Isolation and Neighboring Relations in Osaka’s Kamagasaki: The Gaps and What Breaks Through Them. To Express is to Live

Isolation and Neighboring Relations in Osaka’s Kamagasaki: The Gaps and What Breaks Through Them. To Express is to Live.

UEDA Kanayo


1 Introduction: Art is a Technique for Surviving

The world we live in is comprised of a vast multitude of things. This multitude of things enmeshed with one another make up our world. People cannot live without others. People live by mutual involvement. When we sense a connection to another and try to address them, we are attempting some kind of expression. The activities of the Cocoroom that I introduce below are practices aimed at valuing each other’s existence so that everyone may be able to express themselves. We believe that living together with diverse forms of life and diverse forms of value entails learning from each other and enriching the circuits and points of contact that connect us to others. This is what we attempt day to day in our activities.

I believe that making expression conscious is an exercise that “moves one’s internal other.”[1] This is an idea that I learned from the political philosopher KURIHARA Akira, who thinks of autonomy and self-determination as grounded in the moment of moving one’s internal other, of playing host to oneself. We can think of a sommelier as supporting the process of one person hosting another, for instance; but even within that person a similar scenario plays out: the side supported and the side that supports engage in an interchange that materializes through dissociative communication [2]. I believe that expression animates such dissociative communication and has the potential to transform and renew many kinds of consciousness.

Can we understand these endeavors towards expression as art? There are certainly skeptics. Some people think the work of an artist should be to make their works public to the world and to refine the quality of their work; those people are unlikely to think of the activity of engaging with another to produce a work whose author is not always identifiable as art. More recently, there are other people who treat expressive activities based in local areas as relationship building and economic revitalization. Viewed this way, it may seem like art is trying to solve regional problems. However, actions that simply propel us towards the future—which to me is the essence of art—are not necessarily aimed at solving problems. Art is less about problem-solving and more about discovering what is being treated as a problem, questioning it, loosening it by taking it up from different angles, and cultivating new relationalities with it. Art is uniquely good at recognizing the multiplicity of values at play by taking delight in the loosening and in the unexpected dynamism that can emerge. This is why I want to take seriously the everyday practice of questioning. That is, I take art to be a technique of surviving.


2 Kamagasaki, the Neighborhood Not on the Map

Let me talk about where the Cocoroom is located. It is an artificially built neighborhood named Kamagasaki, slightly to the south of central Osaka. It served as a temporary encampment for day laborers to stay when they were between jobs, attracting workers from all over Japan—mostly construction workers who were vital to the high economic growth that began in the 1960s. It is known as a “flop house district (doya-gai),” sometimes also referred to as Airin—an area of about a quarter of a square mile filled with budget lodging houses. Neither of its names can be found on any map. Doya is argot for lodgings. Almost all the rooms in doya are 52 square feet (three tatami mats). At its peak, 30,000-40,000 residents stayed in the area. They worked and lived in a tough environment, like outcasts—even the police would not step in to protect them when they were cheated out of pay, physically abused, or killed. For that reason the area saw many riots over the years and the media painted it in even worse terms, as “a dangerous place to steer clear of.” The image has still not changed today [3].



[Figure 1: A view of Kamagasaki.]

“The neighborhood not on the map” is not just a catchphrase, but something that I see denoting situations of prejudice and segregation like what is seen in Kamagasaki. There are situations like Kamagasaki all over Japan and around the world: in alleyways tucked behind splendid buildings, in institutions sited in the midst of peaceful suburbs; it is in the way people see, feel, and think.

During the 1990s, after the economic bubble burst, work gradually disappeared from Kamagasaki, laborers grew older, and many were pushed out onto the streets. By the latter half of the decade, about 2,000 residents were living outdoors. Many initiatives were implemented to help the area get through the situation. People over fifty-five could register for special public cleaning work for the elderly, and be part of regular area maintenance like cleaning and trimming grass. The pay was ¥5,700 a day, ¥15,000 (about US$ 150) if you did it three times in a month. It was enough to just about get by if supplemented by other jobs like collecting empty aluminum cans. An emergency overnight shelter also opened [4]. Every evening, tickets for beds are passed out in front of the Airin Center, allowing someone to stay until 5am. There is a shower and toilet on one side of the building and a large room filled with rows of bunk beds. These initiatives were made possible by the 2002 Law to Help Homeless People Gain Independence (Hōmuresu jiritsu shien hō), which greatly increased national funding for anti-homelessness programs; the movement to enact that law actually began in Kamagasaki.


