The Grittier Side of Osaka

A street side bar in Nishinari-ku, Osaka
A street side bar in Nishinari-ku, Osaka

Last night my daughter Ocean and I went on yomawari (night walk) in the Kamagasaki neighborhood of the Osaka ward of Nishinari-ku. Our school cooperates with the Sanno Children’s Center in their monthly walks to help the homeless of the city. The area is poorest in Osaka with 1/3 of the residents on welfare and a population of aging day laborers that live on the edge of subsistence, often finding themselves without shelter. Ocean is a very empathetic little girl and for her “genius hour” in school, is forming a club to help homeless. I wanted to encourage this so I supported her in going with the older students of the school. IB world schools put an emphasis on community service and the high school students for years have been helping out at the center. The center is also supports poor families by providing a place of refuge, entertainment and inspiration for children.

A homeless man on a street arcade in Nishinari-ku.
A homeless man on a street arcade in Nishinari-ku.

It is about a 45 minute train ride from our neighborhood to Kamagasaki and the differences can be seen immediately. Japan is unlike other countries in that wealth is not displayed as much. I think the culture of respect for others and the collective over the individual does this. Our neighborhood of Onohara-nishi is one of the nicest I’ve seen in Japan, but it is not like Los Angeles’s Bel Air or Detroit’s Bloomfield Hills. The buildings are grungier and the area is filled with cheap karaoke bars, coin operated laundries, etc. It is much neater than poor neighborhoods in other countries that to the local culture of tidiness and organization.

We met and helped around 6 homeless men. They cover themselves with a cardboard box (photo above) and sleep under the roof of the shopping arcades that are common in Kamagasaki. The kids delivered food, blankets and toiletries and the men were quite appreciative. The center is hosting community party today and the men were given a ticket for them to come and get a good meal.

At the children's center getting ready to go out.
At the children’s center getting ready to go out.

We cannot make next month’s night patrol (December 24) but hope to get back in January. It was an unusually warm November evening last night, but when it is cold, it must be tough to be on the streets.

I am also making a point to capture the small moments in my blog. Ocean the other morning woke up and told me about a dream she had. She said I led the family on a hike to a “poison place” in the desert. I jumped into a waterfall and at the end of the hike, there were buckets filled with poison. Oliver tipped one over and she said I jumped between her and the poison to save her. However, a bird picked up a bucket and dropped the poison on us and we all died. This comes from my insistence that the kids go on hikes and experience wilderness and my wife Nadia, a city girl, always thinks I am taking it to the extreme. It is my goal to instill in the kids a love of the outdoors. A funny dream.

Inner City Night Patrol

I got to see another side of Osaka last weekend when I accompanied the students from our school on a community service activity. We went to the Sanno Childrens Center in the poorest ward of Osaka, Nishinari-ku. The ward is infamous in Japan for its crime rates, red light district and homeless. Now this being Japan, a country with one of the lowest violent crime rates in the world, I felt quite safe and yes it did seem a bit run down and not as new and tidy as other parts of the city, but compared to disadvantaged districts in cities in other parts of the world, it is extremely safe.

The Childrens (Kodomo) Center was founded in the 1960s by German missionaries. To this day, it continues to provide after school care and other services for children from the ward. As you can see from the photo above, one of the children the center cares for was fascinated with my European, bald, head. One of the initiatives of the center is a monthly yomoguri or night patrol. Volunteers led by the pugnacious director of the center Mami, lead groups into the streets to deliver food (onigiri – spheres of rice wrapped in seaweed) and blankets to the homeless men sleeping in the streets of the shopping arcades in the district. I was filled with a sense of goodness seeing how grateful and kind the men were in talking with the students, including my 7 year old daughter.

Mami gives us instructions for the patrols and you can see Ocean leaning over the middle of the table.

Within Nishinari-ku is a neighborhood called Kamagasaki. This area is home to many male day laborers, who through a variety of circumstances (gambling, alcohol, mental illness) are homeless. The government forbids the official use of the name and they try to hide media from portraying issues in the area. A recent NHK documentary about the Sanno Childrens Center featured one of the orphans the center cares  for and it has brought increased donations to them. It was sad to see them laying on newspaper with cardboard boxes around them as their only protection against the elements. It gets cold at night in Osaka in November. There are several organizations helping them, including a center to organize them finding short-term manual labor, free or reduced price shelters, etc.

We also walked through Tobita Shinchi, another neighborhood within the ward. Tobita Shinchi is infamous for its red light district. As in Amsterdam, the women are displayed for street view, although here, it is open air and the architecture is old Japan style. They were only protected by an elderly woman minder that sat to the side of them. She yelled at me when I tried to take the photo (see below). The police tolerate prostitution, but again, I felt sorry for the girls, as it is a tough way to make a living.

I was so inspired to help and want to make it a regular part of our experience while we are here. I would like to thank Lyn and Hannah for assisting me and Ocean and introducing us to the center.