OSAKA -- An initiative started over 20 years ago in Osaka's Nishinari Ward to let the area's day laborers stay overnight at cheap lodging free of charge hit the 10,000-guest milestone in early December 2021.
A group of hostel owners and others in Nishinari Ward started the volunteer movement in 1999, when many day laborers in the area were on the streets. In the decade starting from 1970, when Osaka Prefecture hosted the World Expo, some 20,000 workers are believed to have lived in Nishinari. But the collapse of Japan's bubble economy in the 1990s saw many lose their jobs or homes. A 1998 study by Osaka City University found 8,660 homeless people living in the city of Osaka, with many concentrated in Nishinari.
Suminori Yamada, 73, then chairperson of an association of hostel owners and others in the area, called on association members to "do something for the workers on the streets" during a meeting. The group then worked with the Nishinari labor and welfare center that helps workers find jobs. Involved parties settled on making room charges free, instead of the usual around 1,000 yen (about $9 in current exchange rate) per night, and the initiative officially kicked off with some 30 facilities volunteering to provide the rooms.
The accommodation facilities take in stay-for-free guests via the labor and welfare center and prepare a futon and even new underwear in a room about the size of three tatami mats. A man who has used the service before recalled, "I could rest well, unlike when I slept in a large room with other people. I was in a good mental space when leaving the hostel the next day."
Now with more than 20 years since the project started, workers in Nishinari have aged and more reportedly live in apartments while receiving welfare payments. But manga artist Sen Arimura, 70, who used to work at the labor and welfare center, says the project is still and will be needed to fulfil the role of a "safe haven."
The stay-for-free project continued despite concerns regarding the effects of the coronavirus pandemic since 2020. Today, 12 lodging places take turns on different days of the week and in principle offer one-night stays for free. On Dec. 8, 2021, the historic total of stay-for-free guests reached 10,000.
Yasuhiro Okura, 67, hostel owners' association chairperson and president of Business Hotel Fukusuke in Nishinari, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I hope the guests can rest on the tatami mats and recharge for the next day. Us hostels have been supported by the workers in the area, and I want to continue the project to return the favor."
(Japanese original by Kohei Shimizu, Osaka City News Department)