electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Book Review 3 in 2008
First Published in ejcjs on 4 March 2008

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Homelessness and Day Labor Among Japan's Underclass


Joyce Gelb

Professor of Political Science
City College of New York
and Graduate Center,
City University of New York

About the Author

Aoki, Hideo (2006) Japan's Underclass: Day Laborers and the Homeless, Melbourne: Transpacific Press, xvii and 341 pp., index, ISBN 978-1-876843-34-3, USD34.95.

Hideo Aoki has written an in depth study of Japan's homeless communities, primarily in communities in Osaka and Yokohama; Kamagasaki (the largest homeless community in Japan) and Kotobukicho, respectively. His particular focus is on yoseba, communities for day laborers. Aoki presents a thorough profile of the largely single, aging men who comprise these communities. He points out that they live apart from their families, and have been buffeted by the winds of globalization. Many have lost jobs in construction as the basis of the local economy has been transformed to service and public investment has declined; there are no longer jobs that these low skilled men can perform for money. As a result they have literally been 'thrown into the streets'. As many are over 55, a large number over 60, their employability is further limited.

Aoki describes competition for even low level jobs from foreign workers and young people who are temporarily homeless. Work camps increasingly control the supply and flow of the low-skilled work force, further limiting the role of the yoseba.

In another manifestation of economic change, the doya in which they were locally housed, and which provided temporary shelter and communal facilities, are continually giving way to higher grade housing, leaving them few lodging alternatives. As they are increasingly transient, without a fixed address, they are denied access to communal and welfare services which in the past helped them to survive.

Aoki presents a compelling portrait of a community in transition, undergoing downward mobility and declassification. He also notes that despite the continued problems, members of these communities also have ambivalent feelings, of both 'misery and pride'. As an example of the latter, the annual Spring Offensive, a ritualized event at New Year's time, is an effort to unite community members who are self governing and collectively try to prevent deaths from freezing due to lack of shelter. There is also a summer festival. In these events, the homeless are joined by students and some union members. Aoki's use of the term 'social movement' applied to the communities of homeless men provides seems apt when considering all of their activities .

Despite the rich information presented in this book, this reader has several questions and comments. First, the use of the term 'underclass' – are the homeless the only members of this group in Japan or are there others as well? The author chooses the Japanese term nojokusha in preference to others he considers – for this reader the significance of this choice is not clear. The methodology for the study is never clarified. He claims to have constructed 'life histories' but no explanation of the specifics of these is provided. Was the author a participant observer in these communities ; if so when and where? We are never told – he mentions participating in a Spring Offensive and being a participant observer but the specifics of his interaction with the homeless is not made clear. Also, the book was published in 2006 but most data cited is from the late 1990's. So there is an apparent time lag which requires further explanation. The study is also repetitious, with much of the same information repeated several times.

One would also like more information about the foreign workers who are alleged to have taken jobs from the Japanese homeless. The term zainichi homeless is not defined nor is the extent of their displacement of local employees sufficiently discussed. Is this likely to become a long term trend? We are also not given information about with whom and when interviews were conducted; how many, where etc. How did the author get access? Was this study funded; if so by whom?

The study lacks a conclusion which would have helped to pull themes of fewer doya, more work camps, foreign competition and fewer jobs, together. As there has also been a huge decline in the number of homeless in Japan, by his account from almost 2 million in 1989 to 700,000, one wonders how this can be explained in light of the increasingly adverse conditions described in the book.

Aoki's book provides important insight into the lives of homeless day laborers in several Japanese communities. His book will be of major interest to sociologists and students of urban politics.

About the Author

Joyce Gelb is professor of political science at City College of New York, and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her recent work on Japan includes Gender Policies in Japan and the United States: Comparing Women's Movements in Japan and the United States and an article on The Politics of Backlash: Anti-feminism in Japan and the United States.

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Copyright: Joyce Gelb
This page was first created on  4 March 2008.

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