The streets of Osaka can be rough. You'd be forgiven for not noticing upon first glance. Japan itself is an incredibly safe nation, especially when compared to the West. The murder rate is about 1/5th the American rate, and violent crimes, in general, are exceptionally rare. Likewise, city streets are mostly clean and well lit. Even when walking down side allies late at night, residents are justifiably unconcerned.
In Osaka, the glitz and glam of downtown Umeda or the shopping areas of Namba are so orderly that its hard to imagine anything remotely amiss. Nevertheless, a few stations away, in the underbelly of the Tennoji area, is a world far removed from the capital excesses of Osaka's commercial centers.
Look closely enough, and areas like Nishinari-Ku and Shinsekai seem oddly third-world. In Nishinari alone, one of the most infamous doyagai ドヤ街 flophouse districts in Japan, there are several thousand homeless individuals and hundreds living in makeshift tents. The fortunate among them rent lodging daily. Flophouses are numerous throughout the district. Located next to the train tracks, sparse rooms go for as little as 1,000 yen per night.
Sadly, homeless residents in this area lead particularly hard lives. For whatever reason, they have fallen through the social safety nets of the broader society—many consort with temp agencies that align them with odd jobs daily. Yet, the conditions are often brutal. Indeed, the daily laborers of Osaka's slums are enduring tragic life circumstances.
Like many Western nations, the income gap is increasing in Japan. As the disparity between the have's and the have-not's reaches historic proportions, an increasing number of low-skilled and disenfranchised laborers are falling themselves without regular employment.
The Huffington Post interviewed one such worker. Yusuke, a 34-year-old day laborer, related the details of his day-to-day experience to the online publication. In the recent past, Yusuke says he has worked as a courier driver, a warehouse sorter, and a bar and grill waiter. Such a plethora of titles is typical of hiyatoi haken 日雇い派遣, temp workers, who primarily live hand-to-mouth in the world's third-largest economy.
"I've been working with many black companies," Yusuke admits. In Japan, a "black company" is an exploitative business with sweatshop-like conditions for employees. Typically such employers hire numerous young and vulnerable employers. There, they are forced to work grueling hours for little pay. "Service overtime," a term indicating unpaid forced overtime, is common across this underregulated industry. Sadly, cases of karoshi, death by overwork, are not uncommon.
Like other exploitative working conditions in Japan, the dispatch of day employment is technically illegal. However, historically weak economic conditions and uncertain employment opportunities are creating cut-throat competition in some labor markets. Many day laborer gigs also bar female employees, a practice outlawed by gender discrimination laws.
According to Yusuke, temp gigs are easy enough to find. Interested workers search online and apply to relevant postings. After successful employment, workers are then situated with back alley temp agencies that ensure a steady flow of work. While many posted jobs pay in the area of 5,000-10,000 yen, this basic salary is enough to eat and afford a nightly stay in a flophouse.
A broken social safety net and exploitative labor conditions are a volatile mix. Unsurprisingly, Nishinari has witnessed several riots throughout its storied history.
These conflicts typically revolved around the perceived injustices and sleights experienced by the community. In 1961, chaos erupted after an elderly day laborer was involved in a traffic accident. The man's body was left-for-dead in the city streets for an extended period following the incident inciting discontent.
More recently, a violent riot involving 1,500 rampaging laborers and youth demonstrators developed in response to police corruption. In 2008, a six-day protest developed during the 34th G8 summit in Tokyo. The incident was in response to the alleged torture of a laborer by police.
Violent footage of the 1990 riot is available online. Be forewarned; it may be disturbing to some.
While more recent riots have not taken place, violent crime is escalating throughout the slum. Numerous incidents involve flophouses, where police have found the remains of young women on several occasions. Many blamed politically-motivated deregulation of the industry, but such a relationship is not overtly apparent. Nishinari is renowned for its red-light district, and serial killers on the lam have been known to assimilate amongst day laborers.
Gentrification and Hiyatoi Reiko, the Virtual Day Laborer
Despite its issues, the region has been experiencing and odd-type of gentrification in recent years. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Japan had been experiencing unprecedented levels of tourism. With hotels in short supply, historically cheap developments throughout Nishinari have been turned into foreigner-friendly lodgings.
Indeed, police and local businesses have spent considerable effort to clean up the area. Many security measures were put in place while the district experienced a spree of renovations. With new restaurants opening, and live venues popping up, visitors can hardly imagine the area's seedy history.
YouTuber Hiyatoi Reiko has "embraced" the changes. This avatar guide leads viewers through various aspects of the slum while showing backpackers how to get on the Nishinari way. Hiyatoi has videos highlighting the best street foods and tucked-away cafes.
Yet, she doesn't hide the dark history of Nishinari. Several of her videos focus on the tragic circumstances that locals continue to endure.
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