The Far East: The Other Japan

A visit to Sanya, a Tokyo slum, reveals the peculiar nature of Japanese poverty

NOT MANY JAPANESE are interested in visiting Sanya, but for a foreigner it’s a compelling destination. Before I went, I’d heard it described as Tokyo’s largest slum. It’s not exactly a slum, as Americans understand the term, and its pathologies would barely be noticed in a city with more glaring problems, like Manila. Still, this rare illustration of Japanese social breakdown is in its way as instructive as the country’s many and more obvious successes.

The ideographs that make up Sanya’s name mean “mountain valley,” but it’s actually a featureless flatland in the northeast corner of Tokyo, bordered by a crook of the city’s major river, the Sumida. Through hundreds of years of Tokyo’s history the area has been, as William Wetherall put it in the Far Eastern Economic Review, “a repository for the bottom of Japanese society.” Japan’s rush into modernization began with the Meiji Restoration, in 1868, but in the long preceding era of shogun rule Sanya had been one of Edo’s (old Tokyo’s) main execution grounds. From the thirteenth to the nineteenth century some 200,000 people are supposed to have been beheaded, crucified, or otherwise put to death there. The ordinary-looking traffic overpass that spans Sanya’s main intersection is even now called Namidabashi, “Bridge of Tears.” The street it crosses used to be a small river that separated the realm of criminals and outcasts from the city that had expelled them. Here Edo-era families said goodbye to errant relatives about to cross the bridge ro the other world. Some people still call the main avenue in Sanya the Street of Bones.

Whether because of the ghosts hovering over Sanya and the blood in its soil, or simply because of the momentum of urban growth, Sanya never developed a “normal” business and residential base like the rest of the city. Even after the executions stopped, it was a refuge for fringe characters, such as worn-out and over-aged prostitutes from the nearby Yoshiwara pleasure zone, and for Japan’s class of outcasts, who performed “unclean” duties, such as leatherwork and handling the dead. About 45,000 people now live within the area commonly referred to as Sanya. Most of them are normal working-class Japanese, but about 7,000 are “flophouse occupants”—derelicts, bums, and casual laborers who live in the many flophouses and shelters of Sanya when they’re not living on the streets.

Just how rough and tough today’s Sanya seems depends on what you’re expecting, which in turn probably depends on whether you’re from Japan. On my first visit, in 1986, I went with a Japanese friend who usually comes across as Mr. Cool. As we emerged from the subway station, I noticed that he was suddenly walking with hunched-up shoulders and wearing an apprehensive expression, looking around nervously every few seconds, behaving as most Americans would in a dangerous part of town. Apparently we’d crossed the border into Sanya—I hadn’t detected the change myself. A few minutes later, when we were stepping over drunks lying on the sidewalk and passing men urinating woozily against walls, I realized that Sanya was indeed different from the rest of Tokyo. But at the same point it became clear that Sanya is, rather than a slum, what Americans would call a Skid Row or tenderloin district, full of people who are not just poor but also sick, drunk, down-and-out. In specific, it lacks two elements that make true slums, in the United States and elsewhere, so alarming.

The first thing it lacks is families. There are no children in the Sanya flophouses, no teenagers that I saw, and practically no women. Nearly all the inhabitants are full-grown men, usually middle-aged or older, who for a variety of reasons have slipped out of the workand-family network that holds the rest of the country together. Their stories are of course sad, but there seems to be no chance that they will spawn an even sadder multi-generation “culture of poverty" in Sanya. The absent father is known as the missing member of American slum society; absent fathers, brothers, and sons are the mainstays of Sanya.

The second classic slum element that Sanya lacks is an air of impending danger. This is not to say that it is a calm or harmonious place. Since 1984 there have been two notorious Sanya-related murders. In one case, a film director working on a leftist documentary about Sanya was stabbed to death there. In the other, a labor activist trying to organize Sanya’s residents was gunned down in another part of town. Many of the people on the street have black eyes, visible bruises, oozing cuts. The violence of American slums is mainly visited on other people in the slum, but a lot spills out. Sanya’s violence is more completely self-contained. The two killings were politically motivated; they were the work of the yakuza, Japan’s gangsters, who organize Sanya’s main racket— finding day-labor jobs for the derelicts, in return for kickbacks from the daily wage. The yakuza often overlap with right-wing Japanese-nationalist groups, and through the 1980s there have been recurrent shoving matches and fights in Sanya between the yakuza and leftist groups trying to break the gangsters’ hold. The killings are said to have been an extension of this struggle, as the yakuza tried to rid their territory of meddlesome do-gooders.

