Yuki Shinohara’s entire life fits in a room the size of three tatami mats. His dingy apartment holds a small TV, fridge, mini gas stove, packages of instant noodles and a single futon to sleep on. At 70 years old, he’s a typical example of the elderly former day laborers eking out an existence in a down-at-the-heels district of Yokohama called Kotobukicho.

“I remember back when this town was very lively,” Shinohara recalls. “Work was plentiful. You could easily get a job for the day in construction or on the docks. The streets would be full of people drinking after their shifts were done. There was a party atmosphere and sometimes it got violent.”

Shinohara knows that fact all too well. He was literally blindsided by an attacker decades ago in the same children’s park he likes to sit in today, leaving him blind in his left eye. A fixture in Kotobukicho, he came here for work at age 18 and has been a resident for 52 years.

Tucked away behind Chinatown, Kotobukicho is a far cry from that neighborhood’s bustle. The streets are lined with drab flophouses, or doya, that charge around ¥2,500 per night (like Sanya in Tokyo and Kamagasaki in Osaka, Kotobukucho is a doyagai, or flophouse town).

Instead of Chinatown’s families and tourists browsing gaudy shops and restaurants, Kotobukicho is full of elderly residents hanging out on street corners watching the traffic go by — and, in that respect, it reflects Japan’s aging population in general. For decades, many of these workers helped fuel the country’s import-export industries, loading and unloading cargo ships at the Yokohama docks. Today, they struggle with loneliness, health problems, poverty, substance abuse and gambling.

Shinohara has suffered through them all. Long divorced, his ex-wife and 40-year-old daughter have nothing to do with him, and he has only one friend in the neighborhood.

Aside from his bad eye, he has diabetes and walks unsteadily with a cane. He swears off drink and rarely gambles because he depends on welfare payments from the city of Yokohama to survive.

“The amount has gone down a lot, so I’d like to find more work to make ends meet,” says Shinohara. He isn’t the only one worrying about money and living day to day.

“This isn’t an enjoyable place to live at all,” says Goro Nishikawa, 74, a former dock worker who has suffered from cancer and a respiratory ailment.

Nishikawa’s greatest worry is whether his daily rent will increase. “The apartment owners are a bad lot,” he says bitterly.

From work to welfare

During Japan’s postwar boom, Kotobukicho attracted Korean landowners, yakuza gangsters and men looking for casual work. It only consists of a couple dozen blocks, some 300 meters square in all. It’s home to about 6,500 residents of flophouses and perhaps 1,000 day laborers, though the numbers have been rapidly declining.

In the center of town stands the gutted shell of the former Labor Welfare Building, a monolithic concrete structure that was often the scene of workers fighting for day jobs posted in the early morning; homeless men also slept rough on the veranda on the second floor.

In the past, many industries hired help through the in-person casual labor exchange, but the oil shocks of the 1970s reduced demand to mainly construction, roadwork and longshoring.

“Construction, in particular, had developed a bloated workforce during the bubble years, employing about 8 percent of the entire Japanese workforce by the end of the 1980s — compared with 2 or 3 percent in most industrialized nations,” says Tom Gill, a British anthropologist and professor at Meiji Gakuin University who has studied Kotobukicho for decades. “That had been sustained by ever-spiraling prices of land and buildings. But the last 25 years have seen generally declining real estate prices and, of course, day laborers have no security of tenure and are the first workers to be cut when a downturn occurs.”

The burst of Japan’s bubble economy in the early 1990s was a further blow, and saw demand for day laborers shrink rapidly. Around that time, the Kotobukicho day laborer union and civil rights groups successfully lobbied for the city of Yokohama to do away with the requirement that welfare applicants have a residential address — a hurdle that kept many doya residents from getting state help. These two factors led to a significant increase in the number of welfare recipients in the town, according to Gill.

Meanwhile, what demand there was for casual work was met by newfangled haken (temporary dispatch personnel) placement services that made jobs available via mobile phones. That meant there was little incentive for younger workers to live in a doyagai such as Kotobukicho, which was built around an old-school labor exchange.

“Nowadays there are seldom more than a handful of jobs on offer at the casual labor exchange,” says Gill, who was initially drawn to the plight of homeless day laborers in Japan while working as a journalist for Kyodo News in Tokyo during the 1980s. “However, Kotobukicho still has some 8,000 low-rent rooms in the doya. The city government of Yokohama has taken to housing welfare recipients in these rooms. The rules on approving welfare applications have been relaxed, and Kotobukicho has become a giant welfare center, with 85 percent of residents on welfare and a variety of day care centers and old people’s facilities popping up around the town.”

