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San’ya Blues Impressions and Reaction

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The chronicles of Edward Fowler’s experience in Japan during the 80s and 90s were so interesting that I hardly wanted to put the book down. San’ya Blues makes a lot of important points through the stories within its pages, but the one that stuck with me the most is the trouble with abusing alcohol. The book focuses on poor construction workers (Yama men) who live in the San’ya district of Tokyo, a rundown district that is heavily controlled by gangs, and is known for its less prosperous population. Most of San’ya’s residents are men (many who have left their wives and families or have been disowned by their parents) and are down on their luck. The main source of employment for residents (and transients) in the town is a large gathering, every morning, in which gang-approved recruiters will hire the men for various construction jobs around the city. Work for the young and able-bodied residents is easily found, and pay is relatively high, though wages tend to be spent mostly on alcohol. There is one bank, the Welfare Credit Union, that residents frequent, but many walk around with their life savings in their pocket.

Of all the people Fowler described, a few stories stuck with me the most. In one of them, a man speaks of his childhood. This man grew up with his grandmother, and told of how boys were a lot more valued than girls back in the day, and how his sister died of starvation at age 8 since she wasn’t fed as much or as well as he was, and how she would always be denied requests for food from the grandmother because the grandmother didn’t think she was important. Quite a sad tale, and it sounds a lot like what’s been going on in China over the last few years, where girls are left to die on the streets. The BBC did a report on gender discrimination in China in 2007 and found that as many as 100 million girls are aborted due to gender alone. Japan may have been discriminating against women in the past, but are they still doing it today? Unfortunately, it seems that they’re actually getting worse. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Japan was ranked 101st place in a 2010 gender discrimination report. I wasn’t able to find any instances of malnutrition reported in the last few years, so it sounds like at least the worker’s story won’t repeat itself anytime soon.

A large number of the stories caught my eye due to a common theme: alcohol abuse. Nearly all of the workers were drinking during their interview, and some of them had trouble standing, walking, or doing work due to their addictions. As Fowler noted, there is a lot of money being made in the area, but due to the workers’ love of gambling and drinking, most of it goes to waste. The yakuza run many resturants and control the gambling, and appear to make the most money in the end. When Fowler was visiting with some activists who he met during a city-run workshop about how to improve San’ya, one of them was always unruly and kept interjecting comments and interrupting the conversation. He was so impaired by alcohol that he couldn’t complete simple tasks such as dialing a phone. Another of the men in the room couldn’t stand up due to intoxication and passed out. He didn’t even wake up when a lit cigarette was pressed into his nose. Ouch. If you take away anything from these examples, it would seem that the worst thing you can do if you’re down on your luck is to take to drinking in excess.

The most significant aspect of the stories showcased was how… non-foreign they sounded. It’s easy to stereotype foreigners as all being one way or as having some crazy cultural differences from us, and these stereotypes make it harder to empathize or relate to them. What is shown in these stories is a very large variety of people who all have different upbringings and different stories to tell. If you didn’t know these stories were translated from Japanese, you’d think it was any average American describing his/her troubles, which is exactly the point: we Americans aren’t so unique ourselves. The Japanese people interviewed were just as excited about a foreigner speaking Japanese as we’d be about a Japanese tourist speaking English over here. Some stereotyped Americans just as Americans stereotype them, but the stereotypes aren’t entirely accurate. Once you get past the language barrier, people are quite similar.

Overall, I only wish I had had more time to study the book in-depth, and am planning on re-reading it when I have time to take in any details I might have missed. I highly recommend it.