Sanya’s residents are always vulnerable to being caught in the political cross fire or robbed or beaten by their neighbors. If they wander out into the rest of the city, they may be attacked by gangs of schoolboys who look for drifters to beat up. (This phenomenon, involving groups of otherwise respectable adolescents, has caused much worried comment in the press, which usually ties it to intense academic competition and to the prevalence of bullying, or ijime, in the schools.) But Tokyo’s other 10 million people can still lead untroubled, crime-free lives in happy ignorance of the turmoil in Sanya. In the course of three visits the most aggressive behavior I encountered was from a stumbling, palsied-seeming man who draped his arm around me and with beery breath kept shouting, “Okay, Joe! Okay!” into my face.

I should mention a third important difference between Sanya and the worst American slums: the members of Japan’s “underclass” are the same race as everybody else. True, Japanese society does contain tangled, caste-like barriers of discrimination, especially against ethnic Koreans and the ancient untouchable class once known as era (“filth”) and now as burakumin, or “hamlet people.”Their euphemistic new name comes from the isolated settlements, or buraku, in which until about a hundred years ago they were required to live. The burakumin are still discriminated against in school and work, as the Burakumin Liberation Research Institute, in Osaka, has documented, and they and Koreans are overrepresented among yakuza and Sanya bums. But the attitudes that oppress them can’t really be called racial discrimination, since the victims are not a separate race. Japan maintains a meticulous system of birth and family registers, usually in each family’s ancestral village; these records, inspected by prospective employers or spouses, make it almost impossible to keep an “undesirable” background concealed. The registers are necessary precisely because other Japanese often can’t tell who belongs in what caste by just looking or listening. I’m not sure whether this color-blind caste system is morally better or worse than straightforward color prejudice, but it does remove racial complications from Japan’s underclass problem.

These three differences from American and European slums—the lack of children growing up in a culture of poverty, little spillover crime, and the lack of a visible racial minority—help explain why mainstream Japan seems so little concerned about Sanya. If you get on the Chiyoda subway line near the Imperial Palace, you can get off the same train thirty-five minutes later at the Bridge of Tears. As Tokyo distances go, that’s right next door, but Sanya might as well be in the South Bronx, or on Pluto, for all the attention its residents get from their fellow Japanese. The best-known relief center in Sanya is run by the Catholic Maryknoll order, and several other churches sponsor volunteers— this in a country that is less than one percent Christian. The volunteers at the centers and the donations on which they operate come disproportionately from the United States, Germany, and other foreign countries, not Japan. (In fairness, the Japanese chapters of American-style voluntary or charitable organizations are extremely weak, probably because other forms of organization in the country—family, school, work group—are so very strong.) But in addition to the three obvious factors that account for Sanya’s isolation, I got the feeling that there was a fourth—embarrassment—that helped explain why people ended up in Sanya and why everyone else ignored them once they were there.

THE MAN WHO explained Sanya’s meaning to me was Dr. Masahiko Katori. Katori is a psychiatrist whose regular job is as the president of a private mental hospital, but on Fridays he operates a general medical clinic in Sanya, sponsored by the Tokyo government, for token pay. Katori must be successful— he drives a new white sports car and lives in what is for Tokyo a very nice apartment—but you would not instantly deduce that on meeting him. He is a grizzled-looking man of sixty, missing several lower teeth. Most Japanese men pass out business cards on which their institutional rank is specified with minute precision; in conversation they expect to be addressed not as “Mr.”but as “Section Chief,” “Division Manager,” and so on. “Hospital President" Dr. Katori never gave me a card and said only that he worked at a hospital. He talks in a gruff voice, dresses in unconventional combinations of coats and pants, and has taken on some of the flavor of his clientele. “I feel like I’m becoming a kind of alcoholic just by being here,” he told me with a melancholy laugh, in a coffee shop on the Street of Bones. “Before I came to Sanya, I could hardly drink half a beer. Now I may drink two or three bottles of whiskey a week. You could say alcoholism is an infectious disease!”

