When I started working in Tokyo in 1995, I had in mind an exhibition I had seen ten years earlier at the Museum of Modern Art called “New Japanese Photography”. But as I walked through the brand new streets of the capital I immediately realised that the exhibition had shown an era that was now over.

This led me to dig deeper behind the facade of modernity and the mask of uniformity that strikes one at first sight.

To my great surprise, I discovered a whole world of human suffering and corruption. This was hard to believe as an outsider for whom the Japanese economy represented, at least until a few years ago, a model of economic success coupled with the idyllic vision of a whole people living in equality in an exemplary democracy.

Exploring the different neighbourhoods of the city at all hours of the day, another facette of Japanese society became apparent. This was particularly true of the Sanya neighbourhood where a whole population of people on the fringe of society and social outcasts survive in precarious conditions without any form of welfare. During my four visits to Japan, which were made possible by grants from the Villa Medicis hors-les-murs and the Fondation du Japon as well as a commission from Médecins sans Frontières-Japan, a great deal of the work I did was on the homeless community of Sanya in Tokyo and another similar neighbourhood in Osaka.

Stuck out in the extreme North of the capital, Sanya is not on any maps and when you ask people how to get there nobody seems to know. Yet today this slum neighbourhood of Tokyo, which has always been a refuge for criminals and people on the fringe of society, is in many ways similar to third-world shantytowns: people coming from the countryside in search of work more often than not lose everything and end up in Sanya for good.

Over ten thousand day workers and a few hundred homeless people scrape by there, the only social aid being that of missionaries who organise rounds of volunteers who distribute hot meals to the most needy several times a week. The neighbourhood is controlled by a “Yakuza” clan (the Japanese mafia) who have bought part of the land and extort money from all the shops, legal or not, and all the eating places and bars where the day workers come to blow all the money they have made during the day. Some day workers can still afford to spend the night in one of Sanya's 200 cheap hostels, but the economic crisis is forcing more and more to sleep in the street. Homeless people who have come from other parts of Tokyo and the old who can no longer get work further swell the numbers. Between 4.30 and 5.00 o'clock in the morning the "recruiters" arrive in their vans, little notices stuck on the windows displaying the jobs on offer for the day - clearing building sites in Tokyo Bay, construction work, etc.The Yakuza act as intermediaries between the construction companies and the day workers, allowing the companies to get cheap and docile labour without "getting their hands dirty".

The day workers of Sanya often repeat that they were the first to build the success of Japan with their hands. But when the crisis hit, they were also the first victims. For them and all those living in Sanya who have lost their place in Japanese society, there is no hope of seeing their living conditions improve.

Bruce Gilden

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