Kamagasaki: Japan’s biggest slum

Osaka’s Kamagasaki district rarely makes the news, and when it did the other week, it was only because a film made to shed light on the area’s poverty was pulled at the last minute by the Osaka Asian Film Festival — the irony of which was clearly lost on the organisers. But, for Japan’s largest slum — the name of which doesn’t officially exist anymore — that’s presumably nothing new.

‘Kamagasaki,

Home to approximately 25,000 people — absolutely dwarfing Tokyo’s equivalent, Sanya — the area is a far cry from the neon-lit, modern image of Japan’s sprawling urban centres. Although as a cruel reminder, Abenobashi Terminal Building, the country’s tallest, now looks down on the district and its residents with cold, unseeing eyes. Just like the city that sanctioned it. A nameless place, with faceless people.

‘Kamagasaki,

Ever since Japan’s post-war economic growth, and particularly the 1960s, Kamagasaki has been a destination for the poor to go in the hope of work as a day labourer. And as such, the Airin Labour and Welfare Centre is a key location and gathering point. A horribly unwelcoming building where increasingly older men sit and wait with all their worldly goods.

‘Kamagasaki,

Each and every one of them patiently hoping the day will be a good one, and they’ll get some work.

‘Kamagasaki,

But at the same time, it’s a place filled with anything but hope. Just desperation and extreme poverty.

‘Kamagasaki,

Kamagasaki’s other main hub, if one can call it that, is Sankaku Park. A small, triangular-shaped dust bowl surrounded by cheap, grotty accommodation.

The park’s focal point is a TV. Locked up and turned off most of the time, its viewers are restricted to brief morning and early evening viewings — the sumo, when we there, offering some much needed escape. Arguably the kind of social control that wouldn’t be out of place in an Orwellian nightmare, although in many ways that’s exactly what Kamagasaki is.

‘Kamagasaki,

Apart from the TV, pretty much the only other escape is the ever-present booze, and the no doubt just as present, but not as visible, drugs.

Yet despite its horrendous poverty, and the shuffling, beaten nature of so many of the residents, Kamagasaki has a distinct sense of community, along with an openness rarely found in Japanese cities. People smiled. Talked. Even offered us just bought beer that a day’s work had mercifully supplied. And, most of all, seemed to look out for one-another.

‘Kamagasaki,

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Comments

  1. says

    Thank-you for taking the time to share this with us. I do love your blog and your amazing view of life in Japan. This however hits home and brings to me a sense that things are not that different from the “schemes” in Scotland where I grew up to the disposed I see in cites like San Francisco where I live now.

    • says

      Thank you very much.

      No, in many ways they are not. It’s a side of Japan that is very rarely seen — by both Japanese and non-Japanese alike — but sadly it’s there. A problem that isn’t getting better either. Quite the opposite…

  2. Geoff says

    Wow, that’s pretty awful. Not my image of Japan at all…

    Can’t say I enjoyed reading it, but it’s informative and good to know, so thank you.

    • says

      Glad you found it informative. It is a truly awful place. And definitely a long way from the usual images of Japan. But sadly just as much a part of Japan as cherry blossom and neon.

    • says

      It is, yes. The new name for it as I understand.

      After visiting Sanya, Tokyo’s equivalent, on numerous occasions, I thought I was prepared for it, but I wasn’t. It’s just so vast, with so many people, in such sorry states. Mindboggling really in a city like Osaka…

      • says

        Oh I didn’t know that it had been renamed to Nishinari. When I lived in Osaka I went there a few times and yes it was drastically different from the rest of the country. It seems that Osaka has that area, and also a lot more under the bridge style communities as well in comparison to Tokyo.

  3. says

    Good reporting, very shocking photos. It is definitely not the image Japan likes to show of itself but if you want to look, there are signs of the homeless problem in Japan everywhere. To me, the most shocking is the fact that my Japanese friends, usually very reasonable people, don’t appear to notice the homeless and when confronted, they brush it away by putting the blame on the homeless, it is all their own fault, and they leave it at that. The fact that the film got pulled from the Osaka Asian Film Festival is typical of the habit of taking away the human face of the problem to more easily ignore it.

