Tsutenkaku Tower, Osaka

Photo by James Roth


James Roth

I first heard of Kamagasaki, a small, gritty, urban area of Osaka, when reading an article in The Japan Times published back in the nineties. The article told of a riot that had occurred there. Day laborers and homeless men, by far the largest demographic, had protested against the government’s policies, which they believed were discriminatory, meant to keep them at the bottom of Japan’s socioeconomic ladder or, more preferably, out of sight altogether. During the riot, these men had thrown rocks through shop windows, stacked up bicycles in main streets, bringing traffic to a standstill, and even temporarily shut down the Shin-Imamiya train station by setting part of it on fire.

The men demanded that the government treat them as they did other Japanese, with respect, as part of the Japanese family; they felt they weren’t welcome in Japan’s structured society, where social harmony is what matters. They had a reputation for being drunks, fugitives from justice, and perverts, family members that the family didn’t want others to know about. 

One of my complaints about living in Japan was the absence of protest in any form: labor vs. management; greenies vs. polluters; consumers vs. corporations. Rather than upsetting the social harmony, the Japanese tolerate injustices, muttering, “Shikata ga nai.” (It can’t be helped; there’s nothing to be done.) So this riot proved to me that when an alienated group felt they had been pushed into a corner, members of that group did strike back. My curiosity piqued, I made it a point to visit Kamagasaki—I’d seen enough Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines—but before I could make time to do so, Mother Nature intervened, changing the situation for Kamagasaki’s men.

Kamagasaki is only an hour’s train ride from Kobe, a port city known for its sophistication and charm. In the early morning hours of January 17, 1995, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake on the Japanese scale rocked the city. An often-played video on Japanese television shows the power of the quake. The release of energy when the Nojima Fault shifted 1.5 meters and sank 1.2 knocked a man who’d been asleep at the local NHK television station out of his bed, as books and files tumbled to the floor all around him. The quake only lasted twenty seconds, but its power mostly flattened the homes in Nagata-cho, an area of Kobe made up mostly of traditional wooden homes with heavy tile roofs. The supporting beams collapsed. The elevated Hanshin Expressway toppled over, as did trains. Fires ignited from ruptured gas lines. Sirens wailed. The human toll was over six thousand dead.

For the men of Kamagasaki, however, the destruction and human tragedy meant work. Suddenly, they were in demand. They had plenty of work hauling away rubble and then carrying bricks and rebar to construction sites. These men whom the government and Japanese had once shunned had, overnight, become an indispensable source of cheap labor, no questions asked about their pasts or sexual orientation.

By the time I visited Kamagasaki, in March of 2000, most of the construction work in Kobe had tapered off to a trickle, and the men who lived there had become more accepting of their situation—that maybe they were responsible for their position in Japanese society. “Shikata ga nai” became a familiar refrain with them, too.

I had arrived at the Kansai International Airport on a flight that originated in San Francisco, took a train from the airport to Shin-Imamiya Station, and walked over to Kamagasaki, a maze of alleys, where there were several cheap hotels, a backpack on my shoulders.

For about a month, I had been visiting my family in the U.S. I’d quit my job as an English teacher at a private language school in Sendai, the major city of northeastern Japan, known as Tohoku, wanting to take a break from teaching. I had planned out a trip of a few months that started out in Osaka and would end somewhere in Southeast Asia, where, exactly, I didn’t know. Then I’d return to Japan to study Japanese and look for work.

It turned out that my trip ended in Singapore. I was staying in a cheap hotel there, one incongruously a block away from the iconic Raffles Hotel at 1 Beach Road. A knock on my room door woke me one night. The hotel owner’s son, a high school student, told me I had a phone call. My younger brother had called from Florida to tell me our father had suffered a heart attack and wasn’t expected to live more than a few days. He added, “I don’t think there’s any reason for you to return. How’s your trip?”

