Copyright ©  by Don MacLaren
The following story was published in the September 2009 issue of the literary magazine
Danse Macabre. The writing has been copyrighted, so if you wish to use or quote anything in this story you must properly cite the source, including the author's (Don MacLaren's) name.

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              Slumming in Osaka/Mother’s Day, 11:30 PM, Ashiya, Hyogo-ken, Japan
Today I went to Osaka. What made the biggest impression on me was Shinsekai, a neighborhood similar to Sanya (a slum in Tokyo), except I think Shinsekai is much worse, with much less positive to counterbalance the bad. In Shinsekai I didn't see children playing in the streets, or married couples, as I sometimes saw in Sanya.

In Shinsekai I saw more despair than I've seen in a long time; the people were almost exclusively men, almost all of them haggard, beaten down by life and alone. In fact, I don't believe I remember seeing so many people in that condition of despair in one place in all my life. In the Philippines - for example when I rode through Smoky Mountain (a garbage dump in Manila thousands of people live on, scavenging in order to survive), on the way to the airport in '95, or on the way to Olongapo from Manila a week earlier, when I went through the wasteland created by Mount Pinatubo - at least there were women and children and some people smiling.

In Shinsekai there was a more pronounced smell of urine, mixed with a smell of alcohol and sweat and other rancid bodily fluids, than I recall in any other place I've been.

The first thing that struck me as unusual after I'd exited Shinimamiya Station was that there were many cheap rooms available 1,500 yen to 3,000 yen a night (about 15-30 US dollars). Those are the cheapest rooms I’ve ever seen advertised in eleven years in Japan. The first indication of homelessness I saw was incongruously in front of a school, where I saw some homeless men sitting alone, apart from each other, and a stray dog. (One hardly ever sees stray dogs in Japan, though there are many stray cats).

There was a small tent city in a vacant lot that I walked through, scared someone might put a knife to my throat for trespassing, though there were no signs saying "Do Not Enter."

There were big piles of garbage here and there, but I believe that they were designated garbage areas. There were people lined up on a street, clutching big collections of odds and ends, apparently where they could present scavenged garbage in exchange for money. There were some streets with small restaurants and bars, dirty and decrepit. There was one person who said hello to me - an older woman at one of the stands. She said it in English, along with a "good afternoon." I responded with a Japanese "konnichi wa," and as I recall, she reciprocated.
There was one man lying in the street. Well, actually there were several, but this man I saw was in the middle of the street. I saw him on my left as I was walking through an intersection. I was going to turn left and walk down the street to get a closer look, but decided not to. He was surely nothing I hadn't already seen before, though I don't mean to degrade or belittle him by writing that.

There were a few tables set up where men were gambling - it looked like they were playing dominoes, but I'm not sure, it might have been mah-jong. I stopped to watch for a few seconds as a man behind one table was touting the game. He looked at me and I decided to move on, not because I was afraid of him, but because I didn't want to play and there was no one else who was just watching, as I was.

There were many, many men with cardboard abodes they had fashioned together - the typical Japanese homeless style, some with blue, plastic tarpaulin to cover the cardboard in case of rain.

There was a lot of alcohol available (it seemed to be the only thing in good supply; there was a lack of everything else), a lot of beer vending machines, and a lot of men drinking...I saw one guy urinating at the side of the street.
There were a few, a very few number of people who were not dirty, unkempt, and despairing - people who probably had business in the area or people who lived in the cheap, government-subsidized housing in the area. There were many businesses that seemed to be closed, and parks and lots that were fenced and locked.

Since having exited Shinimamiya Station I must have spent a minimum three to four hours walking without a rest.
Looking at all those homeless men I'm sure that a lot of them are victims - victims of unscrupulous bosses, or abusive parents, or childhood poverty, or unfaithful wives, but I'm pretty sure that some of them are homeless because they failed, they did stupid things, made stupid mistakes, didn't take an opportunity given them, or maybe didn't try hard enough. I'm sure many of them have been to prison; some are probably running from prison. I don't want to be one of them, but I suppose I could draw a lot in life that might put me amongst them.

One thing I did notice, that I've noticed about Japanese homeless people and that I noticed in a movie I saw on Robert Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb and its after-affects (the movie had several shots of people made homeless in Hiroshima and Nagasaki), was that the homeless in Japan seem to have a dignity many Westerners don't have, in that the Japanese rarely complain in public; most of them keep their living space neat and organized, most of them grin and bear the lot that life has given them. But there are exceptions. There are those who jump in front of trains and hang themselves; and there was that guy I saw passed out in the middle of the street.

I went to Osaka to get outside, after having searched for over two months for a job. I needed some sun, and to get my psychological / spiritual bearings, and to see a part of Japan I hadn't seen before. I did all those things. Now it's time to go to sleep.

​Don MacLaren was born in Michigan, and lived there until he was 19, when he joined the Navy - to escape Michigan and his dead end factory job. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley, where he received a BA in English. His writing has appeared in publications such as BusinessWeek, Newsweek and The Japan Times.

Copyright © by Don MacLaren

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