Down — but not out — in Kotobukicho

The rapidly changing foreign face of Yokohama's day-laborer area

by Jon Mitchell

Yokohama’s Ishikawacho Station straddles the border between two worlds. Take a right turn from its south exit and you find yourself among the designer boutiques and Belgian chocolate shops of tourist Motomachi. Head left from the same station, however, walk three minutes and you discover a neighborhood omitted from most guidebooks — except perhaps as a warning in the “Dangers & Annoyances” section. This 200- by 300-meter district is called Kotobukicho, “The Town of Congratulations,” and it’s home to Japan’s third-largest community of day laborers — the closest Yokohama has to a slum.

Visiting Kotobukicho on a glorious summer morning, I’m immediately struck by the palette of its low-rise buildings and pot-holed roads — gray, black and six shades of brown, it’s an area devoid of primary colors. In a nation where it’s normal to find three competing convenience stores on a single street, here there are none. Nor are there any fast food restaurants, banks or any other of the brightly lit signs of 21st century Japan. The only shops are small groceries stocked with dusty shelves of canned food alongside refrigerators piled high with shiny tins of alcohol.

Drinking appears to play an important part in the lives of many of Kotobukicho’s residents. It’s 10 a.m., but on every corner men sit alone and in groups sharing bottles of spirits and cans of cut-price beer. Three pensioners in wheelchairs clutch huge cartons of sake protectively to their chests as they push themselves one-handed down the road. Ninety-five percent of Kotobukicho’s residents are single men, and over half of them are over the age of 60. Theirs is a precarious existence: Hired by the day to work the docks or building sites, they sleep in nightly-rented rooms, never more than an injury or bout of sickness away from homelessness.

The only people who appear to be doing well for themselves are the gangsters; in a 50-meter stretch, I count close to a dozen. Dressed in bright red and yellow tracksuits, they stroke their heavy gold bracelets while monitoring the side streets for police or any other signs of trouble. Occasionally, one of their large Mercedes rolls through Kotobukicho, and these foot soldiers shoo drunks out of its path as though clearing pigeons from a window sill.

As I’m taking a photograph of the large public work center that stands in the heart of Kotobukicho, one of these men appears at my side. He’s wearing a denim shirt embroidered with Wile E. Coyote, and his hair is crimped into a tight perm. In gruff but polite Japanese, he asks me to show him my camera. I shrug and tell him in English that I don’t understand, but he repeats his request, this time applying an eloquent hand to the nape of my neck. While I scroll through the pictures of illegal bookies and corner dice games I surreptitiously took earlier in the day, he supervises their deletion.

Suddenly, his grip loosens and the cigarette droops from his mouth. Nearby, a bench of drinkers lower their cups, too, and they all gaze at the street, where three tall blonde women on neon-pink mountain bikes are weaving their way expertly between the piles of trash and unconscious residents. The foreigners are young, clean and impossibly out of place, and they call back and forth to each other in a lilting northern European language.

After they disappear around a corner, the thug rubs a hand over his face as though he’s not sure what he’s just seen. “Kotobukicho’s looking up,” he mutters to himself. Forgetting that I’m not supposed to understand a word he says, I nod my head in agreement.

Japan has two other large day-laborer communities — Sanya in Tokyo and Osaka’s Kamagasaki — but what has always differentiated Kotobukicho from these is an almost constant presence of non-Japanese. In the 2001 study of Kotobukicho “Men of Uncertainty,” Meiji Gakuin University professor Tom Gill traces these foreign roots to the days of the Allied Occupation. In the years after the war, the American military controlled the docks of Yokohama, and it needed a large number of men to unload the ships. More concerned with the laborers’ physical strength than their nationality, the military hired many non-Japanese workers, and soon a community of day laborers, including many foreigners, sprang up in nearby Sakuragicho.

With the end of the Occupation in 1952, the labor market was moved to Kotobukicho, where it continued to attract throngs of men seeking work in the area’s booming docks and construction businesses. As the Japanese economy grew throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the need for a cheap labor pool outstripped the number of workers, and this shortage was often filled by foreigners.