My father had estranged himself from the family a few years before, after my mother, who had been married to him for fifty-five years, had bravely decided she needed to escape his controlling ways before he came at her one night with a 12-gauge shotgun. He had been depressed for years, maybe even his entire adult life, and we had all resigned ourselves to the pitiful truth that any attempt to help him might destroy us, as he pulled us into his circle of control, and that the best thing we could do was to escape him.


It took me a while to find a hotel in Kamagasaki. I had expected this. A Westerner in Japan always feels the tail of paranoia and suspicion following them around, and this is what I felt when I entered the first few hotels and saw the alarmed expression of the men at the front desk. There weren’t any rooms available, they told me. I persevered.

Outside one hotel located on an alley strewn with beer cans and empty cups of instant noodles, a man took pity on me and, after making certain that I could understand Japanese, told me about a place down the street called the Sunnyside Hotel that might take foreigners. (Japanese have a penchant for English names for hotels.) I thanked him and went to the hotel and five minutes later had checked in and was taking an elevator up to my room, number 610. Next to the door of the elevator I had read two signs, both in Japanese: “Don’t Throw Trash from Windows” and “The Selling of Drugs is Prohibited.” This was not the Japan I knew, at all, one where hotel rooms had yukatas—robes—laid out on beds in an origami kind of way that made you not want to wear them, they were so exquisitely folded and the obi sash so perfectly knotted.

This room had no yukata. It was about the size of a double-sized mattress, 4.5 tatami mats, how Japanese measure the size of a room. (The normal room size is six mats.) The walls were tainted brown from tobacco smoke and cigarette burns spotted the tatami. Against one wall was a tiny bookcase, on which rested a TV. The management, I learned that evening, played adult videos on one channel to pacify the residents, who were all men. A toilet, some sinks, and a simple kitchen were down the hall. The requisite Japanese bath was on the first floor. A public bath was down the street. The cost of a room was 1,500 yen, about twelve dollars at the time. A room at a decent hotel was between five and seven thousand.

For the next few days, until I had fully recovered from my jet lag, at which time I would head west to Hiroshima, Kyushu, and Okinawa, I wandered around Kamagasaki, fascinated by the place. Kamagasaki reminded me of the movie set for “Blade Runner,” in which the Harrison Ford character slogs along dark streets, passing noodle vendors and men huddled in doorways. Along Kamagasaki’s back alleys, adult videos were hawked next to vegetable markets. Enka, Japan’s country music, played from speakers under a roofed arcade, along which there were liquor shops, gaming halls, pachinko parlors, and cheap restaurants. At a discount movie theater under an expressway, a person could get out of the rain or cold for five hundred yen. I watched a double feature there one afternoon: “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Fight Club.” Parked next to the screen was a bicycle beside the door to the only toilet in the place, for “Men.” Many of the movie-goers slept through both features, grunting and snoring. Others had brought in a box lunch, a bento, and were munching at it. And then there were those who were ignoring the “No Smoking” signs on the backs of every seat and were puffing away as they gazed at the screen, contemplating, it seemed to me, not the movie, but their own sorry state. 

At the end of the roofed shopping arcade that stretched for several blocks was the most surprising of discoveries: a traditional red-light district. It was as if I had entered a period of Japanese history prior to America’s occupation of the country after the end of the Pacific War in 1945. The brothels were two-stories, made of wood, and had tile roofs and wide entrances. The architecture hinted that the brothels dated back almost a hundred years. (I later did some research and learned that the name of the district was Tobita Yūkaku, and that it was established in 1912, during the rapid economic expansion of the Taisho period (1912-26) and several years of democratic governance which came to an end when the military began to take control of the government after the U.S. market’s crash in October of 1929, leading to the Great Depression. The U.S. had been a major importer of Japanese products.) 