[Figure 2: Inside the Airin Center. During the day people stay here to escape heat or cold]

[Figure 2: Inside the Airin Center. During the day people stay here to escape heat or cold.]

The 2008 Lehman Shock caused a sudden spike in the number of people seeking public assistance. The doya were converted into welfare apartments where about 10,000 people lived on public assistance, though because of the high death rate that number has now fallen to about 8,500. Many of these people, who until recently had been working to support their livelihoods, suddenly found themselves with nothing to do. Spurred on by the workings of the poverty industry, they tended to lose themselves in gambling and alcohol, or even worse, become shut-ins and fall ill [5]. Solitary death and care for the dying became major issues.

Then, since around 2013, a project to redevelop one of the districts that neighbors Kamagasaki was completed. The redevelopment, which is just over ten minutes on foot from Kamagasaki now has the tallest building in Japan and a new shopping mall. When that happened Chinese investors began to invest in Kamagasaki itself, buying up doya and empty storefronts and turning them into karaoke bars and hotels. A giant pachinko parlor and a volume retailer were built on the former site of the Festivalgate development (this is explained further below). In the low-rent areas around Kamagasaki, hotels have sprung up, and many of the doya for day laborers have been rehabbed and are prospering as cheap places to stay that can be reserved online. Until very recently everything was oriented towards day laborers but now there are more and more businesses catering to foreign tourists and land prices and rent are rising. Yet still, as of the end of 2016, there were four hundred people using the emergency shelter and over one hundred living outdoors in Kamagasaki. As had always been true, people just released from prison and others with borderline mental and developmental disabilities continue to drift through, adding additional layers to the complexity of issues in the area.


3 The Cocoroom as Experiment

The Art NPO, Cocoroom, is my workplace and a site for social experiment. Its official name is “Incorporated Nonprofit, Room of Voice (koe), Words (kotoba), and Soul (kokoro).” Voice is the expression of life, words are expression in response, and the soul is the wings for imagination. As the full name indicates, Cocoroom is exploring how these different aspects of expression can engage with society or not. I believe that people expressing to each other and building up conversation over time enriches life for them. The Cocoroom started in 2003 as one participating group in an Osaka City project to build spaces for contemporary art in the multi-story urban amusement park, Festivalgate, in Naniwa Ward’s Shinsekai district. Festivalgate was planned at the height of the bubble years and opened in 1997. Osaka City had entrusted 3.5 acres of land to four trust banks for development by the banks. Within a few years after opening it had fallen into economic stagnation and in 2002 the city invited art non-profits to make use of the building. Four art non-profits participated, including the Cocoroom, but by 2007 this too had reached an impasse and the building was closed.


[Figure 3: The Shinsekai Festivalgate amusement park where we started the Cocoroom in 2003. (The park has since been demolished.)]

[Figure 3: The Shinsekai Festivalgate amusement park where we started the Cocoroom in 2003. (The park has since been demolished.)]

[Figure 4: The Nishinari Ward shopping street where we moved the café in 2008]

[Figure 4: The Nishinari Ward shopping street where we moved the café in 2008.]

In 2008, the Cocoroom moved to a shopping street in Nishinari Ward, right on the border of Kamagasaki. As soon as we moved into the new space I became interested in Kamagasaki and began to make connections there. I felt it was wrong how much people detested this area that had supported Japan’s high economic growth and developed an intuitive interest in the depth of expression among the oppressed people who lived there. Because I assumed that no one would want to come and visit the offices of an art non-profit, from the very beginning the Cocoroom put up a front as a coffee shop. What changed when the Cocoroom moved from Festivalgate to Kamagasaki was that very few art-related people came to visit anymore. Who began to come instead were the day laborers and welfare recipients who had ended up in Kamagasaki with no family or place to go. Nowadays more art people and researchers come, but for some time after the move it was only people with an eccentricity or two that were stopping by. Gradually, we were able to cultivate a relationship with the area but, due to the ageing population and the increase in karaoke bars and vigorous land investment, the Cocoroom café has fallen on hard times economically. For this reason we opened the Cocoroom Guesthouse Café and Garden in the same street in April 2016, as a business that would connect to tourists. We made a space for expression, where travelers and local people can meet each other and share memories and experiences [6].


