San'ya's civil war

Apathy and assassination in Tokyo's largest skidrow

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared as
"Skid Row and flophouses in Japan's backyard" in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 134(45), 6 November 1986, pages 50-51

Japanese secure in their jobs, but ignorant about their own society, will boast to inquisitive foreigners that poverty and exploitation of the poor are problems of other countries. This mentality was recently seen when a Japanese tourist agency offered some high school students a chance to travel to India to see a Calcutta slum.

Indians in Japan were incensed by the plan. The Indian government's tourist office reportedly refused to cooperate. An officer of the Japan-India Association said that if affluent Japanese students must see deprivation, there is plenty in their own backyard. And indeed there is.

On the northern fringes of Tokyo itself is a skidrow called San'ya, where emperor-worshipping rightists and anti-imperialist leftists are battling for control of the thousands of day laborers who have drifted into the area to find work. Mammoth street riots, provoked by trouble between yakuza (gangster) job brokers and labor organizers, are perennial in San'ya. But the fighting has escalated into an ideological war that has left two dead in as many years.

On 22 December 1984, 37-year-old free-lance film director Michio Sato was stabbed to death near the headquarters of the leftist San'ya Sogidan [San'ya Dispute Group]. Sato was just two weeks into the shooting of a documentary film on the plight of San'ya's 7,000 day laborers. He may have been killed because he was mistaken for a member of the leftist group, which is a branch of the Zenkoku Hiyatoi Rodo Kumiai Kyogikai [National Council of Day-Laborer Labor Unions].

At sunrise on 13 January this year, 45-year-old Kyoichi Yamaoka, a day laborer and Sogidan leader who helped complete the film after Sato's death, was shot in classic gangland style on a Shinjuku, Tokyo street. Justice was swift. Yamaoka's slayer, 29-year-old Tsutomu Hoshina, was arrested on 21 January, and by 18 June he had been sentenced to 15 years in prison for murder. Hoshina seems to have killed Yamaoka to avenge the raid that a number of laborers, led by some leftists, had made against his gang's office on 2 January.

Hoshina was a member of the Kanamachi Ikka Kinryugumi [Kanamachi Family Golden Dragon Association], a yakuza gang affiliated with the Nippon Kokusui Kai [Japan National Essence Society], an ultra-right organization which pledges loyalty to the emperor. The gangsters act as job brokers for subcontractors who may be working for big construction companies, and they take kickbacks from the men they hire.

Very few jobs are available to day laborers through public employment agencies. And unemployment benefits are paid only if one has worked 28 days in the previous two months. So many men accept the wage cuts of yakuza-mediated jobs in order to qualify for welfare.

Some day laborers also buy black-market labor stamps from gangsters, who obtain them from contractors who have overbought them from government employment offices. The stamps are put in a laborer's unemployment-insurance booklet to show that he has worked. Gangsters may take the booklet as collateral when a laborer becomes indebted to them from gambling or usury. The laborer must then accept work through the yakuza, who parasite off the dependency relationship.

Though San'ya is Japan's most famous skidrow, it is not the largest. Most major cities have at least one area with hiring halls, welfare centers, and soup kitchens amidst food and drink places and flophouses which cater to Japan's tens of thousands of chronically unemployed and homeless. Some cities also have economically poor neighborhoods, and even slums, which may have large numbers of ethnic minorities like Koreans or social minorities like burakumin (descendants of former outcastes).

Big cities also have colonies of bums. Tokyo's subway stations and public parks shelter several hundred vagrants and derelicts who have dropped out of places like San'ya and survive off the garbage that flows from the plush entertainment districts. Compared to some other countries, Japan has few such down-and-outs. But seen among their smartly-dressed and brisk-walking compatriots, they conspicuously foretell what could happen if Japan were to suffer a major recession.

Unemployment in Japan has risen to about three percent. Though low in the eyes of the countries which are complaining about trade imbalances, Japanese officials are worried that it may climb even further as the higher yen dulls the competitive edge of weaker industries, and forces even stronger companies to cut their full-time staffs and employ more temporary workers, including day laborers.

Japan has about one-million day laborers, and roughly 50,000 of them inhabit the San'ya-like skidrows of Japan's industrial cities. The Airin (Kamagasaki) district of Nishinari ward in Osaka city is Japan's largest skidrow with about 20,000 resident and migrant day laborers. Tokyo's San'ya is second, followed by Yokohama's Kotobuki-cho district and Nagoya's Sasajima area.

"San'ya" refers to a part of Metropolitan Tokyo which is mainly in Taito ward to the west of Minami Senju station but also spills into Arakawa ward to the east. This section of Tokyo is near Ueno station, a huge train terminal which serves as a kind of "Ellis Island" through which many rural people migrate to the city from northern prefectures in search of "the Japanese dream".

