A spiritual awakening in the slums of Osaka
OSAKA--Japan's biggest slum is barely a hop and a skip from the downtown of Osaka, Japan's second-largest city, where neon-lit streets scream affluence and the good life.
But in the Kamagasaki district, in the city's Nishinari Ward, an altogether bleak slice of life awaits those who dare to venture.
It is filled with dirt cheap lodgings for those who are just able to scrape by. And there are those who can't even find a place to sleep on the streets.
And yet, despite the grim surroundings, something of a miracle is occurring: Amid lines for soup kitchens and overnight shelters, churches operating in the area report a rising number of Christian converts.
Many residents are once-homeless people who survived on irregular day-laborer wages. Others who eventually managed to draw social welfare benefits stay because rooms for rent are so affordable.
At the heart of the community is Naniwa Church. Quite a number of the area's needy residents have found inspiration in the church's teachings.
At a year-end baptism ceremony, 40 or so men and women turned up to celebrate with two men being blessed with holy water.
The two were day laborers, aged 62 and 45.
One sought spiritual help to escape his dependence on alcohol. The other man was trying to make a new start after swearing off his gambling addiction.
Christianity exerts a powerful presence in the district.
Alcoholism is rampant among many of the homeless. Church staff routinely make the rounds on bitter winter nights to assist those who find solace in the bottle.
Once a week, Naniwa Church, which is affiliated with the Korean Christian Church in Japan, provides a soup kitchen that offers "onigiri" rice balls and miso soup. The food is served from a van in a nearby park, where as many as 200 people form a line on occasion.
"I am grateful to the church, but I am here for food (not religion)," said one man waiting for a handout. Others, however, are moved by the church's teachings and turn to its faith.
"What about delicious, super delicious, miso soup!" said a church volunteer as he prepared to fill outstretched bowls.
The volunteer, a 63-year-old who is part of the live-in staff, makes it a rule to visit lodgings that members rent. Most of them are elderly and living alone in apartments.
The man, too, once slept in the streets.
He told The Asahi Shimbun that he used to work as a doctor at a hospital in the Kanto region.
"About 10 years ago, I was involved in a medical mishap in which the patient died," he said. "I had an overpowering feeling that I needed to stop looking down at nurses and patients. I decided that I could change my sense of self-worth if I came to live in Kamagasaki."
He would take shelter in a public employment office during the day and spend nights at a public shelter.
The man said he had no cares in the world at that time, and made no attempt to find work. He relied entirely on church meals.
"They gave me twice what a set menu at an ordinary eatery would provide. I was pleased that Naniwa Church understood that people who sleep in the streets think only of their next meal."
The man said he used to follow the teachings of a Zen Buddhist temple and never gave any thought to changing religion.
But while walking to the church for a free meal, he recalled being moved by the words of a pastor: "The act of doing what one can to help the weakest and poorest in society is as honorable an act as what one does for God and Jesus Christ."
It was like a light bulb went off in his head. He decided to volunteer his time as a member of the church staff.
Four South Korean churches with several Japanese ones carry out missionary work in Kamagasaki.
Despite its grim surroundings, Naniwa Church is regarded as a success story. However, the Rev. Kim Jong-hyun prefers not to view its activities that way.
After arriving in Japan in 1996, Kim set about organizing the soup kitchen in Kamagasaki. Initially, it was intended for needy Koreans, but he quickly realized that many destitute Japanese were also forming lines because they were hungry.
Kim helps to find housing and arranges welfare benefits for those who choose to become Christians.
All-too-often, however, the converts revert to their old ways--sodden in alcohol--as soon as their lives start to get better, Kim said.
"Even if one has economic relief, a person can still live in solitude," he said. "At times like that, people need their faith even more."
In the past, churches in Kamagasaki had refrained from missionary work, mainly because of pressure from labor unions.
However, the end of big construction projects like Kansai International Airport in the late 1990s negatively affected the market for day laborers, which weakened the influence of the labor movement.
Tatsuya Shirahase, a sociologist at Osaka City University with a keen interest in the Kamagasaki situation, said: "Labor movements used to support day laborers, but as their market shrank, so did the movements. South Korean Christian churches, which are free of constraints, replaced them by holding meetings with meals provided. This eventually attracted people who were sleeping on the streets.
According to the city of Osaka, some 40 percent of 26,000 residents in Kamagasaki are aged 65 years or older.
One night in November, a police car turned up at Naniwa Church around midnight. The passenger who got out was a 75-year-old man, a Christian convert, who had difficulty curbing his itinerant lifestyle. He had bolted from the protection of the church and walked more than 10 kilometers to Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, which is where the police found him.
The man had run away 69 times since he took the Christian faith seven years ago.
Coming from a "mikan" mandarin orange farming family in western Japan, he went to Osaka to find work when it was gearing up to host the Osaka Expo 1970.
He developed tuberculosis. He survived by scrounging aluminum cans and used paper products for recycling. He moved from one slum to another across the country.
One day after he returned to Osaka, he was found slumped in a cart by a church attendant.
He now lives in a rundown two-room apartment. With health worries constantly on his mind, he frequently runs away.
Each time he does that, fellow church members welcome him back like a member of the family.
As a gesture of thanks, he brings aluminum cans to the church for recycling, calling it a donation.
The man prays at the church each morning, asking that he will go to heaven.