Paper lanterns framed the entrances to the brothels and sitting on the tatami in the entrances, which were open to the street, sat a girl striking a doll-like, expressionless pose, just as I had seen courtesans depicted in Japanese movies do. The brothels all had names above the entrances, often carved into a cross section of Japanese fir. The only name I remember now was Umegawa, Plum River, which struck me as a very poetic name—even a romantic one—for what went on in the rooms.

The girls, some quite attractively dressed in kimonos or yukatas, were continuing Japanese tradition, it seemed to me, and weren’t at all ashamed of themselves for putting themselves on display. It was sort of like they were playing out a fantasy they might have had, in which they slipped back to the Taisho period. (Prostitution has been a part of Japan’s culture for centuries.) Sitting next to these girls was an older woman, called an okami-san, who also wore a kimono or yukata. She called to passing men, “Irashite! Irashite!”, the polite form of “come inside.”

But the scattering of men who walked the streets seemed to be there more as curious tourists rather than as potential customers. They were taking in the atmosphere of the neighborhood, just as I was, now and then sneaking glances at the girls and smiling back at the Okami-sans’ invitations.

What was most remarkable was that though prostitution is illegal in Japan, there was a police station at the end of one of the streets. The Japanese attitude was, I knew, that as long as everyone behaved themselves, maintaining social harmony, then there was no reason to crack down on what went on inside these places, which passed themselves off as restaurants, deceiving no one.


One evening I bought a tako-yaki dinner—octopus grilled in a kind of pancake batter—at a takeout shop and ate it while sitting on the top step of a series of concrete steps that led up a hill. I had a view down the street of brothels and the line of paper lanterns as darkness fell on the city. It was a beautiful sight.

From time to time, school children in their uniforms, weighted down by a backpack, passed through the neighborhood, probably on their way home from a cram school. Women peddled past on bicycles; the baskets filled with shopping bags of groceries. Everyone knew their place in this society. 

Then I heard someone shout angrily and the crashing of metal and glass. Just below me a man was pounding on the windshield of an abandoned car with a pipe, as he cursed another man who was inside the car. They were both dressed in rags. Ten or twenty meters away from the two men was a beer distributor, whose workers continued to load crates of beer onto a truck. I waited for someone to do something, but no one did.

When a man in a shirt and tie climbed the steps, nearing me, I asked, “Shouldn’t someone call the police?”

“About what?” he said.

“Them,” I said and pointed at the man pounding on the car windshield with the pipe.

“Better not get involved,” he said. “They might turn on you. Shikata ga nai.” He walked off.

I then thought of my father, who, during our last phone conversation, had said everyone in the family had turned on him. For months he had tried to get me to side with him against my mother, whom he was convinced was in a conspiracy with my older brother to get their hands on his money, an absurdity I couldn’t talk him out of believing. The fact was he didn’t have much money. After several months of lobbying me, he concluded that I was a co-conspirator and ended our last conversation by growling, “Well, you’re no better than they are!”

“I’m sorry it has to end this way,” I said.

He slammed down the receiver.

The next time we spoke I was in Singapore, where I called my father to say goodbye. He wasn’t able to speak, but I do remember hearing him weep. I told him I loved him as he continued to weep and then I began to weep too.  

James Roth, a writer of fiction and nonfiction, has had his work published in several international magazines and journals. His first novel, Death of a Gaijin, is a noir mystery set in Meiji-era Japan. His second, A Prodigal Daughter, is a literary detective novel set in modern-day Tokyo. A memoir, Jacob: a Greendale Garden Boy, was nominated for a Pushcart. He has recently completed a third novel, a noir coming-of-age novel set in 1963 Alabama, My Alabama Story. He has traveled widely in Southeast Asia and has lived in Japan, China, Jordan, South Africa, and Zimbabwe but likes to say he was “Made in Japan.” His parents lived there during the American occupation but he was, to his and his mother's lasting regret, born in an American military hospital in the U.S. Golf is his game. Motorcycling in the mountains of Zimbabwe is his pleasure.

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