In December 1984, about 7,200 or 17 percent of San'ya's population of 43,000 residents were living in 200 flophouses. Only 23 percent of the flophouse occupants were registered as residents in the neighborhood. The San'ya flophouse population has hovered around the 7,000 level since 1980, after reaching a peak of 15,000 at the time of the Tokyo Olympics two decades ago, and then falling to the 10,000 level, which continued through the oil shock of the early 1970s.

As the number of San'ya laborers has dropped, the population has become much older and more settled. In 1970, more than half of San'ya's residents were in their 30s or 40s and had lived in the area for fewer than 5 years. Now most laborers are in their 40s or 50s and have lived in San'ya for 6 or more years, including over 40 percent who have lived there at least 10 years. Such figures suggest that in Japan, as in other countries, poverty can become a way of life.

Day laborers who cannot afford a flophouse bunk may be given shelter by a Christian mission. Others sleep where they can outside, and every winter some die from the cold. Unlike some poor elderly people who live alone, vagrants rarely starve to death. San'ya day laborers, like street bums, suffer from malnutrition but have fewer hygiene problems.

Japanese skidrows are characterized by their relative absence of women and families. Only 0.6 percent of San'ya's flophouse occupants in the 1984 survey were women. Unskilled women, more readily than men, can find jobs outside skidrows in the food, drink, janitorial and other service industries. But men more than women can be seen collecting cardboard and junk.

Most of San'ya's men are single and homeless. Some came from rural areas after failing as farmers or losing their jobs when a coal mine closed. Others are unable to hold regular jobs for personal reasons like alcoholism. Unemployed ethnic and social minorities may also end up in San'ya or other skidrows.

The documentary that director Sato had started to make was completed in December last year. It is called "Yama: yararetara yarikaese" [San'ya: If done to, do back!] and runs about one hour. The film begins with scenes of Nihon Kokusui Kai rightists with Japanese flags confronting San'ya Sogidan members in November 1983. Then come shots of Sato a year later, on the street where he had fallen when stabbed, and on a stretcher at the hospital.

The narration recaps the history of the San'ya area. To the east and north of the area is the Sumida river. To the west was old Tokyo's gay quarters, which now teems with massage parlors and bars. The leather industry zone to the south is a vestige of old Tokyo's outcaste community. Near the Bridge of Tears intersection, near the heart of San'ya, is the site of old Tokyo's execution grounds.

So San'ya has long been a sump for the bottom of Japanese society. Until modern times it was a segregated area for prostitutes who died before they could buy themselves out of bondage, for eta (outcastes) who worked with animal skins, and for hinin (non-people) who executed criminals and disposed of the dead.

The movie leaves no proletarian stone unturned. San'ya is made a pretext for mentioning every atrocity that was ever perpetrated on the under-classes and sub-castes in Japan and abroad. The Rape of Nanjing. The plight of Okinawans, Koreans, Chinese, and burakumin (renamed descendants of the eta and hinin). The cries of those caught in the American bombing raids which incinerated the area during the war. The killing of some Yokohama park bums by middle school bullies in 1983. The lynching of two patients at a mental hospital in Utsunomiya in 1984. Yasukuni Shrine where the spirits of war criminals continue to be worshipped by incumbent neonationalist politicians.

"The day-laborers are tied up in the bunkhouses of the gangs when healthy, fed to the hospitals when sick, and cut up as medical school cadavers when dead."

Scene by scene, comment by comment, it is possible to weep for all the victims introduced in the film. But in throwing them into the same pot, and sentimentalizing instead of analyzing, the movie becomes an ideological stew that is palatable only to those who are willing to believe that all human suffering will end only when the goodwill of the left "crushes" the evils of the right.

The alliance of San'ya's laborers with the new left does not mean they are leftists. Nor are the yakuza who are allied with the ultra-right necessarily rightists. Mystery writer Kazuo Shimada said of a character in a novel about international yakuza activities: "[The gang's fascist ideology] probably isn't that deep-rooted. It's just a group of professional right-wingers. A bunch of guys who eat by trading on patriotism."

But even when not politically motivated, thugs can provide a political organization the muscle it needs to control society through fear. Recall the Nazi SS and the Japanese Kenpeitai. Today ultra-rightists are coming out of the closet as more Japanese are attracted to the idea that nationalism is a prerequisite for Japanese style internationalism.

If Japanese students could tour foreign slums, they would stop bullying their classmates. They would know how well-off they were, and they would take more pride in being Japanese. Instead of questioning the political objectives of their educations, they would dream of saving the world by exporting Japan's superior moral traditions to culturally disadvantaged countries like India.

In the meantime, San'ya's confrontation is increasing the employment prospects of everyone but the laborers. The gangs recruit youth who like to masquerade as super patriots. The leftists attract dedicated activists who have sworn to rid the world of all rightists. More police are needed to protect both the rightists and themselves from leftists who do more than march in the streets. Caught between their alleged exploiters and would be liberators, the laborers gain mainly a steady flow of adrenalin, and maybe a desire to keep sober long enough to survive the struggle over who controls them.