[Figure 5: The Guesthouse and Café we opened in 2016 in the same shopping street]

[Figure 5: The Guesthouse and Café we opened in 2016 in the same shopping street.]

[Figure 6: A room in the Guesthouse that was a collaborative work by Morimura Yasumasa and local workers]

[Figure 6: A room in the Guesthouse that was a collaborative work by MORIMURA Yasumasa and local workers.]


Because it is a coffee shop, anyone can wander into the Cocoroom. But it differs from a normal coffee shop in that there are people who come without money, people who come just to chat, and people who bring issues of all sorts that they need to discuss. We form comfortable relationships with people who come and that leads to opportunities for expression. The interior of the store and guesthouse are crammed with displays of local people’s work. It also serves as a space for small talk sessions, live performances, and workshops.

In making this space where anyone can come and go as they please, and in making it a space that is safe for expression, there’s something I’ve come to understand. Which is that when people can feel deep in their soul (kokoro) that their existence is being affirmed, that they are not being rejected or ignored, they can express themselves with ease. The fact that people who have lived in harsh, oppressive environments cannot freely express themselves is not a problem of the individual person. People become paralyzed, anaesthetized when they are isolated in their social environment and in relations with others. Of course, all people are isolated. But the isolation that underwrites people’s existence as individuals also has the paradoxical power to give birth to relations with other people. Detached isolation is different. The Cocoroom believes in the power of expression as something that affirms and gives shape to the isolation we all live, and is trying to realize a society where the diversity it implies and makes possible is mutually embraced.

That is our grand mission, but our everyday operations at the coffee shop are very subdued and mundane: we talk with the people who come in, eat some food, try to keep things organized—that is our everyday work. Our revenue comes from café profits, grants, and donations in a ratio of roughly 3:4:3. Daily operations are tough but we have kept operating thanks to the hard work of our staff. The Cocoroom is also a space where young people can build their own workplace. Even on a limited salary, they make and eat meals together and earn enough money for daily life, and the staff recognizes the Cocoroom as a space where they can pursue work that they are passionate about. It is also a step up into other kinds of work. We currently have three full-time staff, four part-timers, and on any given day a number of people with disabilities who work with us: we are registered with an agency that arranges short-term employment for the disabled.

But as we approach our fourteenth year, it has become difficult to continue our activities. We currently do not receive any ongoing subsidy from the government and are instead applying for grants. The grants are not all art-related; we have tackled a variety of issues including employment assistance, community business, welfare, healthcare, and urban development because the Cocoroom’s activities explore ways to tackle various issues with expression as the main axis. But it is difficult to apply for the same grant over and over again so there are fewer and fewer grants we can apply for. The sudden increase in karaoke bars in Kamagasaki has led to a drop in the number of older men frequenting the café, which has hurt the revenue of the coffee shop. High staff turnover, the result of such low pay, is another reason why the old men sometimes avoid coming because it can make them feel uncomfortable. In the past we have tried many different activities that go beyond the realm of an art organization’s typical work: for two years, for example, we managed an apartment building where about 80 people receiving public welfare lived, attempting to make the building’s common area into a space for expression. As a new project, we renovated an apartment building with a large, wild garden in the same street as the café and began running it as a 35-bed guesthouse, the Cocoroom Guesthouse Café and Garden. Things are not going well, though, and we continue to struggle. It is in these ways that the Cocoroom is a place of social experiment.


4 In Order to Support Expression, Everyone in the Space Must be Mindful

There are truly all kinds of people living in Kamagasaki. People from outside the area also come to visit the café. Homeless people, people on public assistance, people with handicaps and illnesses, former shut-ins and former criminals, people with drug and alcohol addictions, people with problems. When our relationships with these people become too rigid we find it important to be able to shake things up, move sideways, and laugh.

