Yokohama, Japan - On a Saturday evening in Kotobuki, a dozen drunken old men fill an illegal gambling den in a dimly lit back alley for bets on powerboat races and other contests. They consume beer and glasses of cheap sake from vending machines, and smoke cigarettes while staring at banks of TVs. Few have money to wager; they simply have nowhere better to be.

Kotobuki is one of three traditional day-labourer districts in Japan, called doya-gai, where men have long lived in flophouse-style rooms (doya) and found work at nearby labour markets (yoseba).

The two other such areas are San'ya in Tokyo and Kamagasaki in Osaka. Despite their status as places of lodging and jobs, historically they have also attracted the homeless and destitute.

"It's a town where people who are having difficulties live in a civilised society," explained 66-year-old purple--haired Asyura Mizuno, a  nonprofit volunteer and Kamagasaki veteran.

An encampment for the homeless in San'ya, Tokyo, historically a cheap lodgings area (doya-gai) also attracts destitute people [Joe Jackson/Al Jazeera]

A neighbourhood of old men

United Nations and World Bank figures indicate that over the past two decades the elderly population in Japan has grown larger than in any other country, while the economy has continued to stagnate. The doya-gai districts, in particular, have diminished as a result.

The mainly male inhabitants of the areas are disproportionately older and sicker than elsewhere, and once-ubiquitous labouring work has receded amid recession and globalisation. Meanwhile, increased government assistance has reduced the homeless population.

As a result, the dynamics of doya-gai have shifted from self-sufficiency to dependency, with gentrification also creeping around the corners.

"Compared with 30 years ago, it's changed," Kazunori Yui, director of Sanyukai, a homeless nonprofit organisation active in San'ya, told Al Jazeera. "It's quite often said that this used to be a daily workers' town converted to a welfare town."

Kazunori Yui, director of nonprofit Sanyukai, which aids homeless people in Tokyo, said the situation has changed in the past decades [Joe Jackson/Al Jazeera]

Kamagasaki and Kotobuki were both created when slum districts were relocated there, in 1911 in Osaka and in the mid-1950s in Yokohama.

Meanwhile, San'ya grew around a once busy employment office. In their heydays after World War II, these places were home to hundreds of cheap lodgings catering to tens of thousands of men.

Sixty-nine-year-old Yuki Shinohara lives in room 413 of the run-down "Choseikan" lodging in Kotobuki. With the floor space of three tatami mats - around 5 square metres - it's crammed full with kitchenware, a TV, fridge, mattress, clothes, shoes and other items. Photos stuck to the wall are not of relatives - of which he has none left - but of young student volunteers who have visited him.

Shinohara was only 17 when his dad died. He followed his mother to Kotobuki to work on the docks. He's lived there on-and-off ever since, through five operations - including for lung cancer and a hernia - and the ups and downs of Japan's economy.

As friends have died or moved away, only a few familiar faces remain, and he sees them at a weekly food handout.

"There were plenty of reasons to stay … that's where my friends were and also it used to be where plenty of work was to be had," he reflected through a translator, noting that when he arrived in 1965 there was such demand for labour that he could work for two days straight.

"There are no jobs in Kotobuki any more."

Shinohara receives around 146,000 yen  ($1,253) monthly in government assistance, which he splits roughly between lodging and expenses.

"It's tough but not impossible," he added, noting he doesn't smoke or drink, which can be a drag on the budgets of many others.

Last year, the government reduced his housing allowance. "This lifestyle is getting gradually tougher … but I'm just more determined to get by on what I have. After all, I'm living on the good graces of the Japanese taxpayer."

Welfare recipients

Doya-gai became infamous in largely crime-free and orderly Japan as boisterous, rough-edged gathering places of potential danger, violence and occasional riots.

They have always had a strong presence of yakuza - the criminal underworld that controls everything from gambling to prostitution - and all are located near or alongside red-light districts, explained Tom Gill, a social anthropologist who has written books on the areas.