It may sound as if I’m mocking Katori, but that’s not my intent. I admire him and what he does. He jokes about becoming an alcoholic, but he crusades tirelessly to get his patients off the bottle. He puts on slide shows, displaying biopsy slides of a cirrhosis-damaged liv - er; on his clinic walls are comic-bookstyle posters with tips on how to fend off the tuberculosis and pneumonia that finally kill those whom alcohol has softened up. He speaks about Sanya with a combination of tenderness and dispassion that I haven’t encountered in American social workers. Unlike most of his fellow Japanese, he obviously views these bedraggled, dying derelicts as his brothers and feels sympathetic pain when they are hurt. But like most Japanese, and unlike many Westerners in comparable positions, he holds no-nonsense moralistic views about how each person contributes to his own downfall.

As Katori describes it, Sanya is full of people who were not strong enough to survive the collision between an old Japanese principle and the new Japanese life. The old principle, still very much in force, is that dignity comes from performing your duties as part of a group— the family, the company, the team. The new reality is that some duties no longer need to be performed. Technology has eliminated some, and Japan’s impending “internationalization” and import liberalization will remove many more. Japan has tried harder than most countries to preserve traditional jobs, but even it can’t preserve all of them forever. The loss of identity that comes with unemployment is hardly unique to Japan, but here it has a special sting, because honorably discharging one’s duty matters more in Japan than anywhere else.

“In the old days this used to be an agricultural country,” Katori said one time, as he walked me to a small sushi restaurant tucked incongruously amid the flophouses. “During the snow season people would come in from the countryside to find work. They had no way to earn money in the home village, and here they could earn money for the start of the school year [which in Japan means spring]. It was a natural pattern for them to commute from the countryside to the city, then back to the country when the weather was warm.”

In Tokyo the natural job for the migrants was day labor on construction, dockyard, and general-labor gangs. Sanya became a center for itinerant day laborers, who spent their nights in the flophouses and their early mornings being mustered into work details by the yakuza. (There are similar areas in Yokohama, Nagoya, and Osaka, the one in Osaka being the largest day-labor and flophouse district in Japan.) The golden age of day labor was in the years just before and after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when the city went into a frenzy, similar to what Seoul has just undergone, of highway improvement, stadium-building, and general sprucing-up before displaying its rebuilt self to the world. “The people you see here,” Katori said one afternoon as we walked through lines of bruised, pulpy-faced patients at his clinic, “they built the Tokyo you see.”

He was not just speaking metaphorically. During the pre-Olympic building boom as many as 15,000 day laborers lived in Sanya. Many left when the boom wras over and found other places in the great employment-security machine that is modern Japan. Those still in Sanya are the ones who couldn’t adapt to anything else—which is why so many are in their fifties and sixties. “The Tokyo Olympics were the root of the problem,”Katori said. “There was so much work then, people got absorbed here. They didn’t go back home.”

The old generation is fast dying out, hastened on by neglect and disease, but Katori claims that migration may be putting a new generation in place. It’s a bad time to be a day laborer, because bulldozers now do the job that pick-andshovel gangs did even at the time of the Olympics. Nonetheless, country people still come to Tokyo, as part of Japan’s inevitable adjustment to the outside world. “Many of the people here are from Hokkaido, the coal-mine areas,” Katori said. “The mines are closing”— even at 250 yen ro the dollar, the price of Japanese coal was out of sight—“and the men don’t know what else to do, so they come here looking for work. They are so ashamed. Those who used to mine coal by the ton—now they’re supposed to wrap candy with dainty fingers in the candy factories. It’s hard for them.

“We are starting to have the regulation of rice production”—that is, the Japanese government is inching away from the enormous subsidies that have kept rice farmers in business— “so people come to the city from the farming regions. There used to be a lot of fishing far from Japan, but now other countries are restricting it, and the fishermen lose their jobs.” Japanese whalers are being laid off too, and the papers have reported on whaling villages where everyone is suddenly out of work. “The longshoremen and stevedores in Yokohama lost their jobs when the container ships came. The railroads are going private this year and laying off workers.”The shipyards, steel mills, and aluminum smelters are shedding workers too. “We are starting to see a flow into Tokyo beeause of the strong yen.”

