It’s very very early in Namba Station. My legs are rustling after a seven hour incarceration in a night bus. It’s the only option to cross Japan on a budget, getting an overnight ride crowded by students. Like elsewhere, like us, they’re also tight on their pockets. Osaka welcomes us with clear weather, mild temperatures and a giant train station that requires more than 15 minutes of underground walk in order to cross it.

We resurface with our heavy backpacks near the Shinsekai area. We only have a five minute walk to our shared house. It is enough to be shocked by the unthinkable amount of homeless men on the streets. There’s a lot of them, and they seem to be concentrating in the neighbourhood, a dirty place with a lot of businesses, most of them showing signs of absolute desertion and closed blinds.

These men contemplate the new visitors without shame. Most of them speak English and blurt nonsense to us, probably looking for money or spare food to get by. Maybe they don’t even look for that, they’re just bored to sit on the sidewalks with nothing else to do than figure out how to get on with the day, a whisky or a beer their only valuables in their hands. It’s 7:30 AM, remember. The concentration of this middle-aged/old men –because there are notably no women around–, is truly remarkable. I’ve been to many places and never been shocked like that. We resume our path and get to our place, a traditional but modern lodge that has nothing to do with the rest of the neighbourhood.

Awakening in Kamagasaki

A bit of research and context situate us in the place where the most prominent Yakuza family was born –the Yamaguchi-gumi come from neighbouring Kobe–. This mafia area has now the cheapest housing on the city and, therefore, concentrates its poverty and most low key characters. At night, the pimps go around the avenues with the loudspeakers banging in their cars. The street indigents gather themselves in the 24h supermarket to make a meal out of whatever coins their pockets can produce.

As a tourist in Japan, and after five days of unblemished and beautiful Tokyo sightseeing, the shock lasts for a while. It’s still there, roughly a month after visiting Japan, when I’m writing these lines. Tokyo, a city that strikes for the lack of chaos in a 35 million people metropolitan area, projects an image of modernity, efficiency and perfection. A commonplace for Japan. Most European and American cities would crave to have the services that the government offers in the capital, but…

Osaka is an awakening for anyone who actually sets foot in it. Probably you would also need to land in the less favoured neighbourhoods to discover this veiled place of Japanese reality. Why are there so many elders piling in the streets of Kamagasaki? What’s going on with all the Mafia run businesses? Where are the neat metro stations and the spotless restaurants that can be seen all around gigantic Tokyo?

Well, in Osaka the answer is a complex one. It’s the city with the second highest unemployment rate in Japan, but it is only a ridiculous 4%. The statistic doesn’t explain why I see a concentration of a hundred homeless men in a park next to the supermarket nor why everyday I walk back to our place, an ambulance is assisting a comatose elder lying in the middle of the road. The sirens ring throughout the day. Are the stats for real?

Nope. There are more than 10 000 homeless people in Osaka, according to unofficial statistics that are currently outdated. An article on The Guardian sheds some light on this dark corner of the Japanese miracle:

“You hardly ever see women or children around here”, says Masaharu Takezawa, a former homeless man who is acting as the Guardian’s guide and unofficial minder as we pass groups of thin, weather-beaten men drinking cheap sake and occasionally hurling abuse at passing police cars. “It’s a man’s world. All they have to look forward to is an evening meal of cheap grilled meat and plenty to drink… and the freedom to sleep it off where they drop”, he says.

Drinking habits in Osaka seem stronger than in Tokyo. Bars are filled up and karaoke extravaganza conforms the daily tones of dusk. It is very interesting to see how Japan turns from the perfection of soon to be Olympic Tokyo to the depressed and murky streets and ambience of Osaka. It’s important to note that we’re in the second biggest city of the country.

The mafia won’t help

We have forgotten about the yakuza, an old organization that is indeed very contemporary and active. Here’s a bit of context extracted from another news article:

“The yakuza make the bulk of their money from extortion, real estate fraud, blackmail, insider trading, loan sharking, entertainment business management, drugs, and illegal gambling. They have powerful political connections, including Japan’s former minister of education, and there have been allegations, denied, that the vice president of Japan’s Olympic Committee has associated with them. The Yamaguchi-gumi, however, does say it bans dealing or using drugs”

We learn that the awesome Ramen shop we’re sitting in could easily be a mafia business. Lately, the yakuza have been profiting from the arcade craze and also from real state, which puts our surprisingly affordable accommodation into the same bag. It could be yakuza owned for all we know. The police don’t/can’t do much, and the mafia more or less wander around untouched. There is not much information around, it’s like waking up slowly to a reality hidden in plain sight.

There’s one last realization. It comes when I’m fully naked in one of Osaka’s famous spas. Nobody around has tattoos, and these are in fact forbidden in all facilities like that. Why? Because in Japan, tattooed people are related, mainly, with yakuza families. These are their marks, their pride. Spas avoid any problems by banning inked people inside, so mafia business and violence stays out of one of the favourite Japanese pastimes. Because its members are not there, one grasps how real the yakuza is.

So it is true, Japan is not so perfect whatever big data says. The gathering of more than a hundred homeless and drunkards that day opened our eyes. Osaka, and the lesser favoured neighbourhoods there –which never felt dangerous, it’s important to say–, are just a big wake up call for the curious visitor who wants to go beyond the tourist headlines.

P.S. The excellent work of Shiho Fukada gives a great visual insight of all explained here. I wasn’t able to capture what my eyes saw with the camera, something I now regret. Luckily, there are a lot of great photographers out there that have the actual guts to portray these sad realities.