Manga with a Message

Cartoon creator tackles the ‘other side’ of the Rising Sun

By Brian Covert

Meet “Kamayan,” one of Japan’s fastest-rising stars in the cartoon world known as manga.

Like many of his comrades in the manga community, Kamayan is clever, warm-hearted and adventurous — always encountering new plot twists yet never disappointing readers with his hilarious antics.

But at the same time, the pudgy, unshaven Kamayan is an anomaly in the mainstream manga lifestyle: He is homeless, jobless, without family and living in a real-life slum district that is home to about 25,000 Japanese and foreign day laborers in the southside Osaka district of Kamagasaki.

Although Kamayan (Osaka dialect for “Kama-san” of Kamagasaki) is a fictitious composite character of such day laborers, the surroundings that engulf him are true to life. Few people in Japan know this environment better than 41-year-old
Sen Arimura, an 18-year employee of the nearby Nishinari Labor Welfare Center and creator of the character Kamayan.

“You’ve heard of the ‘bird’s-eye’ view. Well, looking at society from ground level at Kamagasaki gives you a ‘bug’s-eye’ view,” says Arimura, gesturing with his hands. “When you see society from the bottom up, you see a much different angle. You can view a very shameful side — how Japanese society is so distorted and confused. And when things are distorted, they look funny.”

Arimura created Kamayan in 1977 as part of the labor center’s newsletter. The comic became so popular that manga publishers began including the cartoon strips in more accepted mainstream magazines such as “Young Comic.” Arimura has since published four manga books in the last seven years.

While most mainstream manga artists reach deep into their imagination for stories, Arimura simply reaches into the streets. He attests that he had never drawn a manga frame in his life before coming to work at Kamagasaki, which has been officially renamed by the authorities as the Airin (Neighborly Love) district in an attempt to clean up the area’s image. Arimura says soon after his arrival at the labor center here, he was deeply inspired to pick up the pen by the wealth of untold stories he saw around him.

“There are many interesting people here and each one has their own drama, their own history,” he says. “By looking at the funny side of these people and describing them, I can express the whole of Japanese society. Doing this has made the last 15 years (of manga drawing) seem very short.”

A day in the life of Kamayan is just like that of any real day worker in Kamagasaki. He gets up at the crack of dawn to search for work during the “morning rush” at the local labor center: There he finds dozens of
tehaishi (recruiters) with their vans or trucks, enticing the shuffling male workers — average age 52 and single — into the vans with sales-type pitches of good pay, brief commuting and easy work. According to Arimura, many such “recruiters” or “work suppliers” act as acknowledged go-betweens for various types of companies, usually leading construction firms, and are often affiliated with yakuza underworld criminal syndicates. It is an open secret to local police that many of these recruiters illegally take a cut of the workers’ daily wage of 13,000 yen, leaving even less for the laborers themselves to live on in their day-to-day existence.

At the end of Kamayan’s workday, he and his comrades are hauled from the construction sites back to Kamagasaki, where they camp out on the streets or in flophouses to get a few hours of
sake-induced sleep before repeating the same cycle the next day. It is a cycle of no escape for the majority of these down-on-their-luck workers, who come from all points between Okinawa in the south and Hokkaido in the north — and even from surrounding Asian countries.

Osaka police manage to keep a safe distance from the whole process by installing TV cameras at selected traffic intersections in the area, a move protested by many as a Big Brother-type of infringement of the workers’ right to privacy.

The resulting frustration among day laborers like Kamayan of being exploited by Japanese companies and harassed by the yakuza and police, Arimura explains, is the cause behind several major riots in the area in the past few decades — the last one in October 1992. Arimura includes such riots in his manga stories as well, emphasizing that the ingredients for many such future uprisings remain even now in Kamagasaki.

On occasion, Arimura’s Kamayan manages to leave the confines of Osaka and travel to ghettos in such foreign countries as the United States, the Philippines and Bangladesh, sharing a sense of camaraderie among the people living there. Such experiences are based on Arimura’s actual overseas travels.

But Arimura doesn’t stop at homelessness and poverty. Throughout his manga, the youthful-looking cartoonist also weaves in social commentary on subjects like Japan’s imperial system, questionable Japanese business practices abroad, political corruption in the Diet and Japanese military aggression in World War II — topics that more renowned manga artists would prefer to avoid.

“Manga without a message is monotonous. Something that criticizes society is much more interesting to me,” Arimura said. “On top of that, I want to report something new. I’d like to think of myself as half-manga artist, half-journalist: going out and reporting on such people through manga, using laughter and a sense of humor.”

But any humor involving Kamagasaki ends there. When he is not busy drawing manga or helping day laborers find work, Arimura is publicly calling on Japanese corporations to take more responsibility for the local “labor pool” in which they dip their cups by providing job-training programs and housing for such workers. So far, the response by the business community has been lukewarm at best.

Yet Arimura remains optimistic. He knows the power of manga in Japan and intends to continue doing what he has been for the last decade and a half: using his comics as a tool for raising public awareness of the plight of the nation’s manual laborers.

“In the beginning I thought my manga would be considered discriminatory, that I would be accused of prejudice, since it was the first time for anyone to draw such manga about this place and these conditions,” Arimura recalls. “But as it turned out, everyone laughed at them and befriended me.”

“Of course, there are people who don’t like my manga. One local shop owner complained about my drawing people who sleep in a park here. I was told not to draw such people, drunk people, for such a respectable magazine. I can understand his feelings. But in reality, the people who live here are overwhelmingly day laborers.”

Arimura looks through the window to the streets outside. “If I didn’t draw people like them, my manga would be a lie.”

Brian Covert is an American journalist, currently working as staff writer for the Mainichi Daily News newspaper in Osaka and as regional correspondent for the Tokyo bureau of UPI news service. He is devoted to Osaka and promoting its internationalization.