Sanagi Shokudo

Sep 1, 2009

From Koe Magazine, September 2009. Photo Credit: Ry Beville

Sanagi shokudo

Just a five-minute walk from the glitz and glamour of Yokohama’s Motomachi district lies a whole other reality. To Japanese and foreigners alike, the Kotobukicho area is hardly recognizable as a part of Japan. The contrast to the city surrounding it is stark and unbelievable.

Kotobukicho’s modern history goes back to the end of WWII, when the land was occupied by a US military barracks. It then became a place to find day labor during the Korean War; the American forces began hiring locals on a casual basis to help move munitions to the port. From 1955, it became the preferred home of longshoremen engaged in temporary labor at the dock.

The workers usually stay in “doya.” They are cheap, 3-tatami rooms with communal baths that cost about ¥1600-2200 per night. Some rooms have TVs, radios and windows, but kitchen facilities are rare. Most guests could afford to live in a normal home, but finding a guarantor is the biggest hurdle. These doya multiplied during the 1960s, 70s and 80s when migrant workers came to Kotobukicho from all over Japan to provide cheap labor for the construction boom and the port. Today there are about 120 doya operating in the area.

These days the work has dried up, but the workers are still here. Most of the people in Kotobukicho are too old to continue to work in construction and they have little to occupy their time. Women are virtually absent. Kotobukicho has been cleaned up in recent years, but there is much to be done. The area houses an estimated 6500 people. About 85% are on welfare and about half are over sixty—many of the doya’s clientele are slowly dying off. But as is the case in Sanya, a similar neighborhood in Tokyo, some of the doya are turning into backpacker hostels (like Hostel Zen, to the right).

Thankfully, there is some good news for these aging men. Some NPOs are working to make life better for the residents of Kotobukicho. One NPO has been running the Sanagi no Shokudo, a non-profit cafeteria, since 2002. Each day, about 400 people come to enjoy a hot, tasty meal in this clean, spacious restaurant. The meal costs only 300 yen. The NPO gets their food from donations. A sizable chunk of their donations includes food that has passed the expiration date but is still safe and nutritious. The bread, rice balls and other items that would otherwise be wasted from just two Lawson’s stores provides 10% of the food that Sanagi serves in the course of a day.

They also assist Kotobukicho residents in finding medical care and other services from the city. When Sanagi staff recognize that a customer seems to be having trouble, they offer counseling in a room near the cafeteria. With cooperation from local hospitals, they help sick Kotobuki residents get the care that they need. Sanagi has recently been renovated and they are planning to start delivering food to the many Kotobukicho residents that are too sick to leave their rooms. All are welcome to come for a meal, and volunteers are also needed.