Special To The Japan Times
They’re funny, finicky and feisty, not to mention being full of wicked mischief, with their own way of talking, too. Outside of Japan, think of Liverpool, not London; or Munich, not Berlin; or Mumbai, not Delhi. I’m talking about the people of Osaka.
Before World War II, Osaka, the port city in the heart of the Kansai region, was a commercial powerhouse and media center. But they say that during the war soldiers from Osaka were consistently at the back as a regiment raced up a hill. That’s pragmatism!
After the war, Tokyo looked one-eyed straight to the United States. It still does. Osaka set its sights on Asia and Europe … anywhere a profitable deal could be done — and damn the ideology.
It was without a doubt the second city of Japan. In 1955 it had a population of about 2.6 million, and it continued to grow from there until it peaked a decade later at 3.1 million. But now the population is back at its 1955 level — around 1 million fewer people than live in Yokohama, and not far ahead of Nagoya’s 2.2 million.
But perhaps decadence and decay suit the city of Osaka, known in history, particularly during the Edo Period (1603-1868), as the home of the adventurous and the racy: Saikaku Ihara (1642-93), a dyed-in-the-wool Osakan, author of randy tales that today still strike us as pleasantly offcolor; and Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), a playwright who spent the last 20 years of his life in Osaka and wrote his best plays for bunraku (traditional puppet theater) there. Thanks in part to Chikamatsu, Osaka is still the home of this traditional performing art. His most popular dramas are those that feature double suicides by ill-fated lovers.
I bring up this tradition because the literary representative of modern-day Osaka, Sakunosuke Oda, was born 100 years ago this year, and it’s high time we took a new look at his brash and brilliant legacy.
Oda startled the literary scene in 1939 with his second novel, “Zokushu” (“The Vulgar”), receiving for it a nomination for the country’s most prestigious accolade for new writers, the Akukutagawa Prize. The novel depicts five brothers and their wives in all their routine intrigues, raising themes of family discord, economic woes, jealousy and divorce — not to mention a variety of malicious and wonky liaisons.
These themes became obsessions for Oda in his later works: people bonded to each other by their prejudices and passions, especially sexual ones.
In two of his novels — “Seso” (“The State of the Times”) and “Yofu” (“The Bewitcher”) — he wrote about Sada Abe, the woman who, in May 1936, strangled her lover and sliced off his penis and testicles, to carry them around town in her handbag. She only had three days to do that, though, before being arrested and convicted that December of second-degree murder and the mutilation of a corpse. She was sentenced to six years in prison, but was released in May 1941.
Incidentally, recently deceased director Nagisa Oshima based his 1976 film “In the Realm of the Senses” on this incident, and managed to meet Abe, who was living in a nunnery, before she died in 1970.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t long after Abe’s release that Osaka was thoroughly devastated by indiscriminate U.S. bombing during the war; and the postwar chaos saw the city coping with mass malnutrition, rampant disease, a proliferation of drugs, prostitution and the kinds of crime that accompany them.
But back to brash and brilliant Oda, whose greatest work — and one that all Japan associates with its Osaka setting — is “Meoto Zenzai” (“Hurray for Marriage, or Sweet Beans for Two”). First published in 1939, it is an ultrarealistic portrait of a marriage between a solid and lusty woman (the type that has come to typify the Osaka female) and a flighty, spoiled and untrustworthy rake of a man … I will withhold comment on the male stereotype here. The woman works her guts out as a geisha while the man, profligate that he is — and easily distracted by the flutter of a skirt — goes through her money like the man on the flying trapeze goes through air. This novel has been filmed no less than four times, on the latest occasion, in 2008, titled “Akifukaki.”
To give you an idea of the esprit that permeates “Meoto Zenzai” and the town where it takes place, I’ll quote some lines from the traditional eponymous song, made popular by chanteuse Sayuri Ishikawa:
When I went looking for you It was raining in Dotonbori Hazy in the surging crowd The sun has gone down Red lights shine on the river’s surface My breast heaves … Where’ve you gone?
When’re you coming back to me?
Whoever said the Japanese are reserved and tight-lipped never lived in Osaka.
The lyrics of the song “Meoto Zenzai” are written in Osaka dialect, which makes the message all the more poignant and tender for people who speak it as their everyday language.
And the people of Osaka are fiercely proud of their dialect, so much so that they speak it unashamedly on television all the time. I say “unashamedly” because residents of other regions outside the capital use the so-called standard accent when in the national public eye. Only Osaka people tend to stick to their dialect, as if only it can openly and frankly express the emotions they feel.
The male antihero in Oda’s novel, a bonbon, the Osaka word for a good-for-nothing rich boy, is disowned by his father. At the end of the story, which is a bitter-sweet comedy of manners, the couple, as destitute as ever but counting their meager blessings, share a single bowl of sweet-bean soup.
