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Story Publication logo April 16, 2013

Japan’s Rootless and Restless Workers


Media file: JapanShiho.jpg

Shiho Fukada documents the lives of disposable workers in Japan in stories that illustrate the...


Shiho's images and an edited version of this text were also featured in the International Herald Tribune on April 16, 2013. An image of hers was also featured on the front page.

A dark suit jacket hangs by a shaded window, beneath a portrait of a smiling, well-dressed executive.

The man is Akira Teranishi, a Japanese salaryman who killed himself 17 years ago, leaping from a building in Kyoto. It was Valentine's Day.

"I gave him chocolate," his wife, Emiko, told the photographer Shiho Fukada when they met at her home in Kyoto. "I asked him if he could take a day off."

Ms. Fukada asked if she could see something Ms. Teranishi's husband had left behind. The jacket had been his uniform — the clothing that transformed him from a man into a man with a job, one supporting his family. Like legions of others like him, the suit was his identity.

"The nameless worker, the empty jacket — that could be anybody," Ms. Fukada said.

The picture (Slide 5) is from a series she has been working on since 2009, looking at the financial crisis and its effects on Japanese workers. A lonely mood suffuses the project, which examines depression and suicide among salarymen; temporary workers who live in Internet cafes; women working as hostesses; and a community of aging day laborers.

Ms. Fukada, who has been based in Beijing since 2008 and currently travels between New York and China, grew up in Japan. When she started reading about the financial crisis, she needed to see it for herself.

"This image of my country, I was really proud of how it was before," she said. "And it is not the same anymore."

Three years ago, Miki Meek wrote about Part 1, "End of Labor Town," on Lens. Ms. Fukada spent a month in the Kamagasaki district of Osaka, an area she said had become "a dumping ground of old men, where alcoholism, poverty, suicide and loneliness prevail."

Ms. Fukada went to Kamagasaki, home to about 25,000 former day laborers, on her own. She later received a grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation and funding from the Pulitzer Center to continue her project. She said she thought that the Osaka story was only one side of a complex account of a country's slide from prosperity.

"I wanted to explain why this community is here and what's happening outside of this community," she said.

And so the second part of the series was born, looking at suicide and depression among Japan's salarymen — individuals, like Mr. Teranishi, logging far too many hours at work out of fear of losing their jobs in Tokyo's high-rise office buildings. One man she photographed, Syota Nakahara, had been suffering from depression for years when they met. He had been working as a systems engineer and sued his company for unpaid overtime.

"I was psychologically on the edge," he told her. "I could not register scenery around me. I couldn't tell what day it was, nor which season. The only thing I could see was the entrance to the company and the computer on my desk."

Mr. Nakahara, who is now on medication, has since become the chairman of a labor union in Osaka — a task he does during his spare time.

Depression, and especially suicide, or karoshi, are stigmatized in Japanese culture. At the beginning of the 1990s, the word karoshi came into common use as recession hit Japan and workers began putting in more time to battle global competition. Where many companies traditionally offered lifetime employment, they began laying off employees after the recession.

"The society hasn't really adjusted to the reality yet," Ms. Fukada said. "So people really, really want to hold onto their jobs."

The size of Japan's irregular work force — those without full-time jobs with benefits — climbed from about 20 percent of workers in 1990 to about 35 percent in 2011. The statistic led Ms. Fukada to examine temporary workers who make so little money that they cannot afford apartments. Instead, they seek shelter at Internet cafes. The so-called Internet cafe refugees rent private booths late at night and leave early in the morning, taking advantage of discounted night rates. One man told her that the booths are large enough that he doesn't have to bend his knees when he sleeps.

Ms. Fukada stood outside several cafes, waiting for people entering with suitcases. That didn't work. Ultimately, it took her two years to get access to one cafe, where a discounted monthly package goes for a little over $615 and soft jazz plays in the background.

Tdayuki Sakai, one renter, quit his job at a credit card company after his daughter entered college. After 20 years at a job he didn't like, he decided it was time to leave. "He ended up at the Internet cafe, but he said he's so much happier there," Ms. Fukada said.

She asked him whether he would like to move into an apartment. "No," he told her, "I just want to get out of Japan. I have nothing to lose and I have no hope for this country."

One young woman there, only 18, moved to the cafe with her mother after losing their home in the earthquake.

"On top of not having a high school diploma," Ms. Fukada said of the teenager, "she said she's having a hard time because she's a woman."

Despite the Japanese Equal Employment Opportunity Law, which was passed in 1985, only about two-thirds of college-educated women are employed, according to a Goldman Sachs report, Ms. Fukada said.

Discouraged, some young women resort to working as hostesses. The women — who are legally required to be 18, although some are younger — dress up and sit at a bar, waiting for men. They are not prostitutes; there is no sex involved, only flirting. Many hope to find a rich husband, Ms. Fukada said. Japan's national police agency said there were at least 70,000 such establishments in the country.

Ms. Fukada met a 24-year-old woman who said she planned to start lying about her age as soon as she turned 25 — too old, she thought, to be an eligible bachelorette.

"The feeling of being easily disposed of runs throughout the story, I think," Ms. Fukada said. "The sense that people are not respected as a worker and people have to work in extreme conditions — it's this or the other."


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