Kotobukicho, Yokohama: A Chaotic Deep Town of Theft and Surveillance | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Kotobukicho, Yokohama: A Chaotic Deep Town of Theft and Surveillance

A walk through the deep town of chaos, Kotobukicho, Yokohama, Japan. Nowadays, more than 50% of the residents are over 65 years old. Is this the "last refuge?

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The neon streets of Jumachi, densely packed with snack bars and pubs. When the author visited, it wasn’t the beginning of the month when welfare payments are received, so there were fewer people around.

“The days when day laborers crowded here are long gone. Nowadays, Jumachi is a town of welfare and care.”

Such comments can be heard from residents as they walk through Kotobukicho, Yokohama, known as one of Japan’s “Three Major Doyamachi” along with Tokyo’s Yamaya and Osaka’s Nishinari.

Located within walking distance of bustling districts like Kannai, Yokohama Chinatown, and Minato Mirai, Jumachi is a compact area measuring 200 meters wide and 300 meters deep, with over 110 simple lodgings, often referred to as “doya,” lining its streets. Hidemi Saeki, 74, who has been watching over Jumachi for nearly 60 years at the Kotohuki liquor store, shares his observations:

“In the past, Jumachi was bustling with day laborers working in the port-related industries. However, with the advancement of mechanization in port work, the demand for manual labor has decreased significantly, and there are hardly any day labor opportunities left. As a result, the town has become much calmer.”

Mr. Takayama (pseudonym, 50s), who runs a restaurant in Ogonmachi, located only 2 km away from Jumachi, expressed the current situation of Jumachi in his unique way.

“Jumachi has been a town that has been a labor force for the bustling city of Yokohama since the high economic growth era, taking on day laborers. Although Ogonmachi had a red-light district remaining since the post-war period, it was completely swept away in 2005 with the goal of ‘eradicating prostitution’ as the police, government, and private sector joined forces, changing the town. However, Jumachi could not be changed. There were rumors of redevelopment, but if the cheap lodgings were to disappear, companies in need of labor, residents with nowhere to go, and those in need of a place to accept them would be in trouble.”

What does this mean? According to the “Jumachi District Social Survey” created by the Yokohama City Health and Welfare Bureau, as of 2023, the number of residents living in cheap lodgings was 5,340. Of these, more than 90% were welfare recipients, totaling 4,981. Moreover, the proportion of those aged 65 and over among the residents was 52.8%, making it a seniority-dominated cheap lodging town.”In 1989, when the Heisei era began, there were only 1,652 welfare recipients. However, after the bursting of the bubble, the number increased to 3,413 in 1994 and has since remained at that level, with welfare recipients becoming entrenched.

Kotobukicho is most active at the beginning of each month. This is because the welfare payments are made. Long lines form at the clinic, and the boat race ticket booths are crowded from midday. People chatting over a cup of sake in the plaza of the new “Yokohama City Kotobukicho Health and Welfare Exchange Center,” which was built on the site of the former job center, and the sound of cheerful singing leaked out from the snack bars outside the stores.

Currently, more than 90% of the guesthouses are reserved for welfare recipients, and the general public is not allowed to stay in them. The rates are almost the same everywhere, with signs posted here and there saying “From 1,700 yen per day.”

We stayed at one of the few remaining cheap lodgings for ordinary guests in the town. The room was about 4 tatami mats in size, and once the futon was laid out, there was hardly any space to move around. Drafts were a concern, and even with the heater on, the small room was slow to warm up.

Despite the small size of the district, Kotobukicho is lined with more than 110 simple lodging houses.

“Security cameras are essential.”

The next morning at 6 o’clock, I headed to the employment office. There were five elderly men waiting. Many of them were dressed in worn-out down jackets and work boots. Among them, one middle-aged man spoke with the staff, then seemed to slump his shoulders after conversing with another man who appeared to be an arranger outside. Though it’s uncertain whether it’s true, Mr. Akiyama (pseudonym, 60s), who claimed to have been a company president with 100 employees, spoke rapidly to me.

“Believe it or not, I used to be a president. But after the Lehman Shock, my company went under, and I ended up here in Jumachi. It’s tough to be seen as someone receiving welfare from society.”