Back in the early 1980s, when I was literary editor of the Mainichi Daily News, I commissioned a distinguished American translator named Burton Watson to render “Meoto Zenzai” into English for serialization in the paper. Later, in 1990, Columbia University Press published the novel, along with with some other translations of Oda’s fiction, under the title “Stories of Osaka Life.”
Oda passed away from tuberculosis in 1947, aged 33. He lived his life on his own home ground, and dedicated his gifts to his city, Osaka. One of his works was banned for a time; others were roundly denounced by the literary establishment of his day. This came about because he hated authority to the marrow of his bones. He was wary of orthodoxy, which he saw as the servant of repression. This wariness toward the established order is a trait associated not only with him but also with many Osakans.
In a deeply insightful essay published in December 1946 in the progressive magazine Kaizo, just a month before his death, he set out his credo regarding literature and life. The essay is titled “Kanosei no Bungaku” (“The Literature of Possibilities”), and in it he wrote: “Creating a novel is, in the end, creating a world where there is an alternative nature. People there are not portrayed as the accumulation of their experiences, but rather as possessors of the potential to leap away from those experiences.”
Such wisdom, it seems to me, applies not only to literature in Japan today but to all Japanese society struggling, as it is, to writhe out of the straitjacket of social and political orthodoxy it is bound up in.
February 24, 2013
OSAKA--In Japan's rosier economic times, day laborers were in hot demand for short-term jobs mainly in construction. These days, many are on welfare, being left unemployed and seeking a bed in a free shelter.
This city's Kamagasaki district is known for its large population of day laborers. The mood here is bleak.
"Kamagasaki was last bustling several years ago, when Sharp Corp. built a plant in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture," says a 59-year-old man who has been resident in the neighborhood for more than 30 years. He gives his name only as Miyazaki.
Miyazaki said he slept the previous night at a free shelter for day laborers. He awoke at 3:30 a.m. and headed to the Airin labor welfare center.
"You cannot get a job unless you go there early," he explains.
Dozens of vans are parked outside the center. Brokers are shouting, "Take up a day's work!"
Men examine slips posted on the vehicle windows. One offers 6,800 yen ($73) for demolition work. Another quotes 9,000 yen for regular construction work. There is nothing for Miyazaki.
Many men seem to be in the same boat, and within an hour or so most have left. They will have to find somewhere to spend the day, perhaps on the street, before standing in line again for a place at a free night shelter.
"You cannot withstand the cold in the park without a cup of 100-yen shochu (distilled liquor)," Miyazaki says, his breath reeking of alcohol. "You cannot be stone sober, either."
In Kamagasaki, one in three day laborers is on welfare.
On any one day, only 5,000 to 8,000 jobs are offered in the district. This is, at most, a third of the work available in the late 1980s during Japan's asset-inflated economic boom. Some jobs require workers to stay in camps.
"These days, TV sets and washing machines are assembled in China and South Korea where wages are low," said a 64-year-old man who gave his name as Shibuya. "It is not surprising that there are fewer jobs for day laborers."
He said he receives 120,000 yen a month in welfare benefits.
"EPITOME IN NEAR FUTURE"
Fewer factories are being built, and there has been a decline in the number of public works projects under way. And heavy machinery can perform many of the tasks that aging laborers once did.
Men in Kamagasaki who work for at least 13 days in a month are eligible to benefits from a type of employment insurance for day laborers.
But the shortage of work means many cannot count on meeting the required number of days. Since the 2008 financial crisis, thousands of day laborers have been forced to go on welfare or live on the streets.
The number of people on welfare continues to grow in Japan, setting new records almost every month. As of October, there were more than 1.56 million registered recipients, 43 percent of them households of people aged 60 and above.
Minoru Yamada, director of Kamagasaki Shien Kiko, a nonprofit organization which supports homeless people in Kamagasaki, says the community of day laborers is "the epitome of Japan in the near future."
"We must expand public support for employment and come up with new ways to secure jobs," he said. "That way, we can reduce spending on welfare benefits."
Yamada said some people shut out of the labor market were reclassified as "sick" and admitted into facilities so that they could receive welfare benefits accordingly. But he said such stopgap measures will not work anymore.
Some laborers who do not want to go on welfare have taken cleaning jobs offered by the Osaka prefectural government in a program designed to tackle unemployment.
The program pays 5,700 yen for a day of cleaning streets and parks, although each laborer is allowed to work only five days a month. About 1,500 people are registered for the program.
"I want to continue earning money for as long as my body will still move," said a 67-year-old man who gave his name as Sakamoto.
He said he had first come to Kamagasaki in 1970, when an expo was held in Osaka. "In those days, I was fit and well, and Japan, too, had momentum."
When he is not on a cleaning job, Sakamoto collects empty cans on the street. He earns roughly 1 yen per can.
"UNABLE TO SURVIVE"
Osaka has the largest percentage of welfare recipients of 20 major cities.