4.1 Learning the Origin of Expression from Yasu-san

Not long after we opened, there was an elderly man who began to come about five times a day. He never ordered anything so he never paid any money. He was a troublemaker; he often got suddenly angry or violent and pestered people for money; it was a difficult situation. The staff asked that we bar him from the store. But rather than try to persuade him not to come, each time he caused trouble we told him that we wanted the space to be somewhere that was comfortable for everyone. Since he came so often we invited him to join the workshops we held at the shop, but he never participated. One day, after a year and a half behaving like this, we invited him to join our Letter Writing Workshop. I was expecting him to say no but he said “I’ll do it,” and sat down next to me with a pen. As he started to write, he asked “how do I write a hiragana ‘ki?’” I showed him on a separate piece of paper and we did that over and over until he had completed his letter. It was addressed to the director of the orphanage where Yasu-san had grown up from infancy. All that time I had failed to imagine that he did not know how to write. Now I understood why he had not participated in workshops. No one wants to be discovered to be illiterate. But after a year and a half, deep in his soul (kokoro) he was finally able to trust that the Cocoroom was a space where people would not laugh at him or tease him for asking how to write. He started to trust in the place.

After that it was like the floodgates had been opened. He painted pictures, the subject of his ramblings opened out, and he was able to say things he could not before—things like sorry and thank you. What he demonstrated was that in order for a place to be a place where anyone can express themselves, everyone in it needs to work together to fully recognize each other’s existence. I had coined the phrase “to express is to live” as our slogan, but realized through Yasu-san that expression is not an individual capacity, but something born in interaction with one’s surroundings. It is not the responsibility of an individual if they are unable to express themselves well; it is something that is made together with the people around them. It is easy to forget that people live by interacting with others and that no one is able to live entirely by themselves. I believe that society will never work by simply dismissing difficult people who express themselves poorly from the space of expression. Expression is intimately connected to living, and the kind of expression necessary to live cannot be achieved within a logic of exclusion.


[Figure 7: How does copying result in an original work?]

[Figure 7: How does copying result in an original work?]

[Figure 8: A look of satisfaction upon completion]

[Figure 8: A look of satisfaction upon completion.]


4.2 Provisional Families. Mutual Involvement Without Blood Relation

As people get older, reading print gets harder too. The Cocoroom has a variety of reading glasses for people to use. You cannot share dentures but having a few pairs of spare reading glasses comes in handy. Old Kame-san is someone who liked to read a book when he came to the Cocoroom by himself. And he would always go for the same book. When I asked him if it was a good book, he replied “the print’s big” and when I looked I saw the print was as big as headlines. So I bought a picture book and put it out on the counter to see what would happen, a book by TANIKAWA Shuntarō called Tomodachi (Friends).

Many of the old men who live in Kamagasaki have cut all relations with family and are said to have weak interpersonal connections. They share information with each other out on the corner, they are kind, they start friendly conversations with people sitting next to them in the café, and sometimes pay for each other’s lunches. But they never ask for real names or tell anyone where they are heading when they leave. The doya life is hand to mouth. Back in the days when there was work to be found it was not so much of a problem, but now that many are living on public assistance, this norm of non-involvement can heighten the sense of isolation. People tend to retreat to their rooms and become shut-ins. If they get sick, medical costs can balloon, leaving many to die a solitary, unnoticed death. If there was a major emergency, the fact that nobody knows who is living where and what needs they have could result in great harm. It takes courage and effort for anyone to build relationships with other people. But it is also true that connections make big things possible.

Old Kame-san was one person who became aware of connection in that way. In 2013 the local Ward Office initiated a program aimed at building social connected-ness among social welfare recipients and the Cocoroom participated in the design and programming. He registered in the program and made some friends as he started to participate. Invited by another old man who was a theater fan, he began performing shin-kigeki (lit. “new comedy,” a genre of troupe-based comedy that is heavy on slapstick and gags). He performed shin-kigeki publicly at the Yokohama Museum of Art the following year, 2014, when he joined a Kamagasaki University of the Arts excursion to the Yokohama Triennale, where the work of the University was on exhibit. (I talk about the Kamagasaki University of the Arts more below.) It seemed like he had made a complete change from his former life, when he was hardly speaking to anyone.


[Figure 9: Making a tough life into a performance]

[Figure 9: Making a tough life into a performance.]

[Figure 10: At the end of the kyōgen performance at the 2014 Yokohama Triennale]

[Figure 10: At the end of the kyōgen performance at the 2014 Yokohama Triennale.]

