Introducing Osaka's "Unofficial Mayor"
John de Boer (University of Tokyo)
63-year-old Yoshisuke Nagamine was introduced to most of America this past week in a Washington Post article entitled, "Seeking Shelter in Japan." Many in Japan may have never heard of this former air-condition repairman, but people reading the Washington Post now know him as the "unofficial mayor" of Osaka castle. According to the article, Nagamine has been the "unofficial mayor" since 1993.
Clay Chandler of the Washington Post joined him on a tour to meet the more recent arrivals to Nagamine's neighborhood. "There's the fellow who came after his seafood restaurant failed; the couple in their sixties whose trucking company collapsed; the two brothers who juggle odd jobs; the former office worker with the bad cough who ran out of friends who'd put him up" and the so the tour continued through 700 or more shanties surrounding Osaka castle.
As the economic recession heads into full-swing similar "unofficial neighborhoods" are growing in number and size. On October 15th the Associated Press reported an increase of 4.4 per cent in bankruptcy cases in Japan, a majority of which were recorded among the small and medium size businesses. "As in past downturns," reported Clay Chandler, "the current recession is grinding hardest on the Japanese who toil at the margins of society -- day laborers, women, the elderly and the unskilled" (for your information women represent over 50 per cent of the population).
Surely, the Japanese government was well aware of this when it announced a supplementary budget of 1.7 trillion yen on October 17th. Unfortunately, according to the Associated Press ("Japan Helps Laid off Workers", Oct. 17) a majority of this money will go to promote structural reform, which in itself could force more into despair. Hopefully, not to the level of despair reported by the Singapore Straits Times on Tuesday. According to the Straits Times a Japanese woman and her son starved to death this past week because they wanted to avoid, "living off the government."
There is no doubt that reforms are needed in Japan's economy, however, few agree as to where these reforms should take place and how severe they should be. In an article posted on The Glocom Platform, Eisuke Sakakibara, otherwise known by the pseudonym "Mr. Yen", claimed that the core of the problem is in Japan's socialistic system. He explained that Japan's economy is composed of two sectors: (1) The globally competitive export-manufacturing sector that employs about 10 per cent of the workforce and (2) the local sector which is heavily protected, unproductive over subsidized and consequently employs the remaining 90 per cent of the workforce. According to Sakakibara, it the local sector and the socialistic system upon which it depends that should be reformed because it is an "institutional and microeconomic problem."
In the meantime, the unemployed continues to stream into "unofficial neighborhoods." The majority of which, according to aid groups for the homeless, are former construction workers.
Despite imminent cuts in Japan's social and healthcare benefits its people are clearly more in need now than they have ever been in recent history. According to Yoshihide Sorimachi, forensic pathologist for the city of Osaka, the rising unemployment rate has taken a heavier psychological toll in Japan than in other countries because, in this society, job status is the preeminent measure of self-worth. "Many Japanese workers feel that if they lose their jobs, they have lost their reason to live," he said.
Social benefits are always among the easiest areas to cut, but often have the most severe and enduring repercussions on society. As Noam Chomsky once said about intellectuals, I believe government officials, like any human being, also have the moral responsibility to consider the human consequences of what they do.
- "Bankruptcy Cases Rise in Japan," The Associated Press, October 15, 2001
- "Japanese Woman, Son Starve to Death," Singapore Straits Times, October 15, 2001
- "Japan Helps Laid off Workers," The Associated Press, October 17, 2001
- Eisuke Sakakibara, "Reforming Japan's Socialistic System," Glocom Platform, October, 2001
- Clay Chandler, "Seeking Shelter in Japan," The Washington Post, October 17, 2001