To an economist, every one of the changes Katori described would make perfect, obvious, inescapable sense. For Japan to operate energy-eating aluminum mills is insane; for other countries to let Japanese boats fish their waters, rather than catching and selling the fish themselves, is simple neglect of selfinterest. Moreover, each of these adjustments (except maybe the whaling one) resembles a painful change that Japan’s robust industries have forced on some other country. I’m sure Katori would prefer that Japan not open its protected industries, but unlike some Western counterparts, his point was not that society is to blame. He seemed to be saying instead that society had applied great pressure, by forcing people out of their familiar roles, and under that pressure some people broke.

“These men are mainly from rural areas, traditional backgrounds,” he said. “They come hoping for work, but once they come here, they are discouraged. They start to miss their wives and children badly. They are heartsick for their familiar scenes. They tend to feel this ache most at night, and they can’t go to sleep because of their worries. For a day laborer, what he fears most is not the hunger or the low wage. What he fears most is not being able to sleep. He knows he must get up very early to get work, and then work maybe in dangerous jobs all day. So to go to sleep he will drink—and drink and drink. In the evening time, you and I think of a drink with dinner. They drink to work tomorrow, but of course the amount increases and after a while they can’t work at all.”

Eighty percent of the people in Sanya flophouses are alcoholics, Katori said. From looking around, I would have guessed a hundred percent, but he said that the rest were chronic gamblers plus a surprisingly large minority of “sweets addicts,” capable of blowing any money they get on candy, in order to gorge. When they can find day labor, they can earn 7,000 to 8,000 yen a day (about $56 to $64), after the cut for the yakuza. A night in the flophouse is 750 yen; the rest, Katori said, goes for whiskey, beer, or shochu (a harsh spirit made from potatoes). Those with a little money can invest it with the yakuza, buying “work stamps" to prove that they’ve held more jobs than they actually have. Japan offers modest short-term unemployment benefits worth $160 a month to laid-off day laborers, but only to those whose stamps show that they’ve worked twenty-eight days in the previous two months. The class divide in Sanya is between those still healthy enough for the 1,000 to 1,500 day-labor jobs typically available and those past that stage. Katori said that at a certain point men can no longer afford a flophouse, or would rather use the money to drink themselves to sleep on the streets. Smalltime thieves prey on these pathetic men, sticking lighted cigarettes against their wrists to judge if they’re comatose enough to be stripped and robbed.

“When they get to this point, it is a kind of chronic suicide,”Katori said. “First they were commuting from their home village to the city every few months. Then they were commuting only from the flophouse to the day-labor site each day. Then they commute to the jail, then the hospital. When they can’t make money any other way, they have three choices left: becoming thieves, selling their blood, or prostituting themselves with gays. This is disgusting to me. When they don’t have jobs, they try to get hit by deluxe cars. Some people have made a specialty out of ‘bumper fractures,’ breaking the two bones in the lower leg. It’s very painful but they do it. Somehow they never get hit by old, cheap cars.” Katori said that about ninety people died out-of-doors last year in Sanya, mainly in the winter. The city government’s estimate is only half that high, but considering how many of Sanya’s men are old and sick, either figure seems low. It is very easy to imagine life ebbing out of those motionless forms.

Alcoholism and unemployment are of course universal problems, but Sanya’s plight has a peculiarly Japanese edge. Even Katori, no one’s idea of a typical salaryman, described the day laborers’ plight through such familiar concepts as group identity, preserving face, stoic self-control. “Their philosophy is, don’t look ahead, don’t look back, just live for today. When they have money, they will gamble it or drink it. One man, who is now dead, worked for three months on a construction project in Akita Prefecture. The day it was over, he took a taxi back to Sanya.”This extravagant gesture, equivalent to taking a taxi from Chicago to New York, used up all his earnings. Katori urges the Tokyo government to build better clinics, he laments the closing of the mines, he wishes other Japanese would pay more attention to Sanya. But finally, he said, the solution is for each individual to resist temptation and do his duty again.

He also offered a Japanese interpretation of why that was so hard. “They would like to go home. There everyone has a place at the table. But after five or ten years they lose their place. They want to come back, but to do it in the daylight—that would be too harsh. Everything would be too clear. So they come back at night. They come to the window and take a look in at the family they have left. But then—they see their reflection in the mirror, and they are too ashamed. They cannot go in and take their proper place again. They have let all the others down.”

—Jam ex Fallows