The yoseba system
Four gunshots filled a man on the streets of Tokyo, at six o’clock in the morning of 13 January 1985. The victim was Kyoichi Yamaoka, who had devoted his life to the liberation of day-labourers in Tokyo’s Sanya district.
Sanya lies in the northeast of Tokyo. It is a uniquely Japanese kind of slum area known as ‘yoseba’. A yoseba is a centre where labourers live and seek work by the day. Japan’s three largest yosebas are Kamagasaki in Osaka, Kotobuki in Yokohama and Sanya. Smaller yosebas are scattered all over the Japanese archipelago, attached to major cities.
Yosebas originated in the nineteenth century. Homeless wanderers were arrested and kept in yosebas to be pressed into service as labour for land reclamation and flood control projects. After the Second World War, the yoseba system was revived in the late 1950s, answering the needs of Japan’s rapid capitalist growth. Then as now, their role was to supply cheap labour on a daily basis to the construction, shipbuilding and manufacturing industries.
Prone to perennial slumps, the construction industry in particular has tended to avoid the responsibility of a large permanent workforce, relying instead on the day-labourers who can be taken on and discarded at will.
Over the years, the main source of yoseba labourers has been the poor villages in remote rural areas of Japan, notably Hokkaido (…).
The labourers move from one yoseba to another in search of work. Thus the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics (in 1964 –Ed.) saw a heavy concentration of workers in Sanya, attracted by big construction projects, while they gathered at Kamagasaki for the Osaka International Exposition in 1970. This makes the exact number of day-labourers hard to determine, but the national figure is thought to be about 100,000.
A large yoseba may have up to 100 flophouses, called doya, where rent is paid by the day. A bed in a room shared by eight labourers costs 700 yen (US$ 3.50) and a tiny individual room can run up to 1,500 yen (US$ 7.50) a night. Labourers who have been out of work for weeks and cannot afford to use a doya commonly spend the night in the street.
Virtually all the day labourers are single males, usually middle-aged or elderly. They are cut off from family life – a point which sets the yoseba apart from slums in third world countries, where members of a family often live together and provide mutual support. (…)
At about five or six in the morning, the workers gather on the streets of Sanya, waiting for recruiters, known as ‘tehaishi’, to arrive with offers of work. Typical jobs are pit excavation, concrete depositing, clearing up of construction sites, drainage work, scaffolding, loading and unloading of vessels and warehouse work.
The final employers are usually giant companies such as Kajima Corp. or Obayashi, or local governments. But between them and the tehaishi are two or three intermediate subcontractors. These serve to distance the principal employer for certain illegal practices, such as verbal contracts and inadequate working conditions. They also skim the labourers’ wages. The principal contractors are said to pay some 13,000 yen a day for each worker, but by the time the middlemen and the tehaishi have taken their cut, the worker is left with 8,500 yen or less in his hand.
Caught in Japan’s underworld
The strings of agents separating employer from employee are generally managed by the Yakuza – Japan’s mafia – or are closely linked to them. (…)
In 1972, the Genba-Toso (workplace struggle) Committee was formed to unite Sanya workers in a militant struggle against the corrupt and routinely violent sub-contractors and tehaishi. This committee, however, was forced to disperse under severe police oppression after a short period of struggle.
At about the same time, the oil crisis attacked Japanese capitalism. In the ensuing period of low growth, the number of jobs available in Sanya declined and many young workers abandoned the district. The remaining, older workers faced even more miserable conditions.
The Sanya Sogidan (Dispute Committee) was formed in 1981 in response to the worsening circumstances. Yamaoka Kyochi, who had been active in Sanya since his arrival in 1969, was among the Sogidan’s leaders.
In November 1983, several Yakuza in black uniforms appeared on the streets of Sanya, wandering about and threatening the labourers. They turned out to be members of Nashidogumi, a branch of a Yakuza gang called the Kanamachi Family. They started muscling in on the job placement ‘business’, while another branch of the family continued to rip off the day-labourers at a string of gambling dens. (…)
On 3 November 1983, members of Nishidogumi attacked a worker with metal bars and the Sogidan launched a counter-attack to protect the labourers. During the confrontation police arrested twenty-five Sogidan activists and workers. Twelve were later accused of assembling with dangerous weapons and imprisoned for four or five months. The fact that they held wooden sticks to protect themselves from Yakuza violence was held against them as a crime. The arrests were widely seen as an oppressive security measure as they occurred on the eve of the visit to Japan by U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
From this day an out-and-out battle ensued between the Sogidan and the Nishidogumi, with the right of the labourers not to be exploited at stake. On 6 November 1984, after a year’s bitter fighting, the Kanamachi Family was finally chased off the streets, abandoning open activities in Sanya.
Death of a filmmaker
But on 22 December of the same year, Sato Mitsuo, a member of a group supporting the Sogidan, was stabbed to death on a street near the Sogidan office by a Nishidogumi hitman.