A few days after I left the picture book on the counter in the café, Old Kame-san picked it up to have a look. When my four year-old daughter saw him holding it, she sat down in the seat next to him at the counter and pestered him to read it to her. He was probably surprised that a child was suddenly asking him to read to her but he did not let on and began to read slowly in a gentle voice.

Even if they like different things a friend is a friend.
Even if they speak different languages a friend is a friend.
Even if they are different ages a friend is a friend.

This image of a man who had started making friends again at the age of seventy, sharing time with a child of four reading a book, was filled with warmth for me. I was working a little apart from them and listened to his voice as he read.

Family is imbued with all sorts of roles, norms, and fantasies in our society. It is not an exaggeration to call it a spell. But there is no way for a family to grow if it remains forever under one roof. I think having a provisional family is a good thing: to get away from family sometimes and invite outsiders and the unrelated in. But in the same way as a family, being with people as they are, without trying to distinguish which parts you like or do not like about them. This kind of involvement provides an excellent chance to learn diverse values.

[Figure 11: With the picture book Tomodachi (Friends) in hand]

[Figure 11: With the picture book Tomodachi (Friends) in hand.]

4.3 A Manner of Speaking Can Change the Future

I will introduce one more story: that of Old Kuri-san. He first came into the Cocoroom based on the misapprehension that it was a non-profit for social welfare-type aid; he is someone who often gets caught up in his own thoughts. He came back again after a few days and, with no indication that he realized he could order a drink or anything, he began to relate in a loud voice how wretched his life had been. When anyone tried to get a word in he just continued on in an even more furious tone. After a while he seemed to realize that the Cocoroom was not an aid organization, but his behavior did not change. I kept encouraging him to attend Kamagasaki University of the Arts if he had things to say that he wanted others to listen to so badly but he always gave an obstinate “no way” in reply. About a year had passed when I asked him again if he wanted to come and he said “I’ll give it a try but if I still don’t like it after a year I’m going to kill myself.” It was an extreme statement but that was just the way he talks.

He began to attend the University very diligently. He took a class on writing original kyōgen (a comedic form of kabuki) and when he produced a script based on his own hopelessness and performed it at a Noh theater the audience was applauding and cheering by the end of it. In a course on poetry writing, however, where participants were supposed to interview one another and make a poem based on it, he was fine being interviewed but was unable to ask his partner questions and listen to the answers. The poem he composed was one based on his own arbitrary imagining of the other person. Though it missed the point of the writing exercise he continued to participate in that way. There were a few times the intensity of his self-absorption was simply too much for us to deal with, but it might have been the same self-absorption that enabled him to keep attending the classes. He had a few big fights with both staff and other participants, slamming the door on the way out and declaring he was “never coming again.” But on some occasions he came back a few hours later and apologized. One day he asked, “Do you know why I keep coming here?” We did not. He continued, “It’s because you invited me to dinner.”

We always have lunch and dinner that we call a “staff meal”, where staff and customers sit down to eat together. The customers have to pay. Old Kuri-san hardly ever ordered anything when he came to the Cocoroom. But the café was so small in those days that when everyone who was eating sat down at the table together, we had to acknowledge the people sitting at the counter before we started eating so I would call out to them: “Are you eating with us?” That is what he remembered as me inviting him to dinner. I did not have any clear recollection of inviting him to dinner—it was just part of the routine. But he remembered it. People talk about a manner of speaking, and it really is the manner in which you say things that makes a difference. Someone who was so used to being excluded probably had not been invited to dinner with other people very much. If I had said, “You’re not eating with us, right? We’re going to go ahead and start then,” it would not have had the same effect. Functionally speaking it is the same statement, the way it is phrased is the only difference.

Yasu-san from above was also someone who, for the first few years, could not imagine sitting down to a meal together with us. Eating together with Yasu-san eventually became one vignette in the daily routine. On days he got his social welfare money he would come and buy a “staff meal ticket”, eventually even entrusting his money to us for safekeeping.