A growing number of young temporary workers are on welfare, and the overall percentage of temporary workers in Osaka Prefecture is far higher than the national average.
One 30-year-old temporary worker at the factory of a Panasonic Corp. group company in Osaka Prefecture has received several tens of thousands of yen in welfare benefits since June.
His hourly wage is a little over 1,000 yen, and he is not entitled to bonuses. The father of three said in a good month his take-home pay is more than 200,000 yen, including overtime, but even that fails to cover the family's expenses.
"I am employed by a staffing agency. However, the company I work at is a large one," he said. "I never imagined that I would be unable to survive without welfare."
Last year, Panasonic announced a heavy loss. He was told his factory would close for many days in the summer to cut back production of TV sets and audio products. An enforced holiday brings no reward for dispatch workers paid by the day.
"I thought it would leave me unable to make ends meet," he said.
Ninety percent of the 100 or so workers at the factory are employed by staffing agencies because the company has been squeezing costs wherever possible.
"Our jobs are hard, but we have put up with low wages," the man said.
When business conditions dived further, his contract was terminated after six months.
He is back in work again now, but increasingly fears that his three-month contract may not be renewed at the end of March.
Amid the uncertainty, rumors are rife. One says that one-third of the workers will be let go. Another says the axed workers will be chosen by lottery regardless of their record.
SAKAI, Osaka -- Nearly 30 pillar holes have been discovered in a moat surrounding an ancient burial mound here, leading experts to believe they may have been for a bridge used for a funeral of the person buried in the mound.
The Sakai Municipal Government announced on Feb. 21 that 29 pillar holes and two pieces of oak lumber that were apparently used as pillars were found in the moat on the eastern side of the round-shaped part of the tomb at the Nisanzai burial mound in Sakai's Kita Ward, which dates back to the late 5th century. Experts have pointed to the possibility that the holes were for pillars supporting a bridge used for carrying a coffin of the deceased and other materials into the mound.
It is the first time in Japan that pillar holes for a structure believed to be a bridge have been discovered in a moat surrounding an ancient burial mound, city officials said. The find is a precious one that could provide clues to the construction process of ancient burial mounds and burial methods. Previously, a bridge made of earth left in place during the digging of an ancient burial mound moat was found in that moat, the officials said.
According to the city, there are seven rows of pillar holes stretching from north to south, one of which extends to the central part of the moat. Pillar holes were also found near the embankment of the moat. It is likely that those holes were for a sequence of pillars supporting a bridge over the moat.
"The discovery of these remains is something unexpected. We should assume that similar remains exist at other ancient burial mounds, and this survey is of great significance in that respect. The usage of the pillar holes couldn't have been anything other than for a bridge, and it's possible the bridge was a splendid one using all the seven rows of pillar holes that have been discovered," said Taichiro Shiraishi, director of the Chikatsu Asuka Museum in Osaka Prefecture.
According to the city government, the pillar holes each measure one meter square and up to around one meter deep. The width of the part of the moat where the pillar holes were discovered stretches some 40 meters. Near the round-shaped part of the mound, the pillar holes were concentrated around the part of the mound believed to have been above the surface of the water at the time of construction. Excavators found seven rows of pillar holes lying north and south at intervals of 1.6 to 2.1 meters, as well as three rows of pillar holes lying east and west at intervals of 1.6 to 1.8 meters.
Among the seven rows of pillar holes lying north and south, the fourth row from the north had five more pillar holes lying toward the embankment on the eastern side. Those pillar holes were found at a depth of 2.4 meters from the bottom of the moat. Two other pillar holes were also found at around four meters away from the embankment, along with two other pillar holes on the south side. The fourth row of pillar holes lies almost on an extension of the main axis of the mound connecting the hearts of the front rectangle-shaped part and the rear round-shaped part of the mound. The holes were apparently dug around the time the burial mound was completed, based on surrounding geological formations, according to city officials.
Ryuji Kuroda, professor at Kobe University graduate school, pointed to the possibility that there had been a two-tiered stage at the mound-side end of the bridge where rituals were held, on the grounds that the intervals of the pillar holes are different on their north and south sides. He produced a replica of the bridge based on the findings of the pillar holes.
"The pillars are believed to have been thin and lightly built but were systematically arranged, which indicates that builders had overwhelmingly high technical capabilities," Kuroda said.
The Nisanzai burial mound lies at the eastern edge of the Mozu Tumulus Group, which includes the Daisen burial mound (the tomb of Emperor Nintoku) and is administered by the Imperial Household Agency. Legend says Emperor Hanzei, the son of Emperor Nintoku, was buried in the Nisanzai mound.
February 22, 2013(Mainichi Japan)
L'histoire se déroule dans le quartier Shinsekai d'Osaka
Voir J.C. Jones, Jarinko Chie and Yā-san Tetsu: Representing the Face, Heart and Underbelly of Osaka, Villains and Villainy I, éd. par Dana Lori Chalmers (2009)