the asset bubble burst in the 1990s, sending the economy into a dive, and wiping out jobs in the construction industry. The kin no tomago, credited with building the sprawling, modern city of Tokyo, now found themselves unwanted, unemployed and, eventually, on the streets.

At 71 years of age, Kazuo Shimura is one of those men. When the money ran out, he joined the ranks of San'ya's 2,500 old and homeless former day laborers. "I didn't make enough money so I moved onto the streets," he said. "Many people are dying due to starvation and sickness here, although the newspapers don't report it."

San'ya is Tokyo's forgotten suburb, at least in the minds of young Japanese. But for older Japanese, the name resonates with scandal, violence and fear. San'ya was once a public execution ground located near a neighborhood of the Baraku, Japan's untouchables.

Years later, during the boom years, men would also gather at the bridge - between 5,000 to 15,000 of them - hoping to find work as day laborers. They were the new residents of San'ya, along with prostitutes and gamblers whose morals, behavior, lifestyle and untidy way of dressing horrified the rest of Japanese society.

Charles McJilton is a Tokyo-based advocate for the homeless who spent many years living in San'ya getting to know its people and its history. He says that stigma still lingers today. "Most people will not go up to that neighborhood unless they have to because they think it's dirty, dangerous and something could happen to them," he said. "Even to mention that you're from San'ya already means that you're not a good person, already means that there's something impure or unclean about you."

But San'ya also was home to more mainstream Japanese like shopkeepers and families. Appalled by the problems, they successfully lobbied authorities to rename the area. While this campaign of urban renewal effectively took San'ya off the map it didn't spell the end of the day laboring community.

Mired in recession, the work dried up. The kin no tomago could not afford even the cheapest accommodation. But the worst of all, according to Kazuo Shimura, San'ya lost its once thriving sense of community spirit. "Many people don't even have enough money to buy cigarettes," he said. "There's no guarantee I can eat one meal a day. People don't have the capacity to have concern for each other emotionally or economically."

For Charles McJilton, the story of San'ya reveals unsavory truths of a modern, throwaway society. "These people, I mean, they feel it, they consider themselves to be used and thrown away. In a sense that's what's happened," he said. "They've done their work for 20 or 30 years for Japan and now they're being thrown away. There's no more San'ya. Its flavor is missing. San'ya is dead and it won't revive itself."

That leaves men like 51-year-old Takezawa roaming streets of the down and out neighborhood. "I am desperate," he said. "I am divorced and my wife took custody of the children. I think a lot about the meaning of happiness. It's about having an ordinary family life. At night, I go to the convenience store and eat old food they have thrown into the garbage."

That sense of desperation also haunts Shimura-san. "I feel I will die on the streets alone, and no one will notice," he said.

Only people with a permanent address can receive social welfare payments in Japan, which effectively places San'ya's homeless outside the safety net. Christian volunteer organizations work in the neighborhood to fill the gap. But that will never ease the lingering fears of men like Shimura-san and thousands of others like him.