That one phrase where we invited him to eat with us was not what changed him, but it was something that came up at just the right moment, when other elements around him were also changing, and when he himself felt he wanted to change. The future is not set. For that very reason we should think carefully about the apertures opening or closing in our usage of words so as not to shut things and people out. From within the steady accumulation of such efforts, I believe that an autonomous future is possible. That is the hope I think. It is not like a goal or something you want to become in future, but a modest hope like knitting together many tiny openings.


5 When people who want to learn from each other get together, it’s a university – Kamagasaki University of the Arts.

Around 2011 we could see the area’s population aging faster right before our eyes, as the number of people walking along the shopping street where the café is located decreased. It was as if the sphere of activity among the older men was gradually narrowing. We decided that what the neighborhood needed was a university, and in 2012 Kamagasaki University of the Arts (abbreviated Kama Gei) was born. We delivered courses to meeting spaces in various facilities located around the neighborhood. We borrowed space in a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, a church involved in alcohol addiction, etc., because they were places that the old men were familiar with. We held all kinds of classes: philosophy, music, dance, astronomy, poetry, Gamelan, and comedy. We built Kama Gei as a place where all kinds of people could meet and learn from each other: elite professors and local people and people from outside the neighborhood. Classes are free and donations welcome. It is fine for someone to just show up to one class. While Kama Gei was born of the same basic principle of place-making as the Cororoom it is funded separately: the university is managed with each year’s grant money and whatever donations can be brought in. We currently hold about a hundred courses a year and have a graduate school. We are operating now with annual grant money from a foundation of ¥1-2 million (US$10,000-US$20,000), but we need to consider how we would keep going if we were not awarded any funding in future.

[Figure 12: Courses are held in meeting spaces in various facilities around the neighborhood. This is a shelter space operated by Franciscans where people are free to come and go]

[Figure 12: Courses are held in meeting spaces in various facilities around the neighborhood. This is a shelter space operated by Franciscans where people are free to come and go.]

[Figure 13: The Kama Gei exhibit at the 2014 Yokohama Triennale. Various phrases written in ink were mounted on the ceiling]

[Figure 13: The Kama Gei exhibit at the 2014 Yokohama Triennale. Various phrases written in ink were mounted on the ceiling.]

Kama Gei was invited to participate in the 2014 Yokohama Triennale; we reconstructed the inside of the Cocoroom for the exhibition. Since then we have been invited to exhibit in a few places, including in Taiwan and at Arts Maebashi in Gunma Prefecture. In preparing to participate in the Triennale, I was concerned about the question of what people were supposed to see in Kama Gei. People have called me a “phony” and an “opportunist” in the past. Others have said, “Why don’t you produce your own works, instead of getting involved with these poor needy people?” But the most common criticism relates to the issue of artistic “quality”. People say that the expressions of people who, like those in Kamagasaki, have not spent a lot of time training are of low quality. I think this idea shows no regard for people who grow up in environments with no opportunities for training, but the discourse of academic arts does not support this kind of expression anyway. There is the genre of Art Brut, but in Japan that is often associated with art of the mentally ill or of those with an obsession with transcendent expression and the art of the Cocoroom hardly ever falls into those categories.

As a result, at each turning point in our activities at the Cocoroom, we have weaved our own words for what we are doing and searched out interlocutors regardless of what sector they come from. So I prepared myself for criticism. But then I decided to be defiant and just keep saying that I liked the expressions of these old men no matter what other people said about them. The exhibition unfolded as a manifestation of that feeling, in overwhelming quantities of things that were not-quite-artworks—letters and scraps of notepaper, newspaper clippings people had brought us, manuscripts we had edited when we were feeling down, pictures that looked like doodles. It was such a messy jumble that the people helping install it were not sure which items were garbage and which were supposed to be displayed. The display was forthright, and it gave me the feeling that something broke through. Still today people occasionally show up at the Cocoroom saying they got interested when they saw the exhibition at the Triennale and had been wanting to visit.

[Figure 14: Presentation of work done at Kama Gei held in the garden behind the Cocoroom. The event is called “Kamagasaki Oh!Pera.”]

[Figure 14: Presentation of work done at Kama Gei held in the garden behind the Cocoroom. The event is called “Kamagasaki Oh!Pera.”]

[Figure 15: The day of the “Kamagasaki Oh!Pera” is a special day. It is important that the next day the performers continue to get together as they usually would]

[Figure 15: The day of the “Kamagasaki Oh!Pera” is a special day. It is important that the next day the performers continue to get together as they usually would.]

