The Forsaken People of Japan’s Largest Slum

What happens when you can’t repay your gambling debt in Kamagasaki

Nestled in the shadow of Osaka’s gleaming high-rises and funky neon lights is a township of grungy alleyways, rusted metal shutters, and old men living in makeshift cardboard huts. This is Kamagasaki, Japan’s largest slum – and a “city within a city”. Once, it was a suburb for laborers catering to the construction boom that accompanied the country’s strong post-war economic growth. These days, the laborers are still there, but the steady work has dried up and the men are getting old.

Men wait at the turnstiles of the Nishinari Labor Center, where jobs are scarce.

“The aging inhabitants of Kamagasaki face a grim reality,” says photographer Andrew Houston, who took these eye-opening photographs. “Many feel betrayed by a country their hard work helped build, a country that has forgotten them. Eyesores to government officials concerned with re-election, slums like Kamagasaki have been removed from maps in Japan. Officially, they don’t exist.”

An elderly man sits in a wheelchair.

Day laborers still make up the majority of the population of Kamagasaki (officially renamed Airin-chiku in 1966 but still referred to as Kamagasaki by the locals). It’s estimated that there are 30,000 inhabitants per 2,000-meter radius in the slum. The exact number is unknown, however, because many of the people have no permanent addresses.


A Japanese Buddhist monk stands at a shuttered steel door.

Since the economic collapse of the early 1990s, the number of homeless people in Osaka has risen to 7,700, with unofficial estimates reaching as high as 10,000. To cater to this itinerant population, cheap hotels charge the equivalent of a few dollars a night – for those who can afford it. For the rest, there are two crowded state-owned shelters. Still, many prefer to sleep on the streets in boxes or homemade huts, since there is no room for their meager belongings in the shelters.


A road through Kamagasaki

Kamagasaki’s origins as a shantytown go back at least to the 1950s, when it was populated by a lot of World War II refugees. Many of these people were day laborers who did any menial job they could find to eke out a living – everything from shining shoes to picking up trash. Soon, a labyrinth of cheap hotels and shanties sprang up. The 1960s saw a further influx of people looking for employment in the city after losing their jobs in mining or leaving work in farming. The transport, manufacturing and construction industries employed a large number of these workers.

Men seek shelter in a tunnel.

By the early 1960s, there were 35,000 men and women living in Kamagasaki, roughly two-thirds of them day laborers. The World’s Fair was then held in Osaka in 1970, which increased the demand for construction laborers. Optimistically, they flooded into Kamagasaki from all over Japan. The demographic of the area began shifting towards young single men, and it remains male-dominated today.


A building covered in vines, like an urban jungle ruin

The demand for labor rose to an all-time high during the 1980s, but unfortunately for the laborers of Kamagasaki, things were about to change. First, there was an influx of immigrant workers during the later years of the decade, which increased the competition for jobs. Then the economy took a downturn – from which it has never fully recovered.

A man enjoys a drink and a smoke while his friend tries to nap nearby.

The single-male day laborers still populate Kamagasaki, but they’re not so young anymore; the average age of the area’s residents is now 60. This in turn poses a huge problem for those without any access to proper accommodation or healthcare, and it is estimated that two people die every night in the slum – and the number increases to five during winter.


A pet dog

The overwhelming number of homeless men compared to homeless women is a trend seen all over Japan. This can partially be explained by the fact that women receive more support from their families, whereas men are expected to fend for themselves. Unmarried men over 35 also have a hard time finding jobs in a market that considers them less stable than their married counterparts.

A man naps in Triangle Park, a place notorious for drugs, gambling, and shanties like this one.

Illnesses like tuberculosis, Hepatitis C, and high blood pressure are relatively common in Kamagasaki. And in the absence of steady work or families, alcoholism is also rife within the township. Men will even forgo a bed in one of the two shelters in order to drink (as alcohol is not allowed in the government-run shelters). Unsurprisingly, many men also suffer from depression and drug addiction.


