Nation's biggest slum cannot be found on maps — or at Osaka film fest

by Mari Yamaguchi


Despite the country’s biggest slum being visible just blocks from bustling restaurants and shops in Osaka, it cannot be found on official maps.

Nor did it appear in the recent Osaka Asian Film Festival, after the director of a new movie that is set in the area pulled it, accusing city organizers of censorship.

Osaka officials asked Shingo Ota to remove scenes and lingo that identify the slum, on the grounds that it was insensitive to residents.

“To me, what they were asking was a cover-up attempt to make this place non-existent,” he said in a recent interview.

The place is Kamagasaki, home to day laborers, the jobless and homeless, where one in three residents are on welfare. About 25,000 people live in the compact area, mostly single men who stay in free shelters or dozens of cheap dorms that charge as little as ¥800 ($8) a night.

The day starts early at the welfare-employment center, where hundreds of people line up for manual labor work, mostly with subcontractors of Japan’s construction giants. Those not picked stroll the back streets aimlessly, line up for free meals or resort to cheap alcohol. In the evening, the homeless line up at the center to get tickets for the shelters.

“I’m jobless, for months,” said one 52-year-old resident who came to Kamagasaki after losing his home in the 1995 Kobe earthquake. He gambled away his monthly welfare money of ¥70,000 ($700). “Now I’m doomed.”

Ota’s movie, “Fragile,” tells the story of a TV assistant director who takes off from his job one day after conflicts with his girlfriend and his colleague. He heads to Kamagasaki to make a film about a teenage boy, and whether success and wealth are necessary for happiness. But he quickly falls into trouble, and his plan unravels.

The full-length feature shows recognizable landmarks of the slum, such as a park known for both squatters and illegal garbage dumping and the center where men line up for jobs. It also shows the protagonist receiving an amphetamine injection from a drug dealer operating in the slum. Ota says Osaka officials wanted those scenes and others deleted, as well as the slang words “doya” (cheap accommodation) and “shabu” (stimulants).

Osaka official Kazumitsu Oue said the film festival organizers wanted to protect the area and its people from exposure to prejudice. “We felt that the film lacked consideration to the area and its people,” he said.

Ota says while living there to shoot the film for several weeks, his outsider’s impression of the slum as a poor, dangerous place changed and he began to regard the community — also known by the nickname Airin or “loving neighborhood” — and its inhabitants with more compassion. The scenes city officials objected to are needed to portray the different faces of the town, he said.

The city provided a ¥600,000 ($6,000) grant for the director on condition that it premieres at the Osaka film festival. Ota says he has offered to return the grant, but the city wanted him to keep it and not disclose details of the dispute to the media. The two sides are examining the dispute and seeking ways to explain it to the public.

So far it has only been shown at private screenings in Tokyo and Osaka. Ota, who directed two well-received documentaries previously, hopes to enter “Fragile” in the competition for this year’s Cannes film festival.

During Japan’s economic boom in the 1960s and 1970s, Kamagasaki bustled with hundreds of thousands of young day laborers. But the day labor market shrank after the stock and real estate bubble burst in 1990, and again during the more recent global financial crisis.

In the world’s fastest graying nation, the challenge of aging is layered on top of economic decline. Nearly 40 percent of the residents of Kamagasaki are 65 or older, nearly twice elsewhere.

“Many day laborers in the area can’t keep up with construction work as they get old,” said Yoshinori Kishi, an official who is in charge of support and welfare of day laborers in the area.

In recent years, there have been some improvements, thanks to job support, anti-crime and beautification programs, including one that aims to turn the neighborhood into a backpackers’ hangout like Khaosan Road in the Thai capital, Bangkok.

Masanori Momiyama, 50, runs a tiny bar on the edge of the slum. He has seen its residents gray since he moved there 16 years ago.

“They are the ones who helped to construct many buildings and roads in the 1960s. I think we should thank them,” he said. He dismisses a common view that the area is dangerous and to be avoided. “Even though people in this area are quite unique, we are all harmless, friendly people.”