[Image 16: People from Kamagasaki performing by invitation at the 2016 BeSeTo Theater Festival in Tottori. On these trips buying souvenirs to bring back is a special pleasure because it shows they have someone to give them to]

[Image 16: People from Kamagasaki performing by invitation at the 2016 BeSeTo Theater Festival in Tottori. On these trips buying souvenirs to bring back is a special pleasure because it shows they have someone to give them to.]


6 Every so Often, We Break Through the Gaps

The great importance of apprehending the gap between person and person, and treating it seriously day in and day out, is something I have talked and written about a lot. But I have realized that I aspire to break through that gap sometimes too.

I spoke to the media a lot for the Yokohama Triennale. I agreed to every media request that came to me because I really wanted to go to Yokohama together with all the old men and was in the middle of a crowdfunding campaign for it. “What are you trying to say at the Triennale?”,  “What are your plans after this?” Though I kept answering all the inquiries, the discomfort it gave me made my throat dry. I was just putting out a question, it was up to other people to think about it for themselves, not me. I will keep asking my questions but they are probably not the same as your questions. The words that appeared in print and in the media were so hard and formal their arrangement seemed unrelated to me. The artistic director MORIMURA Yasumasa had a similar impression. After the Triennale, Morimura had the idea of creating a Kama Gei Graduate School. Being a graduate school meant that students developed their own topic, which they undertook to research, put together, and write up. The graduate school’s overarching theme was, “Talk about beauty in your own words. Talk about beauty from Kamagasaki.” This effectively created an academic society for aesthetics. Even if it was faltering and crooked, people had to talk about beauty not through delegates and spokespeople but by means of their own embodied selves. We had finally arrived at the mission that had been the pillar of the Cocoroom for such a long time.

After Yokohama, Kama Gei has been holding satellite classes in Fukushima and Hachinohe in the Tōhoku region, Tottori, Nara, Nishinari High School, Tsurumibashi Middle School, and elsewhere. For cities and areas with serious depopulation, Kama Gei is taken to be a way building interconnections and giving value to life. At educational institutions, young people have a chance to meet older people and there are dimensions that speak to the human right to education. We have also had the chance to hold two Kama Gei exhibitions in Taiwan. People were interested in the way our work addresses urban and regional problems and reminds us of things lost in the process of modernization. People were also interested in how had we kept the Cocoroom going for over ten years without ongoing subsidies or institutional support.

Art’s boundaries are expanding in ways that depend on the social context. In some contexts art is even used for gentrification. In such a setting, what role should we play? How can people from various fields maintain and strengthen ties of solidarity to make places where diverse people can feel comfortable? I sense a rising interest in art as a practice of surviving.

In my daily work I try to treat every day as precious, but even so, relationships and thinking have a tendency to become rigid. Then I become aware of something standing in the way that makes it impossible to fill the gaps. I have countless such experiences of being unable to fill the gaps. A young man with no money or social connections showed up once. He told me his story and I let him sleep in the Cocoroom overnight. After two weeks staying with us he punched one of the staff members and I had to ask him to leave. On another occasion the café was broken into at night and the money from the day’s sales was stolen. The next day a person who had become able to sustain communication with others over the course of coming to the Cocoroom for a few years, disappeared from Kamagasaki and was never heard from again. There are people who after years of building up new relations with others show discrimination against other ethnicities or minorities when the situation arises. People come who are high on drugs or are impossible to communicate with because of mental illness. Con-men come, and people trying to extort money, and people who are violent. People have walked in holding knives and pipes. We call the police when we need to protect ourselves. One day we called them four separate times. In such cases we have to consider carefully whether to file a damage report. No matter what the situation is I put great value on expressing my emotions at the time. If a person later comes to ask forgiveness and I do not want to because it feels too sudden, I tell them that. Even at times when my voice catches because I am too scared or surprised, I try to say something, even just “ah” or “oh.” If I am able to express myself calmly then I tell the person what I object to and tell them they should come back after they have changed the thinking that got them to that point. But it rarely works; it almost always ends in deadlock.