Sato, a veteran of the New Left struggles of the late ‘60s, had been making a film showing the lives of Sanya labourers and their struggle. His murder had the aim of cutting off the Sogidan’s support network and also of preventing release of the film, which threatened to bring the dirty and violent business of the Kanamachi Family before the public eye.
On the night of Sato’s death, hundreds of workers gathered in the streets and protested the killing, burning a car and throwing stones at the police station, located in the middle of Sanya and hated by the workers as a result of the harsh oppression they had suffered at the hands of the police.
The Sogidan decided to continue making the film as a tribute to Sato, along with their protests and militant campaign to purge the area of Yakuza influence once and for all. The film, entitled Yama – Attack to Attack, was completed on the first anniversary of Sato’s death.
Nearly three weeks after this came the shocking murder of Yamaoka Kyoichi, who had been a mainstay of the Sogidan’s work.
His funeral attracted hundreds of people from various sectors of the people’s movement. But while they gathered in Sanya to remember Yamaoka and demonstrate against his killing, the surviving Sogidan leaders were cooped up in a corner of the railway station as the police tried to snuff out prospects of the protests becoming militant.
Ten days later, on 23 January, police arrested three Sogidan members on a charge of interfering with a government official in the execution of his duties. This referred to an incident on 19 October last year, when the Sogidan tried to stop a member of the Nishidogumi from collecting money from workers. Police tried to intervene and a fight broke out. Even now, weeks after the death of Yamaoka, workers come to pray before his memorial erected in front of the Sogidan office, many giving donations despite their poverty. Yamaoka was well known and liked by the workers.
The Sogidan is now preparing a second, public funeral and protest rally in sorrow and anger at the loss of a comrade and intimate friend.
(Inoue Reiko, AMPO Japan-Asia Quarterly Review. Vol. 17, No. 4, 1985)
Appeal to the workers in Sanya
The depths of winter have come, and so has the hellish period of unemployment for the workers. Along with the members of the Dispute Committee, we, the moviemakers, are worrying that some of you may die of cold on the street this winter again. Don’t call us the men of evil omen. This is the reality of the yoseba (labour market) here, and this is also the inevitable future unless this rotten society is overthrown.
I have concluded that my life and others’ are not as serious a matter as most people usually think. This arrogant thinking was initiated by my anger, aroused by observing that a life is purchased or evaluated in terms of money in this society. Yet I will never allow the privileged classes to toy with power and to lead the day-labourers to die on the street. As simple and honest workers, we should initiate an action to respond to their mistreatment of us. Only in that struggle can we regard our individual lives as being a light matter.
The cops and the mob of the Kanamachi family (a Japanese Yakuza family) are inactive at the moment because they know that keeping the workers in unemployment is a better tactic than using a pistol or knife. They are thus welcoming the severe cold: they will, chuckling up their sleeves, dump water on the fires made by labourers outside and let them freeze to death.
Being deeply moved by resentment on behalf of those who have died of hunger or of cold, we must redouble our anger. This coming year of 1986, the Dispute Committee will devote itself to wrapping the yoseba in the bright red flames of the fires carried in the hands of the fighters. Their rising up will make this coming year the first year of revolution. Since we, on the other hand, are mere moviemakers, we can only celebrate the New Year by giving you an image of our first dream of the year. In that dream you will see the completely naked cops and gangsters doing the cancan together at the intersection of Namidabashi (Bridge of Tears, the literal translation of the name of this place) in Sanya.
It will take two years to complete this film. During that period we will stay in the yoseba, making a living from day labour as you do. It is not our intention to film you with an irresponsible attitude. Even a moviemaker like me has such a sense of shame that I will try not to make a big speech as to why we will make this film, but I will tell you about some of my personal concerns for it. By involving myself with this project, I want to wash off all the dirt I have accumulated on myself as a moviemaker for the past fifteen years and then hopefully be born again. At the same time, however, I feel it a little shameful to only make the film and not to fight directly with the cops and right-wing mobsters. We are, after all, strangers and eyesores to you: nonetheless, our retreating as moviemakers from the front line of Sanya amounts to a defeat for both you and us, especially after we declared that we would shoot the reality of the yoseba. If, by reserving ourselves too much, we fail to make friends with you, the film itself will become weak and poor. It is therefore essential for us to be frank and open-minded with you so that you will understand us. I find it inevitable that some troubles will arise between you and us while making the film: in those cases we would like to solve them by discussing them one by one with you.
We are in a hard situation, not having enough money, enough material, enough staff; yet we believe our efforts will be rewarded someday.
The film definitely differs in character from those produced by the bourgeois mass media – which we accuse of being the accomplice of the capitalists – in that this documentary is to be used to stop them from messing around with us. In order to realise our project, it is imperative for us to receive help and cooperation from the Dispute Committee and you for all the reasons mentioned above. Some of you may hesitate to be filmed for some reason. The Dispute Committee and we will make every effort to protect your privacy,
I hope that you will help us in any way and thank you for your concern.