Sacred Struggle of Workers in Japan

Featured Image: Demonstration at the centre of Osaka city, calling for the elimination of discrimination against poor people (Photo by Tomoaki Endo. This photo, along with all the other photos in this article, were retrieved from the Facebook page of Kamagasaki Executive Committee


By Keigo Nishio


[dropcap]K[/dropcap]amagasaki, located in Osaka, is one of the biggest and most well-known Japanese slums. When I walked around Kamagasaki, almost everyone–save for a few social workers–were elderly men. The residents were chatting with each other; some were sleeping on the street, others were collecting cans or drinking alcohol. Everything there was incredibly cheap: less than $1 for canned juice, $2 for ramen, $20 for doya hotels, and so on. Suddenly I heard the siren of an ambulance: somebody vomited blood in the park. Walking around the town, I could not believe that Kamagasaki was at the centre of Osaka city, close to popular tourist attractions.

Most of the residents work as day-labourers, irregular workers, or are unemployed. A significant number of residents are homeless or have not done resident registration, sono official statistics are available about the population of Kamagasaki. However, some social workers and organisations estimate that almost 90% of the slum is male and the average age exceeds 60 years old. Here, the life expectancy is around 75–ten years below the national average of Japan. As the older people are dying while fewer newcomers and children  are coming in, the population is shrinking, and Kamagasaki’s social workers say that “the area may eventually disappear.”

Winter is the most challenging season for the residents. Social services, including job-hunting assistance and public shelters, are closed around New Year’s, and many people are forced to sleep on the streets, exposed to the harsh wind, risking freezing to death. Although some shelters are available during that period, many residents prefer homelessness, due to the lack of privacy in the shelters. The demand  for workers is scarce around New Year’s: a big problem for day-labourers. In Kamagasaki, one cannot easily say, “Happy New Year.”


Patrolling the slum at night to prevent abuse against homeless people (photo by Kamagasaki Executive Committee)


To alleviate the residents’ hardships, social workers, philanthropic organisations, and volunteers form a unified movement every winter from December 28th to January 4th. I participated in this movement during the last two winters, volunteering with social workers, doing fieldwork around the region, and spending nights there with volunteer students.  People who take part include the residents themselves, social workers serving in Kamagasaki throughout the whole year, religious workers, nurses, journalists, and university students. They come from all over the country. Three volunteers I have met came from Hokkaido, which is more than a thousand kilometres away from Kamagasaki.

The movement, called Ettō Tōsō, means “the struggle to survive the winter.” It is Japan’s Civil Rights Movement, which unifies people from different backgrounds and activities to protect the residents’ right to live and work.  The Struggle consists of a wide variety of activities: cooking and distributing food, providing blankets for homeless people, patrolling the area at night, checking the residents’ medical conditions, going to the centre of Osaka city to make a demonstration, facilitating discussions of a local council, and organising recreational events (such as sumo wrestling tournaments, singing contests, or making rice cakes).

During The Struggle, people have diverse demands, which are not limited to the improvement of the workers’ status. Slogans include “Give them jobs!,” “Don’t let them starve to death!,” “No violence or discrimination against the homeless!,” “Stop the military base construction in Okinawa!,” “No war laws!” and “Don’t resume nuclear power plants!” In Kamagasaki, all issues of national politics are the workers’ life issues. If the government constructs military bases, sends military forces to foreign countries, or resumes nuclear power plants, it is the most precarious workers, like the workers in Kamagasaki, who are first put to work in the most unfavourable conditions. Kamagasaki’s struggle echoes the Civil Rights Movement, which called not only for civil rights for people of colour but also the improvement of the living situations of poor people and the withdrawal from the Vietnam War. Kamagasaki’s struggle is the Japanese equivalent of the Poor People’s Campaign.

