Tokyo's homeless day laborers hit by slumping economy FWD

Tom Boland (
Wed, 3 Jun 1998 08:31:55 -0700 (PDT)

  By Joseph Coleman - Associated Press Writer - May 31, 1998

TOKYO (AP) -- Morning comes early to Tokyo's biggest slum. Well before
dawn, hundreds of men in work boots and khakis cluster along the streets,
desperate for one thing: a job for the day.

Tsuyoshi Inoue doesn't even bother. With fewer construction company agents
cruising the boulevard these days, the chances of getting work in the
gritty Sanya neighborhood are waning.

``There are just no jobs,'' he said, sitting beside his home -- a
tarp-covered box next to the Sumida River. ``Most of those who have work
had it lined up before. The rest are just wasting their time.''

Japan is facing its toughest economic slump in decades, with bankruptcies
mounting and unemployment climbing to a postwar high -- 4.1 percent in
April, the government reported Friday. The jobless rate would be higher by
Western standards, but Japan counts anyone who works at least one hour in a
month as fully employed.

While the economic pain most mainstream Japanese feel is limited to cuts in
overtime or shrinking bonuses, the day laborers of Sanya are at the cruel
mercy of the market: tough times mean no work at all.

``If the economy is good, this is the last place to benefit,'' said Kunio
Nozaki, head of the city-run Johoku Welfare Center in Sanya. ``When the
economy is bad, the people here are the first to lose their jobs.''

Inoue learned this the hard way. He came to Sanya from Osaka in western
Japan 10 years ago, at the height of the 1980s construction boom. But then
the real estate market ran off the tracks in the early 1990s -- and so did
his life.

So far this year, Inoue has been able to scrape up odd jobs six or seven
days a month. He was looking forward to three days of work lined up at a
festival in a nearby neighborhood.

``There's always a lot of garbage at those festivals, and I'll be cleaning
it up,'' said Inoue, 48. Hard living in Sanya, in northeast Tokyo, didn't
start with Japan's economic troubles. The neighborhood, built on feudal
execution grounds, has been a ghetto for minorities and other social
castoffs for centuries.

But changes in today's Japan are dealing the area a knockout blow.

The whole Japanese economy is ailing, but the main employer of day laborers
in Sanya -- the construction industry -- is on life-support. Housing starts
fell 11.9 percent in March, the 15th straight month of declines, and the
government said Friday that new construction contracts plunged 15.1 percent
in April, the fourth consecutive monthly drop.

In addition, while all of Japan is graying, Sanya is getting old in a
hurry. The average age for laborers here is 57, and many look haggard after
years of manual labor, homelessness, hard drinking and disease. Employers
often refuse to hire anyone over 50.

``It's a very severe situation,'' said Nozaki at the welfare center. ``It's
hard to imagine that things will get better.''

Life wasn't always quite so hopeless in Sanya, the biggest of several
day-labor markets in Tokyo. The worker population here topped 15,000 in the
building boom of the 1950s and 1960s, and the construction surge of the
1980s kept the area bustling until the downturn this decade.

Even now, the area is tidy compared to slums in other countries. Shops, new
buildings and spiffy homes are mixed in with run-down lodgings and seedy
bars. Around the corner from the welfare center is the Coffee House Bach,
where customers listen to concertos while sipping espresso.

But the day laborer way of life is fading. With jobs drying up and
employers turning to younger immigrant workers, Sanya is increasingly
becoming a place for those whose lives have crashed.

The laborer population is down to around 6,000 -- more than 40 percent of
them over 60. Drunks fumble for change at dozens of the beer and liquor
vending machines that line Tokyo's streets, or lie passed out in the
street. Hundreds line up for food handouts from Christian missionaries and
other aid groups.

As flophouse rents ratchet higher thanks to urban renewal, homelessness is
spreading. Several hundred squatter tents like Inoue's have sprouted along
the river.

Welfare benefits are limited. Unemployment insurance is available only to
those who manage to work 26 days over a two-month period.

Assistance groups in the area have switched gears from jobs to survival.

``In the old days, we used to campaign for better wages,'' said Toshiya
Sasaki of the Sanya Welfare Center for Workers. ``Now there's not much
work, so our main problem is trying to improve the living situation.''



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