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Cameras offer Tokyo day laborers chance for self-expression and interpersonal connection

Cherry trees at night, by what used to be Sanya moat in Tokyo's Taito Ward, taken by Hideaki on April 2, 2017.
The moon seen from a room at a hostel in Tokyo's Taito Ward, taken by Tokio on Jan. 14, 2017.
A cat living in Sanya, in Tokyo's Taito Ward, taken by Misao on Aug. 25, 2016.
Project participants take pictures with their digital cameras in a changing shopping arcade in February 2021. (Mainichi/Yuki Miyatake)

TOKYO -- The people living in the cheap accommodations in Tokyo's Sanya, an area home to many of the Japanese capital's day laborers, would like others to understand the place better. And so for over five years, a number of them have continued to take photos of everyday life in their neighborhood to share as part of the Sanya Art Project.

    Currently, seven people who receive assistance in the form of free medical care, consultations and hot meals from the nonprofit organization Sanyukai, based in Tokyo's Taito Ward, and live in cheap hostels or have previously lived on the streets participate in the project.

    Sanyukai staff member and photographer, Masaru Goto, 54, proposed the project, thinking that people who have trouble expressing themselves through talking or writing may have an easier time doing so through photography, and the project was launched in the fall of 2015. In 2018, the participants held a photo exhibition inside Ueno Station. Goto also reported on their activities at the International Arts and Homelessness Summit & Festival in Manchester, Britain, the same year.

    Sanyukai provides project participants with digital cameras, but they are not forced to take photographs. The basic rule is that everyone takes pictures when they feel like it. Once a month, the group meets at the Sanyukai office, where they show their work and offer each other feedback. Past subjects of their photography showcase each photographer's individuality, and have included a television screen, friends and cats living in Sanya, and the moon on a snowy night seen from a hostel.

    Misao, 67, who participates in the project, used to live on the streets near Tokyo's Akihabara and Kanda districts. After he began receiving public assistance and started living at a hostel in Sanya, he learned about Sanyukai and was invited to join their activities. Before his involvement in the art project, Misao had never held a camera, and at first, he didn't know what to photograph. But due to his experience sleeping on the streets with stray cats as if they were hot water bottles, his gaze and his lens naturally turned to cats that he encountered around town. From there, he went on to shoot other things he likes, such as trains and railroad bridges. In Sanya, old homes are being torn down, replaced with an increasing number of new buildings, including high-rise apartments. Says Misao, "I want to record the changing landscape of Sanya."

    Sixty-nine-year-old Masaharu, who has been living in Sanya since the late 1990s, is another person who is feeling the changes taking over Sanya. In the 1990s, as many as 400-500 people would apply for a single day job in cleaning or construction, and it was common not to be picked. But today, due to the aging of residents and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, about 40 to 50 people show up for a single job, and Masaharu says he finds that a bit sad.

    According to a Sanyukai staff member, in recent years, cheap hotels for backpackers from foreign countries had been increasing in number. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, no backpackers are to be found. The cafeteria that Sanyukai had been operating to provide free lunches has been closed down to prevent the spread of the virus, and Sanya residents have fewer chances to see one another in person.

    Because of the two states of emergency declared thus far for Tokyo, the number of photos that project participants bring to their meetings have declined.

    "Photography is not just about the act of taking the photo, but sharing one's photos with others provides opportunities to forge bonds," Goto said. "For the men who live in Sanya, making connections with other people is a challenge, and is something we want to encourage."

    Even now, they hold their monthly meetings. "Photographs are visually succinct, and serve as an entryway into people's interests. It would be great if through these men's photographs, people become interested in the current state of Sanya and in Japan's societal issues," Goto added.

    (Japanese original by Yuki Miyatake, Photo Group)

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