    • says

      Thanks. It was a very shocking place. Very different from Sanya.

      I know what you mean. Of course it happens all over the world, but there does seem to be very little sympathy here. And that, like you say, is if people even admit that there’s a problem in the first place. The most common response I get is some variation of, ‘the y choose to live like that. It’s an easy life. No work. No stress.’ But how anyone can honestly suggest that these (predominantly) men have happily chose that life is beyond me. It really is…

  4. says

    Very nice pics ! I like to go in such places also, it bring me back to reality and real people. In term of poverty, I have always felt that Japan’s poverty was on another level, more cruel for other place in the world due to the high contrast in the society and ignore by the others.
    I would like to see more of that area! Enjoy!

    • says

      Thanks. Yes, it does seem somewhat harsher I guess in a country that despite it’s economic woes is still quite wealthy. And, as you and others have mentioned, the seeming lack of interest in those suffering. Not a place to enjoy though. Far from it. An eye-opener for sure. Enjoyable? No…

    • says

      The park had been resurfaced. You can see the new covering of whatever it is in the TV shot. But yeah, on the whole it’s surprisingly clean all things considered. The credit for which must go to the residents. They don’t have much, but they do still have their pride.

  5. Bernadette Marchetti says

    One of the (many) things I dislike about Americans is that we often don’t realize that there’s more to the world than just the US. I have had the amazing (and rather unique for an American) benefit of traveling outside the country (and I don’t mean Canada). My mother is from Trinidad in the Caribbean, and I spent many summers there growing up. It’s not a wealthy nation by any means, but it’s not a bad life to live.

    Having said all that, spending time in another country that is markedly less wealthy than the US, I understand quite acutely how truly lucky I am. I may find many glaring flaws in the US government, like healthcare, education, welfare programs etc, but I’ve also spent time in hospitals in the Caribbean that were truly nightmarish. It was over 20 years ago but it still sends shivers down my spine. These pictures remind me of those times. It makes me quite relieved if not happy that I live in the US where there are programs to help those in need–not perfect programs (and not for those without US citizenship), but there’s help if one looks hard enough. Is there nothing in Japan that helps the indigent?

    • says

      Interesting. Your background and childhood has definitely given you a very understanding approach to those less fortunate. Pity there aren’t a lot more people like you. I can only imagine what those hospitals were like, but there again, it’s perhaps best I don’t…

      As for help, I can’t say for sure. Or at least what scale it’s on, and how organised it is. I know charity groups operate food kitchens, although I’m not sure it’s on daily basis. Plus there are some religious groups that offer refuge, some health care etc. But it all seems very small scale and localised. When it comes to the bigger picture, however, it would seem that they are pretty much on their own…

    • says

      Cheers.

      Very nice work. Generally when out shooting I like to get up fairly close to the people I’m photographing, but in Kamagasaki I couldn’t do it. It just felt wrong somehow. Probably if I spent more time there than the few hours I did, I’d be able to. To be honest though, I’m not sure I want to spend anymore time there…

  6. says

    This… wow. As heartbreaking as it is I think the last picture really captures it for me. Like your other posts with people sleeping in the oddest places, that last image I think could only be taken in a Japanese slum. If that makes sense. Most anywhere else I can imagine an area like that would be far dirtier, darker and much more dangerous. I’m sure it’s doubtful, but it seems like they keep most places in pretty good shape. Like they’re just waiting for someone to flip some long-forgotten switch to bring it all back to life.

    • says

      Yeah, despite the abject poverty many of those living there find themselves in, they still have their pride. There’s a real sense of community too, which I guess has something to do with it. They are all too aware of what kind of place they are living in, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t make it as liveable as possible. Or at least that’s my take on it.

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