Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Scenes of Heisei: A meal of hope under a bridge after losing everything

People line up for a cooked meal underneath an elevated bridge in Nagoya's Naka Ward on Sept. 6, 2018. The problems they face are various from work to housing to family relations. (Mainichi/Takehiko Onishi)

NAGOYA -- On an evening this summer, 44-year-old Taro (a pseudonym), stood in line with more than 100 other people under an elevated bridge near the downtown area of Sakae in this central Japan city. He was there for food that a local Catholic church cooks up and hands out weekly. When he received the meal of curry and rice, he shoveled it into his mouth.

Taro was a temp worker who lost his job following the 2008 economic shock triggered by the collapse of major investment bank Lehman Brothers -- the so-called "Lehman Shock." Nine years have passed since he first lined up to receive a meal.

Several times a day, offers of work from a job placement agency arrive on Taro's smartphone. Most of them are one-day offers, like setting up for events or moving offices. These single-day jobs, which are supposed to have been banned in principle under a 2012 revision to Japan's worker dispatch law, help him make ends meet.

Taro grew up in eastern Hokkaido. It was immediately after the collapse of the economic bubble that he proceeded to enter a private university in the Tokyo metropolitan area. The difficulty of finding work at the time resulted in the period being called a "glacial age" for hiring, but still, young people in their 20s chased their dreams. "I want to do what I like doing for a job," Taro thought. He dropped out of university and took an exam to enter a film production company, set on becoming a director, but this was not as easy as he had hoped.

At the age of 27, Taro registered with a job placement agency. After working at a Toyota Motor Corp. factory in the central Japan prefecture of Aichi, where the automaker is headquartered, he moved around, working at other factories in the prefecture. In the Chubu economic zone around Nagoya, there are many companies besides Toyota churning out products. While the global economy sputtered, Nagoya was dubbed a "lively" area. In good months, Taro earned about 250,000 yen in the hand, and he was even able to put some money aside. But that was until the Lehman Shock. At the age of 34, he was informed by the factory where he worked that he was being laid off.

Several years ago, he fell behind on his apartment rent, and the apartment management company contacted his parents, who quietly footed the bill. He felt his pride had been injured, and it became harder for him to contact his parents. Even when speaking to the Mainichi Shimbun, Taro didn't provide his real name because he didn't want to cause his family trouble, he said.

When his younger sister phoned him to inform him of their father's sudden death, he didn't return home. "Mom says it's OK for you not to come back," she told him. Though he had not told other family members about the situation he was in, they had an inkling of it.

Up until several years ago, jobs that paid by the month were the norm, but recently Taro has been taking on more work that pays by the day or week. Even when he packs the work into a tight schedule, his take-home pay remains unstable, at 30,000 to 80,000 yen a week. Once, around five years ago, he made use of a free legal consultation service at a city hall. But he felt it was meaningless for him, so he didn't go after that.

Taro feels he has no one to talk to about his situation. "If my rhythm gets any more out of sync, I could lose my home. It's a fragile existence," he says.

-- Bare reality

At the end of 2008, a camp dubbed "Toshikoshi Hakenmura," or "New Year's Village for Temporary Workers," was set up in Tokyo's Hibiya Park. At the village, labor unions and citizens groups came together to form a committee to help laborers whose contracts had been severed, and provided cooked meals for them and held consultations about their day-to-day living and work. Hiroshi Rikimaru, a 45-year-old judicial scrivener, was among the supporters who took part.

The village received wide media coverage, but once the "boom" was over, public interest faded, and the number of legal professionals providing consultations also dropped. Yet there are still many people today who work like day laborers.

"It was good that we showed society that things were tough for people, but everyone disappeared without actually finding somewhere for the people who were in need to go," Rikimaru said.

In 2015, the Japanese government enacted a law on self-reliance support for people in need. Consultation centers were set up at local bodies, where plans to support self-reliance are now formulated for such people on an individual basis. The move to introduce this law was spurred by a surge in the number of people on welfare.

However, Rikimaru points out, "It's a system that aims to thoroughly implement economic independence, but the problems besides labor that each person faces are not addressed, so even if a person becomes independent for a short period, there are quite a few people who return to their former state."

The problem of poverty in the Heisei era, which rose to the surface in line with the Lehman Shock, is not something stemming from a lack of income alone -- various factors such as illness and disabilities, household environments, and social isolation also play a part.

"Local governments have to collaborate across departments and tackle the problems but they are not doing that. Rather, the perception that poverty is the person's own fault is strengthening," Rikimaru says.

The people who gather under the elevated bridge in Nagoya's Sakae district, where meals are cooked up for people, include those on welfare and pensions. Catholic priest Motoi Taketani, 63, accepts everyone regardless of whether they have an income or a place to stay.

"Our purpose is not just to provide meals. We want to deepen our relationships with the people who come and talk to them to see if there's anything we can do," he says.

In one corner of the venue, Kenji Kawasaki, 60, stood collecting numbered tickets from the people lining up to receive curry. Before, he had lined up himself to receive meals, but now he volunteers, helping to hand the food out.

Kawasaki was born during a period of high economic growth in Japan. After graduating from high school, he began working as a regular staff member at a local factory in Iwate Prefecture, where he is from. However, the factory was shut down when he was in his mid-40s. He began working for a factory in Nagoya as a temp worker, but he lost his job in the autumn of 2008, and ended up sleeping on the streets. At one desperate stage he came close to jumping off a building to take his own life. But then he thought of the person who would have to clean up his body and it crossed his mind that he would be causing other people trouble so he didn't go through with it.

Kawasaki ended up tagging behind another person who was living on the street like him, and ended up at the area where meals were being handed out. After he started going there, the faces of other people in the same situation as him became familiar and he started to talk with them. He also started to talk, little by little, with the volunteers, and thought, "I want to help, too." After going to several places, he also ended up helping under the elevated bridge.

Several years ago, a church in Nagoya introduced him to cleaning, moving and other jobs. He was told at the place where he worked, "You can use the empty apartment as you wish." His day-to-day life remains tough, but he ponders, "I guess I'm able to live thanks to the connections I have with people, which I once lost when I lost my job."

In the predawn hours of Sept. 6 this year, a major earthquake measuring up to a full 7 on the 7-point Japanese seismic intensity scale struck the southwest of Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido. After about one whole day had passed, Taro stepped out and dialed the number to his family's home. The phone rang one, twice, three times ... That was enough to put Taro at ease, and he hung up.

Now, Taro is earnestly looking for a place that will hire him for a full year. He wants to return to a life in which he is living on a monthly salary rather than getting paid for his work "the next day" or "by the week."

(Japanese original by Sachi Fukushima, City News Department)

This is Part 2 of a 10-part series.

Also in The Mainichi

The Mainichi on social media