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San 'ya blues: laboring life in contemporary Tokyo.

(Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1996).

IN THIS FINELY crafted book, Edward Fowler joins the world of Japan's day labourers, in particular the residents of the San'ya district on the edge of Tokyo.

The book begins in cinematic fashion with a gripping short prologue, the story of a jolting encounter between the author and some San'ya men that explains Fowler's decision to immerse himself in their world. It ends with a brief epilogue that updates his 1990-91 fieldwork with a report on a 1995 revisit, in a time of very different economic circumstance, and a reflection on the rewards and limits of his method of oral history. In between is a chapter placing contemporary San'ya in historical context and outlining the community's socio-economic geography, and four substantial chapters. One examines the lives of San'ya residents. Another describes political activism in the community. A third takes up rituals of summer festival, year-end celebration, and mourning. Finally, Fowler offers a compelling narrative of his own experience working as a day-labourer.

In the chapter on lives, Fowler recreates the personal narratives of 44 members of the day-labourer community. The stories told by 23 day-labourers form the core of the chapter. They vividly convey a San'ya ethos marked by cheerful bravado and fatalism, pride in survival skills, and a combination of scorn and longing for a place in mainstream society.

The other narratives of union organizers and supporters (most of whom are themselves day-labourers), flophouse proprietors and shopkeepers, bureaucrats, policemen, missionaries, and journalists, offer varied sharp insights into the self-perceptions of the labourers and the economic and political structure that sustains and constrains communities such as San'ya. I was particularly struck by the observation of a police officer assigned to the San'ya district that "our job is to see that a balance is maintained between the yakuza [gangsters] and the unions, and to adjust our response to their movements as needed." (115) What an extraordinarily honest and discouraging assessment of the political ecology of 1990s Japan, where the state treats gangster wage-extortion and union dues as morally and functionally equivalent outside impositions on the community! Whose interest, then, is served by this sort of system maintenance: the labourers or those who purchase their labour?

Relatively briefer chapters on "activism" and "rites" show that Fowler himself wisely refuses to treat the community with similar "balance." He pays greater attention and respect to the relationship between competing unions and the community (describing, for instance, the separate festivals sponsored by the two local unions dedicated to defending the San'ya labourers) than to the place of the yakuza, though he does not ignore the latter. We learn that while the labourers have relatively low tolerance for long-winded speeches that analyze their economic or political situation, the unions and their allies can be a considerable resource for some of the most defenceless members of the community.

The final chapter reports on Fowler's own summer-long stint as a day-labourer picking up jobs at the San'ya morning market, and the similar market in Osaka. With Fowler, we learn something of the rigours of pouring concrete for a highway ramp and removing the scaffolding, as well as something of the fear and frustration of several days of not finding work, or possibly finding oneself on the wrong side of a gangsterish labour boss or the immigration authorities. Fowler describes the camaraderie of those on the furthest margins of Japan's economic miracle, who inhabit a world of small pleasures and considerable pain.

Most basically, Fowler's goal and achievement in writing this book is simply to bring to the attention of the English-reading audience the fact that such a world -- homeless men, flophouses, and grinding, dangerous labour -- even exists in present day Japan.

But the book has two broader aspirations, nicely realized. It explores the links between these seemingly isolated enclaves and Japan's affluent mainstream contemporary society; and it conveys something of his informants' own understanding of their lives and work. To these ends, Fowler combines the techniques of the ethnographer -- participant observation, interviewing, analysis of a community's social organization and rituals -- with the art of a writer attentive to the rhythms of speech and story-telling.

Fowler argues that the middle-class masses of Japanese people and San'ya's floating populace are economically interdependent. There exists, he says, a "vital and mutually dependent relationship between marginal and mainstream society." (47) The labourers rely not only on welfare but on jobs provided above all by the construction industry for survival. Corporate Japan relies on an army of one or two hundred thousand day labourers to build its offices and roads. (11) The labourers' communities serve as neatly contained sites of refuge for those who cannot find or keep a place in mainstream society. And isolated as these communities are, they nonetheless (and not surprisingly) reproduce the protocols of the mainstream, from funerals to social drinking to the love of a good bath. We also can see a psychological dimension to this interdependence; San'ya residents are both separate from and often scornful of mainstream society, yet desire its respect and, in some cases, the chance to re-enter.

Beyond arguing for the mutual dependence of "marginal and mainstream," Fowler's greatest achievement comes in the last chapter on work, where he credibly enters the psychological world of the day-labourers through telling of his own San'ya odyssey. Skilfully and gradually he builds a picture of his growing alienation from a former world of family, friends, and a steady job over the course of a summer as an itinerant construction worker (see especially 143-4, 214-25, 223). As Fowler conveys his mixed feelings about his isolation and escape from responsibility, which provokes feelings of guilt as well as liberation and excitement, I read him as suggesting that his fellow labourers are similarly ambivalent about their situation. Ultimately, of course he goes back to his university and family, but with a powerful sense of regret and suspicion of relying on the dubious certainties of normal life.

In sum, this is a wonderful book. My one complaint is that readers who wish their academic authors to specify a detailed, explicit analytic framework will be frustrated at times. For the most part Fowler shows us through his narrative rather than telling us straight out what the San'ya experience means, or how the community works and fits into a larger society. If he thus makes the reader work to figure out the significance of his stories, it is well worth the effort.

Andrew Gordon

Harvard University
COPYRIGHT 1998 Canadian Committee on Labour History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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