Pulitzer Center grantee Shiho Fukada discuss her project on Japan's "Disposable Workers" with David Walker of Photo District News.
Shiho Fukada’s project about disenfranchised Japanese workers is something of a nervous glance over the shoulder for the photographer: Facing a life on the corporate treadmill, Fukada left Japan in 1998.
“I didn’t see an optimistic future,” especially as a woman, she says. But she never anticipated seeing unemployed day laborers in Japan going hungry and cold; legions of young workers stuck in dead-end temp jobs; and salarymen overworked to the point of suicide. “People are disposable and replaceable,” she says.
Fukada has spent the last several years exploring the effects of economic hardship on Japanese workers, and her images have appeared in The New Yorker, International Herald Tribune and other publications.
CNN.com recently published a part of the project focusing on the young temp workers forced to live in Internet cafes because they can’t afford better. “It’s so intimately claustrophobic and beautifully photographed—it’s a really powerful essay,” says Simon Barnett, director of photography at CNN.com.
Fukada began the project in 2008 when she saw an article in The New York Times about aging day laborers living in penury because of the collapse of the real estate bubble. Some starved or froze to death in the street. “I was really shocked to read that,” says Fukada, who grew up when Japan was the powerhouse of Asia, and its middle class was stable.
She wanted to see for herself how the economic downturn was affecting individuals and society at large, so she booked a flight to Japan. “Initially it was supposed to be just one story,” she says.
But the unemployed are stigmatized, so when she showed up in the Kamagasaki district of Osaka, where a large percentage of the population is aging men, some residents yelled at her. Others warned her away, telling her it was unsafe for a young woman. But she kept coming back.
“All I needed was one person to say, ‘Yes.’ I just didn’t give up,” says Fukada, who explains she was trying to capture the feeling of the district and those who lived there. “Just to raise the camera, I needed a lot of courage.” Finally she found a willing subject — an old construction worker who was picking up cans for a living. “He said: This is what happens to people who fall through the cracks from the mainstream.”
Back in New York City, Fukada was doing research to figure out why so many people who were once middle class had fallen so far. She learned that companies were laying off workers to cut costs. Remaining employees were forced to work so hard that suicide rates were rising as a result. “It’s hard to stay in the mainstream now. People sacrifice everything,” she says.
With an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship, Fukada returned to Japan in 2010 to document the overwork issue. It was difficult to depict visually. “I couldn’t go into the Japanese companies and say, ‘I want to capture your overworked employees on the verge of suicide,’” Fukada says. Instead she took a street photography approach, finding images that conveyed loneliness, isolation and fatigue among hordes of commuting salarymen.
Depicting the suicide victims was another challenge. “There’s such a stigma attached [to the suicides]. Nobody wants to talk about it,” Fukada says. Eventually she found a widow who had filed a lawsuit for wrongful death, and wanted to get her story out. That contact led to other widows who were willing to talk. Fukada found ways to represent the deceased men (and the suicides are virtually all men), in symbolic ways: For instance, by showing the suit of one man hanging beneath his portrait. “A picture of an empty suit, anybody could be in it. It represented that he was replaceable.”
The overwork issue led her to ask: Why do people put up with it? Why don’t they just quit the jobs that make them miserable? The answer, she soon learned, is that it’s too hard to find another job. “You’re likely to end up a temp worker”— one out of three Japanese are now temp workers, Fukada says—“and if you become a temp worker, most likely, you are going to become poor.”
Unable to sustain middle-class lifestyles, many temp workers now live in cramped, single-room cubicles in Internet cafes. With another grant in late 2011 from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Fukada set out to photograph Internet cafe residents, but access was nearly impossible. “It took me three years to get permission from one Internet cafe [owner],” she says. “I nagged him and nagged him.”
Meanwhile, she shot another angle to the project, about hostess girls—young women who are paid to flirt with men in bars and clubs. More young women are becoming hostesses because of the lack of job options, and because hostess work offers a degree of financial independence.
Eventually she also got access to an Internet cafe, and then had to find residents willing to be photographed. She approached potential subjects and told them how much she was struggling to find just one or two subjects. “I guess I thought maybe they would have pity on me or something.”
Eventually three subjects agreed to talk to her and be photographed. “But they didn’t want to see me over and over,” she says. One was a middle-aged man who had quit his job at a credit card company after 20 years, and ended up working as a telephone operator and temp worker at a friend’s computer company.
“When I see him outside [of the Internet cafe where he lives], he looks like a regularly salaryman. He puts so much effort into looking normal. That effort was heartbreaking to me,” Fukada says. “That’s also symbolic. Outside he pretends to be a normal part of society, but inside, he suffers.”
Fukada says her hope is that by bringing attention to the stories of individual workers who are struggling, people will begin talking about the issues instead of suffering in silence. She has pitched the project directly to photo editors all over the world. Having shot video and interviewed her subjects along the way, Fukada is now working on a multimedia version of it with MediaStorm, which is scheduled for release in the fall.
Ultimately, though, she hopes to find some way to use the photographs to help displaced workers more directly, perhaps by attracting funding for retraining. Figuring out how to do that, though, is a challenge Fukada is still grappling with.