One of these men was a 24-year old Filipino called Rey Ventura. Between March 1988 and February 1989 Ventura lived in Kotobukicho, working illegally as a day laborer.

“At that time, Kotobukicho was a very international place,” he explains. “There were Pakistanis and Latinos, Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis, Russians. All these different languages were spoken in the street.”

Ventura’s day used to begin at dawn as he stood on the corner waiting for prospective employers to come around in their minivans. If lucky, he’d be chosen along with a dozen other men and driven to a building site in the suburbs or a newly arrived ship on the docks. There, he’d work a back-breaking 12- or 16-hour shift before being dropped back in Kotobukicho to his 5-sq. meter room, which he sometimes shared with a fellow laborer.

It was a stressful life: On top of the daily humiliations of the selection procedure (which he compares to the lineup in a brothel) and the dangers of long hours around heavy equipment, he also had to worry about raids by the police and the “mig-migs” — the immigration authorities.

Now 47 and living back in Japan on a fully valid visa, I meet Ventura in a small bar near Kotobukicho. As he reflects on his year on the other side of the law, he exudes an aura of cheerfulness.

“For a day’s work, I used to make between ¥8,000 and ¥13,000. It sounds a lot, but it wasn’t. Of that, around ¥6,000 went on board and food. And you have to remember that we couldn’t find work every day. Sometimes, I worked 16 days a month. Other men worked 20 days. But even then many of them squandered their earnings on drink and women.”

Far from wasting his own year of hard toil, Ventura penned a book about his experiences, “Underground in Japan.” Published to widespread acclaim in 1992, longtime Japan commentator Donald Richie called it “detailed, perceptive” and “extremely interesting.”

That Ventura was able to write such a well-received book should not have come as a surprise — at the time he lived in Kotobukicho he was a university graduate with a degree in political science. Many of the Filipinos who worked alongside him were equally well-educated, including some former civil servants. Ventura explains the seeming anomaly of middle-class foreigners working poverty-line Japanese jobs in his book. “It was only they who could raise the money for the initial payments — the papers and the air tickets and the bribes. . . . They had gone (to Japan) not to make money, but to make more money, not for their daily bread but for the finer things in life.”

I tell Ventura about my encounter with the gangster, and ask him if he agrees that Kotobukicho’s changing. “I go back there three or four times a year. There used to be 200 Filipinos living in the area. But now all of them are gone. Many of them lived and worked in Kotobukicho for 20 years. They gave half of their life to Japan. But then they were deported.”

For the first time in our two-hour conversation, a hint of acrimony creeps into Ventura’s voice. He’s right to sound bitter. It was partly on the backs of these illegal laborers that Japan’s bubble successes were built — they constructed the houses and office blocks of the real-estate boom and they unloaded goods to sate the country’s endless desire for imports — yet when the economy shrunk in the late 1990s and they were no longer needed, they were rounded up and summarily sent home.

“The deportations were all part of an ongoing campaign to sanitize Kotobukicho. Recently they’ve knocked down some of the old wooden buildings, too. Plus they’ve put flower pots in the streets. I call it the ‘periwinkle revolution.’ “

Heading back into Kotobukicho, I spot some of the planters to which Ventura was referring outside the offices of Yokohama Hostel Village, the enterprise at the forefront of the movement to rejuvenate the neighborhood. Inside, I meet Tomohiko Okabe, the 32-year-old CEO of Koto Lab.

Okabe first became interested in Kotobukicho during his regular expeditions to the neighborhood as an architecture student. At the time, he began to realize that a large number of the day laborers’ doya hostels had unoccupied rooms — especially on the upper floors, where the flights of stairs made them unpopular among (and increasingly inaccessible to) the rapidly aging lodgers. Okabe and his fellow staff at Yokohama Hostel Village came up with a plan to transform the vacant space into accommodation for foreign backpackers and budget-conscious domestic travelers.

