Japan: Not Enough Jobs in Osaka

Aging homeless people at a labor center where people come to look for jobs in Kamagasaki, Osaka. Jobs are scarce here. Once a thriving day laborers’ town, today Kamagasaki has about 25,000 mainly elderly day laborers; an estimated 1,300 are homeless. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2009.

Day laborers wait in line to get government-sponsored jobs. Mopping the floor of the labor center is the only job available. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2009.

Men mop the floor of a government labor center, which provides the only income for some people in Osaka. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2009.

Bicycles are parked at a labor center in Kamagasaki. Bicycles are the main method of transportation for the homeless and unemployed. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2009.

A man carries around a bag of cans in Osaka. Collecting garbage provides the main source of income to many. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2009.

Hiromi, 58, an unemployed day laborer, picks through garbage to see if he can find anything of value to sell. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2009.

A man who collects cardboard boxes drinks during his break. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2009.

An unemployed carpenter drinks a cup of cheap sake in front of a labor center. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2009.

People wait in line to sleep inside a labor center in Kamagasaki. The center used to attract workers from all over Japan for high-paying day labor, but with jobs so scarce today it is used as a homeless shelter during the evening. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2009.

There are not enough jobs in the world. When you look at recent political instability, from the Arab Spring, to the London riots to the Occupy Wall Street protest, all have something in common—frustration over unemployment and anger towards the growing gap between rich and poor. Unsustainable employment, and the political turmoil it provokes, is a global crisis.

Japan used to boast its prospering and vast middle class. They were supported by stable jobs with a lifetime employment system. My father, now in his 70s, was one of those who held the same job for all his life. That practice came to a halt when the economy burst in the early 90s. As Japan’s economy still struggles to recover to this day, stable jobs have become things of the past.

An already scarce job market has gotten even tighter after the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. Out of 330,000 evacuees, 120,000 people were reported to have lost their jobs. The actual number is estimated to reach 200,000 including self-employed people. Creating jobs is one of the biggest challenges the Japanese government currently faces.

After the 1995 Hanshin earthquake that killed over 6,000 people, many day laborers came to Kamagasaki, a neighborhood of Osaka, to look for construction jobs. The town used to be a thriving day laborers’ town, attracting workers from all over Japan. Today it is home to about 25,000 mostly elderly former workers, about 1,300 of whom are homeless.

Upon visiting Kamagasaki, one will immediately notice the neighborhood is “different.” The area of 0.62 square kilometers (about 0.24 square miles) is filled with graying men loitering, drinking on the street, pushing carts, carrying cardboard boxes, with no women in sight. The air is thick with body odor, alcohol, and cigarette smoke. I was intimidated every time I entered as I was stared at and yelled at if I pulled out my camera.

The center of the town is the labor center, where workers come every morning to look for jobs. Construction companies and middlemen for various odd jobs used to come to the center every morning to pick up day laborers. The day rate was negotiated on the spot. Katsuyuki, 65, a former carpenter, says, “When I arrived here 16 years ago, there were many jobs that paid 15,000 yen ($190) a day. Now, even if you have special skills like a carpenter, there are few jobs and the wage has been constantly declining. Carpenters used to earn 20,000 ($250) to 40,000 yen ($500) a day. Not anymore.” He has been homeless for seven years. “With no work and a decreasing day rate, I didn't know who to talk to and where to go in order to prevent living on the streets. It was my first experience of being homeless.”

Instead of coming to the labor center in the morning, many employers now seek workers through cell phones and the internet to which many unemployed workers have no access. Still, many workers come to the labor center every morning to look for the only job available there these days—government-sponsored jobs of mopping the floor of the labor center. Workers were happy to get this job. One man told me to come photograph him mopping the next day because he was really proud to be working.

Another job that is available is picking through garbage.

“You can work as a day laborer until you are 45 to 50 years old but if you don’t have skills after you turn 50, there is no work. You can’t get welfare until you pass 60, so it is very tough between age of 55 to 60 years old. “ says Takeshi, 58. “I leave the homeless shelter as early as 3 a.m. and bicycle around to pick through garbage and sell what I can. I sometimes travel around 50 km (30 miles) by bicycle.” He says he has been making a living by collecting garbage for five years and earns up to 700 to 1000 yen ($9 to $13) in good times. “I really want to work, but I’m giving up the idea that I will ever work again.”