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San’ya Blues: Laboring Life in Tokyo

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By Edward Fowler

Reviewed by David W. Blaylock

My first thought was that I could use this book in my upper division Japanese History course. However, selections from this book could be used in Asian Civilization and Culture surveys, sociology classes, or in high school courses. I recommend that teachers read this book for a more complete picture of Japanese society.

San’ya is a section of Tokyo which is home to the day labor market and most of the workers involved in it. With housing and jobs uncertain and with workers living on the fringes of society, San’ya offers a striking contrast to most of Japan. Fowler notes that San’ya is in the midst of Tokyo yet isolated from it. The heart of the book is the words of the day laborers, the people who deal with them, and Fowler’s own experiences as a day laborer. The book includes a description of the area, including landmarks such as the Iroha Shopping Arcade, and a glossary of terms used in San’ya as aids to understanding the words of the laborers and Fowler’s experiences.

It would be easy to focus on San’ya as a place of despair and poverty, or, as someone once said, as a study in what happens to the unemployed in a land of full employment. That would be missing the point.  San’ya is people, a lesson Fowler painfully learned through a punch in the face (pp. 2–3).

Course reading assignments might best focus on sections two, “Lives,” and five, “Work.” The “Lives” section contains monologues from workers who are frustrated and beaten down; however, it also contains vignettes from men who are optimistic and proclaim that San’ya provides a chance for those who will work (pp. 56–57, 61, and 65–66). There are skilled laborers who live fairly well. To look just at the frustration and despair would make us like Fowler’s acquaintances who came to San’ya and, after a brief look around, went home content that they understood the area.

Fowler’s own experience as a day laborer is also a good area for discussion. Fowler finds jobs and loses them (in several cases because he is a foreigner). The reader sees the frustration of not being able to find jobs, but also Fowler’s optimism that perhaps this connection or that labor boss might hire him. Fowler also begins to see San’ya as an escape from his “real life.” We glimpse the real-life frustrations: the Fowlers are in the midst of moving from North Carolina to California; a sale of the North Carolina house falls through; he should be spending more time with his family. In San’ya his life is simpler. His possessions are few, and he has enough to pay his rent, eat, and buy drinks.

Anyone who has lived in Japan has seen groupism and its demands for harmony. San’ya is different. These men can be somewhat independent. They can set their own agendas; for example, the day laborer can decide not to seek work that day or, as Fowler did, he can work in √saka or somewhere else. It is easy to see San’ya as the bottom of society, and Fowler does include information on the aging of the San’ya population and the decline in jobs. But for teachers the strength of this book is that it will catch students’ attention. There are enough instances of optimistic, independent workers to force students to look beyond stereotypes and easy descriptions. One could ask whether these men do have a chance to improve their lives (the American/Japanese dream) or whether they are fooling themselves. (The suggested readings provide extra material to pursue this topic.) For research seminars, the book also provides other avenues for discussion, such as whether Fowler’s method of reconstructing conversations without the aid of tape recorders or notes is valid, a topic he discusses in the last chapter. A class could discuss whether societies need an adjustable labor force. Or, one could have students look at the other end of the spectrum, the image of the Japanese businessman, by assigning several stories from Tamae Prindle’s Made in Japan and Other Japanese “Business Novels.”