As Okabe leads me up the stairs to the fifth floor of the Hayashi Kaikan hostel, he explains the rates they charge. “For ¥2,200 a night, guests get a private room with a TV, refrigerator and air conditioner.” At approximately a third of the price of a regular business hotel, it sounds like a bargain, but when he opens the door, I immediately understand why the price is so low: the room, while spotlessly clean and equipped as promised, is only three tatami mats in size (approximately 5 sq. meters). Remembering Ventura’s comment that sometimes he used to share a room the same size with a colleague, a wave of claustrophobia washes over me. Okabe must have noticed the panic on my face, because he offers to show me the hostel’s airy rooftop garden.

Sat on a bench among the tomato and aubergine plants, Okabe tells me that roughly 40 percent of Yokohama Hostel Village’s guests are from overseas.

“It’s not only backpackers who stay here. We’ve had high school students and artists, university professors and families with young children. Last month, we had a 77-year-old American man who’d been stationed in Yokosuka after the war. He’d come back to Japan to try to track down an old friend. He stayed here for a month.”

As we’re talking, two of Okabe’s current guests come out onto the garden to hang their laundry. Finnish metalworkers, they’re in Japan for a fortnight studying how to forge sword blades. “Kotobukicho is great,” one of them says. “There’s no place like it in Finland. We’re already planning to come back next year.”

While Yokohama Hostel Village is certainly popular and Okabe’s heart seems in the right place, I can’t help remembering previous cases of urban renewal that I’ve witnessed in Britain and the United States — instances where so-called social activists set up shop in an impoverished community, bought land and then sold it for a quick profit before moving on to the next area ripe for plucking. Okabe assures me that he’s here for the long haul. “Yokohama Hostel Village is just one strand of what we’re doing. I’m also on the board of Sanagitachi, an NPO based here in Kotobukicho. We run a drop-in center for the local community, supplying medicine, clothes and employment opportunities. Every day, our kitchen serves hot meals for ¥300 a plate.”

Okabe laughs ruefully. “Recently, due to the recession, a lot of businessmen have been coming along, too. But we don’t mind. We have a motto: ‘No one is excluded and no one excludes others.’ “

Alongside the Sanagitachi project, Okabe organizes a regular agit-prop campaign to mobilize the Kotobukicho vote. On the night before local elections, Okabe leads midnight raids that leave the neighborhood plastered with 600 red-and-green Styrofoam arrows. Due to the transient lifestyles of many day laborers, often they fail to receive their polling cards through the mail, but Okabe’s signs reassure them that even without that card, they still have the right to vote. Wending their way through alleyways, over walls and across stairwells for more than half a kilometer, the arrows eventually lead to the doors of the district electoral station.

“There are over 6,500 residents here but the turnout is usually very low. We want to encourage people to vote, and our campaign has consistently achieved this. Furthermore, if we make politicians aware of the number of potential voters here, they might start introducing policies which help Kotobukicho. Finally, the sight of those 600 dayglo arrows is such a beautiful image — it shows the rest of Japan that Kotobukicho is a vibrant place where art can flourish.”

Okabe tells me about his vision for the next five years. “I want to make Yokohama Hostel Village into a communication platform. I want us to provide a space where Kotobukicho residents, Japanese visitors and foreign guests can help each other. Many of the day laborers are single men living far from home, so I’d like them to see us as their family.”

As I thank Okabe for his time, I’m acutely aware that there’s still one voice missing from this account: the opinion of the day laborers themselves. Although Gill called Kotobukicho “the most sociable place in Yokohama,” every time I’ve ventured into a local bar or plopped myself down on a street-side bench, the men to whom I talked have been far from forthcoming. Perhaps it’s the bulge of my camera or the whir of the recorder in my pocket, but after almost two weeks I’ve been unable to gather any of their reactions to Kotobukicho’s most recent influx of foreigners. So I bite the bullet and do what generations of go-getting reporters have done before me — I take off my clothes.

