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Documentary : In Japan's Worst Slum, Angry Underclass Feels a Nation's Prejudice : The ghetto in Osaka may not be horrible by some standards. But it is a public blind spot for another kind of poverty.

October 30, 1990|KARL SCHOENBERGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OSAKA, Japan — For a microcosm of everything Japan isn't supposed to be, come to Kamagasaki, home to the bloke on the bottom of the economic heap. Meet deranged street people, ruined construction workers and parasitic gangsters.

Crime and un-Japanese poverty aren't the only curiosities in this notorious section of Osaka's Nishinari Ward. The neighborhood also reveals how Japanese remain caught in a grip of strict social control, even where one might expect a little chaos. Kamagasaki embraces an otherwise almost invisible Japanese underclass that possesses its own bizarre order.

The tour begins at the city-run Labor Welfare Center, a concrete, barn-like structure where thousands of men from across western Japan gather at dawn each working day to muster in temporary labor crews.

Take no snapshots, please. A lot of these people are on the run from nagging families or persistent creditors, and they're shy of publicity. Confidentiality ranks high among the unwritten rules of Kamagasaki, the nation's biggest \o7 yoseba\f7 or labor market--literally a "gathering place"--and by virtue of that distinction, its biggest slum.

Follow the guide down the sidewalk, past the vans tended by rough characters with kinky permed hair and tattoos--the \o7 yakuza, \f7 or gangsters, who parcel out ditch-digging jobs to the indigent. Step over the man sleeping on the curb with his burgundy bruised face in a small puddle of vomit, and walk beyond the clusters of inebriates in traditional laborer's garb--jodhpurs and split-toed boots--who loiter meekly outside the rows of bars and flophouses.

Stop before the Nishinari police station. This fortress of authority has been the top attraction in Kamagasaki ever since it was the target of rioting day laborers and youths earlier this month. A half-dozen idle laborers gaze at it vacantly from across the street, as if they expect the building to move. Two uniformed policemen peer nervously from behind thick plexiglass windows on the front doors, seemingly under siege.

Yet it's a crisp, peaceful autumn day, and to anyone familiar with America's worst ghettos, Kamagasaki is closer to Disneyland.

"Nobody's got guns around here," said Yoshiharu Abe, 59, a loquacious 30-year veteran of the \o7 yoseba\f7 lifestyle, who volunteered his services as a street guide on a recent afternoon. "We don't do heavy drugs and murder each other just for fun like you do in New York."

Sure, the place may be seedy, and smell of rancid urine and cheap wine. And there are video cameras mounted on telephone poles at key intersections to help police keep a watchful eye on things.

But not much seems truly sinister in Kamagasaki, not even the deadpan \o7 yakuza\f7 who hustle dice games on impromptu plywood tables around Triangle Park, snapping up thousand-yen bills from disheveled gamblers with predictably short attention spans. Crowds of street people, drunks and unemployed day laborers are lazily basking in the sun on the cement benches and on the sandy, grass-less surface of the park, untouched by the maniacal diligence that drives the worker bees of "Japan Inc."

"There's no oppression here," said Abe, the guide. "As long as we stay in the neighborhood, we're freer than we can be anywhere in Japan."

The Kamagasaki day tour isn't something a visitor to Osaka can book through the concierge of a deluxe hotel, or any tour agency for that matter. Most ordinary Japanese would abhor the thought of visiting the \o7 yoseba\f7 and warn vaguely that bodily harm awaits curious foreigners who might try. Stick with Osaka Castle, they'll advise, or Kyoto's Zen gardens.

While this month's Kamagasaki rioting was the first major violence in 17 years, and although no one was killed in the ruckus, it did serve as a disturbing reminder to many Japanese that they still have an angry underclass. "The tranquil facade of today's affluent Japan was rudely shattered," an editorial in the Japan Times intoned.

Most major Japanese cities have semi-blighted \o7 yoseba \f7 districts similar to Kamagasaki, though on a smaller scale. But decades of postwar stability and prosperity have helped erase them from the national consciousness. Osaka authorities went so far as to take the name Kamagasaki off the map and replace it with the bureaucratic neologism \o7 Airin, \f7 which means "neighborly love" and which is used only by outsiders.

The public's blind spot for Kamagasaki's dirty workmen in jodhpurs extends to an array of misfits and outcastes--disadvantaged minority groups whose very existence belies the modern myth that Japanese society is homogenous, and because it is homogenous, harmonious and somehow superior.

In truth, significant minority populations contribute to Japanese society, even if they don't always reflect the image of the middle-class cult hero, the "salaryman" white-collar worker.

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