Social workers organising “the struggle” emphasize that national policies created Kamagasaki. Most of the residents were not born in Kamagasaki; they are migrants who came from rural areas, particularly Kyushu (a southern region of Japan), in the 1960s and 70s. During the period of Japan’s rapid economic expansion, Osaka faced a huge demand for construction workers, especially because of the World Fair in 1970 and its related public construction projects. At that time, Kyushu had a surplus population of laborers due to the closure of coal mines, which formed the backbone of Kyushu’s economy. The government called this surplus population “kin no tamago (golden eggs),” since they could immediately satisfy the demand for manual labour in large cities. Consequently, these people were brought to Osaka, often immediately after finishing junior high school. These migrants were the “founding fathers” of Kamagasaki (literally fathers, since they were mostly male). They were concentrated in Kamagasaki, where there were many doya, extremely cheap residents for manual labourers.

These migrant workers who were so easy to hire were also easy to dismiss. Construction projects could not provide regular employment, so the immigrants were forced to live on irregular income. They could make a living during the period of economic expansion, when there was plenty of demand for construction workers. However, once Japan’s economic growth faltered with  the Oil Crisis of 1973, the livelihood of many irregular workers was damaged. The situation seemed to have improved in the 1980s during the temporary economic boom, but, in the early 1990s, this economic boom turned out to be a “bubble economy”. After the collapse of the bubble, the Japanese economy never fully recovered, and the situation surrounding the irregular workers became increasingly  precarious. The need for day-labour shrunk, and unemployment became a more serious and permanent fixture of their lives. As they never received higher education, white-collar jobs were not an option. In addition, because they had worked in unfavourable conditions since their youth, the workers were often injured or developed a chronic disease, causing them to be unable to work any longer. To make matters worse, social welfare was not available for everyone. In order to receive welfare, one must have a fixed address, but many of the workers were homeless or took temporary residence in doya hotels.

One of the social workers I interviewed said that the problems of Kamagasaki are  not solely economic in nature. Even more serious is the poverty of human connection. Reliance on day-labour was not favourable to the development of local community. Workers compete for limited jobs at 5am. They work for different employers for a temporary period. Class division proceeded fiercely, and if someone happened to get a promising job, he moved out of Kamagasaki, uprooting the origin-based community that the workers had relied on after their arrival. Each resident has a complicated background, and a significant number of the residents are reluctant to reveal their private information, (hence, volunteers are strictly prohibited from asking about their background unless the residents voluntarily talk about it). Consequently, Kamasaki became a place where the most vulnerable workers are concentrated in the most isolating way. According to the social worker, around five hundred people die each year. In most of the cases, no one knows the reason for their deaths. The population continues to shrink so rapidly that even I noticed a change between the two winters I joined in “the struggle.” It is unbearable to think how these workers die or “disappear,” finding themselves isolated from human society.

Sometimes society accuses these workers of being lazy or not leading an organised life. People say that the workers are responsible for their own poverty since they waste their money and neglect to make long-term life plans. There is widespread contempt for  homeless people, which, in the worst cases, emerges as repeated assault and murder of the homeless, mostly committed by young people. These perpetrators say that they were “playing” or that they thought homeless people were “social garbage.” Indeed, some of the workers are drunk even during the day or spend too much on karaoke cafés, which cost 100 yen (approximately 0.9 USD) per song. But how can one “organise” one’s life if one is forced to live from hand to mouth? How can one think of saving money if that results in the government decreasing social welfare? Who can blame the workers for going to karaoke cafés to soothe their everyday isolation from a social life? It is society itself that is lazy, neglecting its responsibility to guarantee fundamental human rights to vulnerable people.

Kamagasaki represents a defect of Japanese society. It is not an “anomaly” but the necessary outcome of the nation’s economic structure. Kamagasaki embodies the darkest side of the nation’s modernisation that has relied upon irregular work and sacrificed so many workers’ social lives. These workers are the founders of today’s Japan. They built buildings, highways, and railroads, without which Japanese people could not lead their everyday lives. Today, Japanese society places them at the “bottom” of its economic hierarchy, not respecting their contribution to the foundation of the country, but stigmatising them as social burdens. The support from the local government is far from sufficient. It provides some public jobs, such as cleaning, for the residents, but it insists on calling such jobs “special projects,” implying that the local government regards these jobs as a special amnesty. When the participants of The Struggle make demonstrations, more than ten police officers monitor us, as though we were engaging in an illegal activity. When I walk around Kamagasaki, I cannot stop thinking about how my life has always been connected to the injustices imposed upon the residents. Kamagasaki is a place for self-reflection.