An ethnic Korean woman

One of the possible differences between Kamagasaki and any other slum (besides the scarcity of women) is the incredibly high level of literacy here – which is about 95%, according to one source. “If you were to talk to the people,” says Shannon Higgins, a regular visitor to the area, “you would find that most people here would have a deeper knowledge of the Japanese economy, of the world market, and of world affairs, than your average Japanese businessman.”

A group of drinking buddies. “Basically everyone I met drank every day. This picture was taken at 10:30 in the morning,” says Houston

Despite being down and out, the homeless laborers maintain their dignity. They take pride in their makeshift shelters, keeping them as neat and clean as possible. They even take their shoes off and arrange them carefully before stepping onto the cardboard that serves as a mat to lie on. “Most homeless in this town are skilled construction workers and became homeless because of lack of work,” says Higgins. “Not because of the lack of interest in working.”


On warmer nights, men may choose to drink rather than go to a shelter.

The search for work begins at dawn, when laborers get in line at the local welfare employment center. If they are successful, they are sent out on trucks to construction sites all over the city. If not, they may return to the shelters to spend the day playing chess or the traditional board game Go with friends, or perhaps pass the time reading and sleeping.

A traditional gambling operation similar to blackjack. The man on the left, a member of the Japanese mafia, is the ‘oya’ – the person who controls the table.

“I walked the streets and met the people who live on them,” recounts Houston. “Japan’s slums are inhabited by once hard-working people, and they maintain a solemn pride. Despite their grim situation, some remain cheerful and patiently await the next job, whenever it may come. Many others have succumbed to the vices of gambling, drinking, and drug addiction.”


A small Buddhist shrine to aborted babies

Naturally, a population with vices attracts criminals – in this case, the Yakuza. There are around 60 Yakuza syndicates operating in Kamagasaki, and their relationship with the local populace is complex. “The Mafia provides the large majority of what little work there is to be had here,” Houston explains. “And many of the local mobsters themselves have fallen on hard times and live on the street alongside the people to whom they provide work and entertainment.” Still, it is the gangsters who oversee the illegal drug and gambling trades, and they are rumored to prey on welfare earners.

Kamagasaki also has quite a large transvestite population.

It is said that the Yakuza quite openly conduct their illegal businesses in Kamagasaki. Drugs and weapons are traded every day, and gambling dens make no effort to hide their activities. Violent clashes between the residents of Kamagasaki, the Yakuza, and the police have also broken out sporadically over the years.


Shopping malls in Kamagasaki are mostly shuttered.

In 1992, there were five days of rioting when people were upset by what they claimed was a collusion between the police and the gangsters. Then in 2008, on the eve of a G8 summit, alleged police brutality inflicted on a day laborer sparked a riot that involved 2,000 people and continued for six days.

The residents of Kamagasaki are disarmingly elderly.

Charities operate feeding programs within the slum and rely on food donations. As you’d expect, demand is high and the queues are long. There are also other NGOs that give free health and welfare advice and provide safe environments for the homeless. Volunteers run the organizations, and none of them receive any money or support from the government – which seems determined to pretend the problem doesn’t exist.


A cross-dresser putting on a performance

Houston thinks the situation in Kamagasaki is a reflection of Japan as a whole. “Their story is not only that of hard life in the ghetto,” he says. “It is the story of an aging nation and a tectonic shift in cultural values. In Kamagasaki I can see a faded reflection of the excitement and hope of post-war Japan on the move. I can also see a glimpse of a harsh reality on the horizon as Japan faces an approaching population crisis. To the residents of Kamagasaki, it’s just another day.”

Some residents manage to stay cheerful despite their circumstances.

Not all of Kamagasaki’s inhabitants are unhappy about their lot in life. “We have a freedom that other Japanese don’t have,” says 60-year-old homeless laborer “Koji” Yamaguchi. “We get three meals a day and it’s easy to make friends. I’ve made lots of friends here over the years – and I’ve seen lots of them die.”

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 10, 11, 12