OSAKA — In the back streets of Osaka’s Nishinari district, thousands of elderly men loiter, stopping only to eat at a 100 yen ramen stand or join in a yakuza-run floating craps game.
They have nowhere to go. Many sit on the street corners in a drunken stupor, muttering to themselves, while others quietly pass the time smoking and drinking beer.
The district has long been home to Japan’s largest concentration of homeless people, and it is a society within a society, with unwritten rules and a code of conduct. Volunteer social workers in the area estimate there are about 10,000 homeless people in Osaka, of which about 80 percent live in and around Nishinari.
“Over the past several years, we’ve seen an influx of men who have come to the area looking for construction work,” said Ichiro Sumida, an employee at the Airin Labor Center in Nishinari. “During the bubble economy years, a day laborer could make about 13,000 yen a day doing construction work. However, they are now lucky if they can get 9,000 yen or 10,000 yen a day.”
Each morning at about 5 a.m., thousands of men gather in front of the center, waiting for construction company representatives seeking workers on projects as far away as the Japan Sea coast. Few, however, are selected.
The growing number of homeless and unemployed in Nishinari has become a major embarrassment for the Osaka Municipal Government. And volunteer workers and the men themselves are becoming concerned that authorities will forcibly evict them over the next few years, partially due to mounting public complaints and partially to spruce up the city’s image ahead of soccer’s 2002 World Cup.
“A lot of day laborers and others who live in the area are worried that Osaka will try to forcibly relocate the homeless as part of a general effort to prepare for visitors to the World Cup,” said Sumida. “As a result, many are now discussing how to respond if that becomes the case.”
Osaka hopes to eventually relocate the day laborers, many of whom are elderly and have health problems, to centers outside Nishinari. A center that can hold about 600 was opened last year several kilometers away from the labor center.
The city said, however, that it has no plans to forcibly remove anyone from the streets of Nishinari.
The sheer number of homeless means that complete relocation, voluntary or otherwise, will be impossible before the World Cup. Social workers in the area say that, in any case, many of the men don’t want to leave.
“The labor center is close by and the workers don’t want their community ripped apart,” said Sister Maria, a Catholic nun from Spain who works in the area. “But the city has moved in before and cleared the streets . . .”
But where to put even those who want to move out remains a problem. Many neighborhoods have made it clear they will oppose any attempt to move the day laborers to their areas.
For the laborers, though, that is not the only problem.
“I wouldn’t mind living somewhere else. But we couldn’t afford to live outside this neighborhood without some financial assistance,” said Junji Haraguchi, adding that it has been nearly six months since he last worked a construction job.
“Even that (financial assistance) would not likely be enough,” he said. “Everything is so cheap in Nishinari, about half of what it costs in some other parts of Osaka. If the city sweeps us off the streets, most will come back because there’s nowhere else to go.”