Kotobukicho’s busiest sento is located on the ground floor of the local work center, and today it’s almost full. It’s often said that public baths are a great leveler in Japanese society — the only place where people are stripped of rank and status — but as I study the reflections of my fellow bathers, I see that even naked, the stories of their lives are written as indelibly on their flesh as the tattoos on the corner thugs: the dotted scars of bolted bones, the telltale splashes of industrial chemicals — there a missing foot.

Having finished my shower, I lower myself into the water. It’s hot enough to scald, and I feel my fellow bathers watching me, but I know this is a test, so I bite my tongue and slide up to my chin. One of the men smiles, then he meets my eye and tells me he witnessed the gangster ordering me to delete my pictures the other day. Soon, another asks me what I was photographing. “I bet it was those blonde beauties on their bikes.”

This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. I summon an air of nonchalance and ask them what they think of Kotobukicho’s new breed of foreigners. The first man nods his head noncommittally, says they lend an international mood to the area and that he doesn’t see anything wrong with that. The second man is more enthusiastic: Last week he was having trouble changing the tire on his bicycle and a foreigner — “He said he was from Mexico” — stopped to lend him a hand. “I like having them around,” concludes the man. “They’re always polite and helpful.”

A third bather — a man in his seventies with a softball-size growth on his neck — has been following the discussion, and he wades through the water and settles himself between us. Ventura and the Filipinos are not the only overeducated people here in Kotobukicho, and he addresses me in fluent English that he later explains he learned during two decades on Hong Kong’s docks.

“Kotobukicho always used to have a lot of foreigners,” says the former stevedore. “But 10 years ago, many were sent home by the police. Now we need them back. They bring fresh power to Kotobukicho. Fresh blood. They’re young and strong and cheerful — not like us old men.”

He gestures around the bath to the aged laborers struggling in and out of the water with bodies as old and wrinkled as balled-up paper bags. Suddenly, I feel as though I’m witnessing a glimpse into Japan’s future — not the shiny utopian skyscrapers and port on the other side of Ishikawacho Station, but a future where, 30 years from now, the majority of the nation’s population will be too old or sick to work, their social safety net overburdened beyond repair.

Perhaps this is the real reason why so many Japanese people are afraid of Kotobukicho. It’s not so much the gangs, the garbage and passed-out drunks, but that the area is a hint of what’s to come. Kotobukicho suggests a future where Japan’s only options are to fade to gray or throw open its doors to energetic young immigrants, and for many people, this question Kotobukicho poses is too scary to ask — and its solution too radical to consider.

Send comments and story ideas to

David Srisaeng, 26
Ski resort worker (Aussie)
When I first arrived in Kotobukicho, there were sirens all hours of the night with ambulances and stretchers. So I turned around and decided to stay in a business hotel instead. This area isn’t really a place for the young.

Johnny Buckle, 41
English instructor (British)
When I first heard about the changes, I thought it was good for Yokohama but sad that one of Japan’s only slums was being gentrified. It made me wonder where the people will be sent, because they have to find somewhere to live, too.

Matt Wickens, 35
Lecturer (American)
Tokyo did something similar in Sanya for the World Cup in 2002. It changed the neighborhood, putting day laborers, welfare recipients and backpackers in the same area. I’m not sure this was a good change.

Mitsutoshi Masunari, 64
Tour guide (Japanese)
I think renovating the day laborers’ old apartments into cheap youth hostels is a good idea. Yokohama is becoming more and more international and it’s a good way to attract both foreign backpackers and Japanese visitors to the city.

Mikio Goto (Japanese)
Clothes store owner, 38
Kotobukicho used to be a dangerous place, but now it’s much safer. It’s still interesting, though. Two-hundred meters in one direction there are the million-yen jewelry shops, and here there are people sleeping on the street.

Mikko Kangas (Finnish)
Gear box assembler, 34
I think it’s really nice to have this kind of area. It gives a good opportunity to students and others to come here. The people here are very friendly and they come over and talk to us if we have any trouble.