Outside stage with multiple slogans (photo by Tomoaki Endo)


The struggle is also a place for the workers to tighten their relationships. I previously pointed out some factors that hinder the development of the workers’ social interaction, but in fact, their mutual connection is surprisingly strong, despite such difficulties. When I see them eat, drink, sing, or play sport together, I almost forget the hardships they face everyday. Many of them are cheerful, witty, familiar with the news, and some are even extremely athletic. I have repeatedly seen the residents carry someone who fell ill on the street to the hospital. The discussion in the local council is active and intelligent, an ideal form of local, direct democracy. If Japanese society neglects its responsibility, The Struggle” takes its place to protect the workers’ basic human rights and lives as social beings. In Kamagasaki, I see how society is reborn from the bottom of a structure that has failed to serve its purpose.

To be honest, I had (and probably still have) prejudices against Kamagasaki. I assumed that it was a dirty and dangerous district, a place that my parents and acquaintances would never encourage me to visit. When I say to my friends that I went to Kamagasaki, they are most likely to be surprised and ask why I chose to do so, instead of enjoying New Year’s with my family in a warm house. But I ought to go there, since visiting Kamagasaki is a process of understanding my own life and society. While I was volunteering in The Struggle, sometimes some workers picked a fight with me. Since they were drunk, I could hardly understand why exactly I was menaced, but I was sure that there was something about me that must have been  disgusting to them. I couldn’t stop thinking about what they thought of me, a privileged university student from a middle-class family, the very beneficiary of the exploitative modernisation that has been founded upon these workers’ sacrifice. Yes, I ought to go there. It is an endless struggle to change myself to become a person who will no longer appear disgusting to people in Kamagasaki.

Kamagasaki, as a place, may eventually disappear. The population is shrinking and only a few newcomers are flowing in. Kamagasaki is changing. Today, it is a tourist attraction. Its closeness to the airport and sightseeing spots and the extremely low commodity prices there (especially doya hotels) are attracting foreign backpackers. Last winter, when I was patrolling the area at night, I saw numerous groups of young tourists from Korea or China. There is a plan to construct a gorgeous hotel and chinatown in the area. Japanese society seems to be trying to wash away the injustices it committed against its founding fathers.


Rice-cake making, one of the main events of the Struggle (photo by Kamagasaki Executive Committee)


However, the social structure that has created Kamagasaki will never disappear. The Japanese economy is increasing its reliance upon irregular workers. Today the country faces a huge demand for construction again, due to the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo, the 2025 World’s Fair in Osaka, the need for the reconstruction of areas damaged by natural disasters, and the construction of a new military base in Okinawa. Immigrant workers are our new “golden eggs.” The government announced its plan to expand its admission of immigrant workers without any serious consideration of how to guarantee their human rights and their livelihood after the temporary construction rush. On the other hand, Japanese people still seem to have prejudices against migrants or other recipients of social welfare, regarding them as “social burdens.” It is more difficult to witness the dark side of social “development” since, these days, vulnerable workers are no longer concentrated, but rather dispersed in places like net cafés, 24/7 cafés that provides Internet access to the public. If Japanese people allow Kamagasaki to disappear without thinking seriously about the unjust social structure underlying it, it is obvious that the nation will create a second Kamagasaki, consisting of both precarious Japanese and foreign immigrant workers. The “second Kamagasaki” will not emerge as a visible place where poor workers are concentrated, but as an invisible mass of precarious workers, who are dispersed throughout the country, exposed to harsh discrimination.

Kamagasaki is sacred, not only as a place but also as a movement. It itself is a struggle which has the potential to urge Japanese society to reflect on its own injustices and reconstruct it as a true society, which can serve its fundamental responsibility to guarantee everyone’s human rights. If the top of the nation is decayed, the nation must be restructured from below, and Kamagasaki is in the very process of social reconstruction. Kamagasaki may disappear as a place, but it shall never disappear as a movement.


Keigo Nishio is a sophomore majoring in Anthropology in Branford College. You can contact him at