With the systematization of work and the increase in non-regular workers such as temporary employees, the number of places accepting day laborers has decreased, prolonging the situation of not finding work. Meanwhile, the residents are aging. Thus, in Jumachi, both an increase in welfare recipients and aging are occurring simultaneously.

If you want to know about Jumachi, there’s a person whose name comes up in the streets. He is Mr. Okamoto (72), the manager of the Ougi-so Shinkan guesthouse. When I visited Ougi-so, Mr. Okamoto welcomed me into the reception room. He was facing a monitor displaying images from 32 security cameras installed throughout the facility.

“In this town, the job of a receptionist doesn’t work without leaving physical evidence or images (with the cameras). There are many cases of theft between residents and frequent incidents of room facilities being damaged.”

In Ougi-so, where most of the nearly 200 rooms are occupied by welfare recipients, visitors appear every few minutes. Mr. Okamoto’s job involves handling visitors and managing the finances of residents, with permission from the authorities (as he puts it, “If given directly, they’ll spend it all in a few days”). He explains why he has worked nearly live-in for 19 years.

“Here, you never know what will happen 24 hours a day. When I started this job, six residents died in their rooms within six months. I was called to the hallway where maggots were appearing, and when I went to see, there was a body swollen with gas due to decay. The stench lingered for about a week. I can never forget that. Residents often break building fixtures, so there’s a lot of money spent on replacements. Honestly, it’s not profitable.”

Mr. Okamoto has something he values in running the guesthouse.

“We have a policy of not asking residents about their criminal history or past when they move in. When there were tough-looking residents gathering, it was nerve-wracking, and there were sometimes fights. However, most of the residents have been living here for decades and are elderly now, so they’ve become quite calm lately. That’s something you can say about the whole town. The number of foreign caregivers, especially women, has increased a lot.”

Indeed, in Jumachi, you can see many foreign women working as caregivers. A Filipino woman working as a helper revealed to me in a cheerful tone.

“Japanese people don’t like to work as caregivers in this town. They don’t know about the past, but now they’re just old men, so it’s easy. Why have Filipino and Thai helpers increased? Maybe because they can still earn more than other jobs and it’s easier to work.”

Hiroki Nakaji (70), the secretary-general of the NPO “Juku Arc,” who is involved in Jumachi as a caregiver, explained,

“Jumachi is a ‘town with high welfare needs.’ There are now nearly 20 caregiving and welfare organizations in Jumachi alone, and the level of welfare required is increasing every year. Since around 2006, supporters and the city have been working together to encourage homeless people to move to settled-type accommodations for public safety. We aim for ‘town development without exclusion’ and work together with the government and private sectors.”

There are also quite a few residents who pass away in the guesthouses. In those gaps, you can also see young residents. Additionally, luxury condominiums have been built in one corner of the town. Jumachi is facing another wave of change.

Sodai Okamoto works as a bookkeeper at a simple lodging house. He confides that he always has to keep an eye on the residents.
In the simple lodging house, bathrooms, toilets, and kitchens are shared. The room size is about 4 tatami mats.
The interior of a room actually used by a resident in a simple lodging house. Many of the residents live with a minimum of luggage.
A flyer by a volunteer who provides day care services. In a town where the number of people in need of welfare services has increased, this is a great help.
A corner of Kotobukicho where a supermarket and a tavern stand side by side. Perhaps to prevent trouble, police officers were sent to the scene when they found a group of people drinking alcohol bought at the supermarket on the street.
I visited the job center early in the morning, but the place was sparsely populated. The effects of the aging of the population can be seen in these areas.
In contrast to the job center, the boat ticket booth was crowded even during the daytime on a weekday. Many of the visitors were elderly people.

Kurita Shimei

Born in 1987. Covers a wide range of topics such as sports, economics, events, and international affairs. Authored works include “Surviving the COVID-19 Pandemic: Survival of the Taxi Industry” and “Aim for Koshien! The Relentless Challenge of a High School Baseball Team.” Also contributed to numerous compilation books.

From the March 15, 2024 issue of FRIDAY

  • Interview and text by Shimei Kurita (Nonfiction writer) PHOTO Shinji Hamasaki, Shimei Kurita

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