Gill knows all of Kotobukicho’s nooks and crannies, and can lead visitors past yakitori joints and sunakku (“snack”) bars in the back alleys to an anonymous establishment with no sign. There he pulls back a plastic curtain serving as a door, revealing a room of cheap plywood with about 10 flatscreen TVs on the walls. It’s an illegal off-course betting shop — one of many in Kotobukicho — and the punters are elderly men who once worked the roads and docksides of the city. On chilly nights, they warm their bones with happoshu (low-malt beer) and cheap sake, and hope to get lucky on the speedboat races, or kyotei.

Skid row philosopher

One such local became the focus of Gill’s 2015 study, “Yokohama Street Life: The Precarious Career of a Japanese Day Laborer.” The book is an accessible, fascinating portrait of Kimitsu Nishikawa, a kind of street philosopher and pauper intellectual who lived in Kotobukicho for much of his life. When they first met at the Labor Exchange Building in 1993, Nishikawa began referencing Edward Heath, Harold Macmillan, Enoch Powell and other postwar British politicians. Upon learning that Gill is an anthropologist, he asked whether the professor was a Malinowskian functionalist or a Levi-Straussian structuralist. Nishikawa’s learning encompassed history, sociology, quantum physics and many other subjects, not to mention the writings of people like G.K. Chesterton, George Orwell and H.L. Mencken. To Gill’s surprise, this day laborer with no education beyond high school was better read than him.

“I wanted to be like Samuel Johnson — pile up all kinds of experience and become a human encyclopedia,” Nishikawa is quoted as saying by Gill, in reference to the 18th-century British lexicographer.

Intrigued by Nishikawa’s self-deprecating charm, which was fueled by a constant intake of cheap wan kappu (one-cup) jars of sake, Gill and he formed a lasting friendship. Gill’s book provides a unique insight into the plight of day laborers by recounting the story of Nishikawa’s life.

Born in Kumamoto City in 1940 but evacuated to the countryside, Nishikawa was only 5 years old when Japan surrendered to the Allied powers. Nishikawa had seen Nazi propaganda newsreels and witnessed American soldiers taking over his neighborhood. Unable to afford college, he did a stint in the Self-Defense Force, then turned to manual work.

He developed a personal philosophy in which he, as an unemployed day laborer, identified with Jewish victims of the Holocaust. He saw himself as a victim of circumstances throughout his life. This was manifested in his curious habit of drawing Nazis on everything from his acoustic guitar to the walls of Kotobukicho, where he was known as Hitler. Gill tried to make sense of his bizarre worldview, but Nishikawa never clearly explained it. Afflicted by alcoholism, liver cancer and several strokes, he died in June 2015.

Despite his eccentricities, Nishikawa wasn’t the only highly literate social observer from the lower strata of Japanese society (another was Shiro Oyama, who wrote the prizewinning novel “A Man With No Talents: Memoirs of a Tokyo Day Laborer”), and some aspects of his biography — being the eldest son and coming from a rural background — are common among day workers.

“His story shows us how postwar Japan has treated a class of men who, for a variety of reasons, were unable to achieve the stereotypical aspirations of a steady job, stable housing and a married life,” Gill writes. “It is a sometimes brutal story of men used when useful to the construction and longshoring industries then cast aside when no longer needed. … In a sense his whole life has been a slowly fading echo of war.”

The future

The Chinese character used to spell “Kotobuki” means “longevity,” but the town’s future as a center for welfare and casual work is far from certain. Once a thriving market for jobs, the Labor Welfare Building is being demolished and rebuilt. However, it will be mostly devoted to welfare services such as housing, a clinic and a public bath, and will only have half its former casual labor services.

Meanwhile, some Kotobukicho landlords are offering cheap rooms in doya to travelers amid the recent tourism boom. Yokohama Hostel Village, for instance, has dorm beds from as little as ¥2,400 a night. Similar hostels have sprung up in the working-class neighborhoods of Sanya in Tokyo and Airin in Osaka over the past decade or so.

“This town will never again be a place for work and we will never again have many day workers here,” says Noboru Kondo, head of the local day laborer union, who lives at and works in the Seikatsukan, a grubby building offering welfare services. “Many of the elderly residents have cut ties with their families and relatives. They will remain here until they die. It has become a town of old people.”

When asked about Kotobukicho’s future, Shinohara laughs.

“The future? I can’t see one,” he says. “Where there’s work, there’s a future. It’s just welfare now, and even that’s diminishing more and more. When the government suddenly cuts ¥5,000 from your welfare payment without notice, that’s a big deal. So it’s not a question of having no future, it doesn’t even feel like we’re alive right now.”

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