Nishinari: A Different Facet Of Japan

A story of Tsuneki Kato, a homeless man from the Airin (愛隣) area formerly known as Kamagaski.

The streets slowly became a different place far from what you see in neighbouring areas like Nippombashi.

20180512. 15:00. I went to Nishinari-ku where the Airin area is located to see what it is really like. I have only read about this place before and it gave me the interest to explore, meet people, and know stories. I felt scared at first because I have read some articles about some dangers in the place. As I went far from Shinsekai, the streets slowly became a different place far from what you see in neighbouring areas like Nippombashi. When I reached Airin, it was just in time when homeless people are lining up for free food given by some charities. I passed by this man named Tsuneki Kato. He greeted me first and I said my hellos. He said it is rare for tourists or even locals to go near them. I just went by thinking I would leave because it has become uncomfortable but something tells me to go back and engage in a conversation. So I went back to where he was lining up, offered him tea.

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Airin (愛隣) Area
Airin is the home of almost 25,000 day labourers, a large percentage of which are homeless. The Airin Labor Welfare Center in the area is where people usually go to seek for jobs, psychological help, and social services. Despite the old facade, the building complex is quite huge in which it serves as a rendezvous for homeless people during its opening hours from 5 am to 6 pm. It is where they find jobs, meet each other and use public facilities like the bathrooms and showers.

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Kato-san’s Life
He is Tsuneki Kato, 64 years old, from Okinawa. Born to an Okinawan father and a South Korean mother. He is into learning languages. He knows Korean, Mandarin, English, Japanese, and some Tagalog words (he greeted me using “Kumusta” and thanking me with “Salamat po”). He studied in Kyoto University of Education major in Mathematics. After university, he worked 3 years as a teacher. From his story, he became homeless because of his unpaid loans. When payments became unbearable, he needed to get away from it (I haven’t asked him how long he has been homeless). At this time, he fled to Nishinari and found a day job which he said he had no choice at all. He had worked in Fukushima power plant as a repairman and a cleaner just after the March 2011 nuclear disaster brought by the tsunami following the Tōhoku earthquake.

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Despite their condition, they remained kind and mindful of others.

When it was his turn to receive his food (Tonkatsu bento, banana, and some bread), he immediately went to his friend who is also homeless and gave the bento. All he had was the banana and bread. I was surprised why he did that. He said his friend needs it more than he does. His friend is older and has some physical condition while he can still find work because he is still strong and able. Despite their condition, they remained kind and mindful of others.

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The Tour
He showed me around the area and took me to the doya or flophouses (I haven’t taken photos inside the flophouses because it was closing when we arrived) where homeless people can have free space for the night or for cheaper options. Along the way, he showed me his Taijiquan skills (he is a funny person despite all these). There, crushed aluminum cans are being bought by 150 JPY per kilogram. Somehow, homeless people resort to this when they cannot find a job in the labor welfare center. We went back to the labor welfare center after the quick tour and introduced some of this friends to me. He has a friend who is pshychologically ill but everytime the government tries to help her, she refuses it saying she doesn’t need it. His other friend showed me some sort of a book (more of a documentary photobook) about Kamagasaki where some of his friends were featured. The book was 7 or 10 years ago (I forgot the exact number since I was too engaged and forgot to take notes) but the old Kamagaski is still visible in the area.

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Kato-san’s Life Now
Currently, he is working as an architect but still homeless (maybe salary is too low or he can’t save much but I felt it was not necessary to ask). After the labor welfare center closes, he looks for a spot in the doya, police stations, or outside the buildings. Despite that, he is looking forward because he will be receiving some government aid (I’m not certain whether he has still remaining bank loan dues or if part of this money goes there) and he has applied for a new job as a teacher in Takatsuki. He showed me the apartment building he is planning to stay once he starts his new job. This was a really good story for him to tell.

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The building complex is about to close since it’s almost 6 pm. I’ve seen solitary moments and lots of baggages. Both physical and emotional ones.

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Life is just two things for me. Choices and challenges.

20180512. 18:15. We had to end our conversation and do what we gonna do. “Life is just two things for me. Choices and challenges.”, he said. He is one religious guy too. He is a Christian and keeps on saying things about God and how blessed he was. He gave me the phone number of the office he is working from and I gave my contact number as well. He wants to repay the tea I gave him (sounds so kind but it really is not necessary) by grabbing some drinks. He already thought of his plans after moving to his new place. He is so thrilled to buy a new laptop, a mobile phone, and some property soon. Big dreams my friend. I really hope all is well for you. I am as thrilled as you, knowing that you have something in your way. That day, it was safe to say (at least for me) that they might be homeless but they are harmless.

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