The first time I visited the Sanya district in Tokyo’s Taito Ward, I saw a lot of men drunk and passed out in the street and assumed they were all homeless, but as it turned out most worked and rented rooms in the area.
Later, I moved to the edge of Sanya, and sometimes observed the routine that defined it. Vans would show up early in the morning, pick up these men and take them to work at construction sites. In the evening they were returned to Sanya. Their existence was day-to-day, hand-to-mouth. They were not regular employees of the subcontractors who hired them. In most cases they did not pay into any national social security plan, though they were supposed to. And because their situation was precarious they could not rent apartments, since landlords required deposits and guarantors. Sanya is filled with temporary lodgings called kanishuku hakujo, where you pay by the day for a tiny room with access to a communal toilet and bath.
According to the conventional narrative, these men built Japan. They flocked to Tokyo and other major cities after the war and worked for peanuts in construction and manufacturing. Unlike in the United States, where construction work is unionized and coveted, in Japan it is performed by temps hired on the fly. And while they dwell at the lowest economic and social level, they have been romanticized in popular culture for their rough independence, which stands in stark contrast to the typical worker-bee salaryman model.
But that independence is a fallacy, since they are at the mercy of not only the economy, but the subcontractors who hire them and treat them as disposable resources. If these men really did build Japan, it’s not just because they did work that others wouldn’t, but that they could be taken advantage of so easily. General contractors grew fat off their labor.
This stereotype was subject to some adjustment several weeks ago when two kanishuku hakujo burned down in Kawasaki, killing 10 residents. Reporters were hard put to explain how, 50 years after the height of the Japanese economic miracle, these men were still living in such places. Everyone reported that the two buildings likely were in violation of fire codes. From the outside, they looked to be two stories high, but both had been remodeled years ago so that the attic portions were converted into additional sets of rooms. Local building ordinances say that any multi-residence building of more than two stories has to be made of concrete, but these structures were wooden. The attic loophole allowed the owners to add more tiny rooms and, thus, earn more revenue without having to rebuild. The city of Kawasaki has since determined that the buildings’ structure was the direct cause of the fire, which started on the first floors but quickly engulfed the third, where most of the casualties lived.
Working from that premise, reporters had to explain why such dangerous lodgings still exist. According to Tokyo Shimbun, Kawasaki has 49 such facilities, 32 of which follow the same structural plan. They are all in the same neighborhood, close to the harbor and the factory zone.
A month after the fire, the newspaper returned to the area and found men still living on the third floors of similarly structured lodgings, even though they were clearly in violation of the law.
The reason the city hasn’t closed these firetraps is that these men have nowhere to go. They have no families, or, at least, no relatives they are close to, and no access to rental apartments for the reasons mentioned above. Moreover, most are over 65 and living on welfare. In fact, many of them were steered to kanishuku hakujo by Kawasaki social workers, since, in order for them to receive assistance, they had to have an address, and these lodgings were the only places that would accept them.
A representative of Kawasaki told Asahi Shimbun that the city has a plan to help these men move to rental apartments by essentially acting as guarantors and guardians. As it turns out, landlords are less worried about money than they are about these potential tenants’ ages: If they die in their apartments, who will take responsibility for the bodies?
NHK’s in-depth news program “Closeup Gendai” interviewed a number of the men who live there. Almost all came to this part of Kawasaki when they were younger for day jobs at the harbor, and even now that they’re too old to work any more they remain.
Another Asahi Shimbun article explains that many kanishuku hakujo have evolved into “support facilities” for incapacitated single seniors on welfare. Some are run by nonprofit organizations, who tell the paper they are worried because the central government has said it plans to cut the housing subsidy for welfare recipients, which means it will be more difficult to help destitute older men who depend on government assistance just to survive. NHK reported that 80 percent of the men living in such facilities in Sanya — where they are made of concrete — are on welfare.
Every report comes to the same conclusion: There is not enough housing for low-income people, despite the fact that there are more than 8 million vacant residences in Japan. But few of the reports discuss what this situation indicates for the current generation of new workers.
The men who supposedly built Japan are dying alone and broke after having spent most of their lives alone and broke. One can argue that they chose to live hand-to-mouth, but their employment situation, which was once the exception, is turning into the norm. As pointed out by Kobe University professor Yosuke Hirayama in the booklet “Give Young People Housing,” more and more new workers are unable to secure affordable housing because of their tenuous job circumstances, and the government wants to expand the legal scope of temporary employment, making it easier for employers to hire and fire at their convenience. Rather than point to a vanishing past, Sanya and Kawasaki may be signs of things to come.