Nevertheless, life happens only once and we cannot change places with anyone else. Having recognized one’s powerlessness and released one’s mind and body we can still break through the unfillable gaps from time to time. When that happens a slightly different scene becomes visible; seeing from a different angle can renew the world. Every day still repeats itself as we break through the gaps again and then come back to where we were, repeating the cycle over and over. I think expression is what pushes this movement along. By trying to put something into words or by expressing something through your attitude, another person will sometimes respond, creating a change today that did not exist yesterday.


Translated by Justin Jesty.


UEDA Kanayo was born in 1969, in Yoshino, Nara Prefecture. She began writing poetry at age three and began reciting it at seventeen. In 1992 she started holding poetry workshops. In 2001 she declared herself a poet and in 2003 opened the Cocoroom. She continues to develop projects rooted in the neighborhood of Nishinari (commonly called Kamagasaki) such as the Kamagasaki University of the Arts and the Cocoroom Guesthouse Café and Garden. She received a 2014 New Artist Award from the Agency for Cultural Affairs, in the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, and Science.



[1] Kurihara Akira, “Sonzai no araware” no seiji—Minamatabyō to iu shisō (The politics of “being appearance”: the philosophy of Minamata disease) (2005); Ueda Kanayo, Kamagasaki de hyōgen no ba o tsukuru kissaten, Cocoroom (Cocoroom, the coffee shop making a place for expression in Kamagasaki) (2016).

[2] Translator note: dissociative communication (ikōtsū) is a word Kurihara uses to denote social interchange that operates through and enables difference. In contrast, associative communication (futakōtsū) operates through and tends towards commonality. Guest and host are examples of incommensurable positions which operate through dissociative communication. Kurihara’s theory of autonomy (jiritsu) and self-governance (jichi) hinges on the individual being able to host incommensurable difference within themselves, allowing them to play different roles to themselves and to accommodate unknowability within. The sommelier is a role that he suggests is parallel to that of art: it is a third position (neither guest nor host) which aids dissociative communication. The English translation of ikōtsū comes from Kurihara himself, fax to Ueda Kanayo, June 1, 2017.

[3] For more information on Kamagasaki in Japanese, see HARAGUCHI Takeshi, SHIRAHASE Tatsuya, HIRASAWA Taka’aki, and INADA Nanami, Kamagasaki no susume (Kamagasaki recommendations) (2011); KANDA Seiji, Kamagasaki ujō (Living Kamagasaki) (2012); HARAGUCHI Takeshi, Sakebi no toshi: yoseba, Kamagasaki, ryūdōteki kasōrōdō (City of cries: day-labor camps, Kamagasaki, mobile low class workers); IKUTA Takeshi, Kamagasaki kara: hinkon to yajuku no Nihon (Out of Kamagasaki: poverty and street-living in Japan) (2016); SHIRAHASE Tatsuya, Hinkon to chiiki: Airin jiku kara miru kōreika to koritsushi (Poverty and region: looking at aging and solitary death from Airin) (2017). For information in English about the experience of low class labor in Japan, see Shirō ŌYAMA, A Man with No Talents: Memoirs of a Tokyo Day Laborer (2005); Hideo AOKI, Japan’s Underclass: Day Laborers and the Homeless (2006); Tom GILL, Men of Uncertainty: the Social Organization of Day Laborers in Contemporary Japan (2001); Tom Gill, Yokohama Street Life: The Precarious Career of a Japanese Day Laborer (2015); and Brett de Bary, “Sanya: Japan’s Internal Colony,” and Yuki TANAKA, “Nuclear Power Plant Gypsies in High-Tech Society,” in Joe Moore, ed., The Other Japan: Conflict, Compromise, and Resistance Since 1945 (1997).

[4] The shelter is the Airin Emergency Overnight Temporary Shelter, established in 2001. Tickets are distributed every evening at around 5:30 and a person can stay from 6pm to 5am the next morning. You can only get tickets one night at a time. When it opened it had 1,040 beds, but that number has fallen to around 500 as the number of people living on the street has decreased.

[5] The poverty industries in Japan operate much as they do in the United States: gambling and high-interest loan schemes disproportionately target the poor and dispossessed.

[6] Ueda Kanayo, Kamagasaki de hyōgen no ba o tsukuru kissaten, Cocoroom (Cocoroom, the coffee shop making a place for expression in Kamagasaki) (2016).