A yakuza-run red-light district in Osaka that straddles Kamagasakidoya-gai. The signs amid lanterns on either side of the street advertise prostitution [Joe Jackson/Al Jazeera]

Takeshi Kumagai, 50, a Kotobuki local who still works at the nearby docks, said the place "is more peaceful than it used to be. Before it wasn't unusual to see black eyes or blood; you don't see that very often these days."

The numbers tell their own stories. According to Hiroshi Ito of the Tokyo metropolitan government bureau of social welfare and public health, in 1963 San'ya, in northeast Tokyo, had 222 cheap lodgings. Today 157 remain, scattered through the area and increasingly interspersed with mixed-income homes. 

Officials don't regularly count their inhabitants. A 2012 survey conducted by the bureau revealed 3,099 people with an average age of 65 living here, of whom 87 percent claimed public assistance. 

"San'ya has changed really drastically," Ito, who is responsible for the homeless, told Al Jazeera. "It's mainly the ageing of the people because [our] policy hasn't changed that much."

In Osaka, officials estimate that around 19,000 people live in the roughly half square-mile-long Kamagasaki, the biggest doya-gai in Japan. However, the number of cheap lodgings has dropped from hundreds to just 54 because many were turned into apartments rented to former lodgers through government assistance.

Meanwhile, in Kotobuki - the smallest of the three districts, located near an upmarket tourist district in central Yokohama - officials counted 6,318 residents in 123 cheap lodgings in 2014, 68 percent of them aged over 60 and a majority on welfare. There, the number of such lodgings, which have historically been owned by ethnic Koreans, has actually been creeping up over the past 25 years.

"The reason for the increase is that running a doya has become a more profitable proposition with the transformation from day labourer to welfare recipient," explained Gill.

A day's work

The areas today appear unremarkable, featuring faceless grey buildings surrounded by subtle telltale signs of poverty and deprivation: rooms advertised by the night; men, who far outnumber women, wear outdated, tatty clothing and are darker skinned from years working outdoors; alcohol is prevalent; bicycles - a cheap transport - are commonplace.

As the able-bodied populations there have dwindled, and economic growth remained elusive, the once-integral daily job markets are slowly being replaced by online advertising, if technology hasn't already replaced the jobs they used to offer. 

The shutters of the cavernous Airin Public Labour Exchange in Kamagasaki still creak open daily at 5am. But on a Wednesday in December, only a small crowd of jobseekers waited.

A few dozen people early on a weekday morning last December at the Airin Public Labor Exchange in Osaka's Kamagasaki district [Joe Jackson/Al Jazeera]

Vehicles parked up displaying signs on windshields offering a day's work, in gardening - 10,000 yen ($85) or construction - 7,000 yen ($60).

After 8:30am, subsidised jobs for those over 55 - cleaning, rubbish collecting - are posted, while government services can also be accessed on a second floor.

"The number of people coming here looking for work has been drastically dropping," said Takeshi Fukutomi, an on-site city official. "The wage … it's not high enough for young people; [they] don't come here … they find employment elsewhere."

A 54-year-old man, Harada, had just returned from a night's maintenance work, earning 14,000 yen ($120). He has a daytime civil engineering business, but needed extra cash. "I think here, it's the bottom of Japanese society," he said through a translator.

The futures of the doya-gai look uncertain. Each area is home to shelter accommodation where newly homeless people can stay temporarily, so they will continue to attract those having hard times. But all are gentrifying: backpackers increasingly head there alongside new residents. Local officials - to varying degrees - are preparing for new eras.

Gentrification

The Tokyo metropolitan government has no grand plan for San'ya but maintains a long-standing policy of trying to rehouse those willing in apartments, and provide unemployment support payments, according to Ito.

He said the area was now appealing to apartment renters priced out elsewhere in the capital, but denied that gentrification was pushing underprivileged people out, pointing to the unchanged rates of the remaining lodgings, at 2,200 yen ($19) a night. "It's not happening in San'ya."

A park popular with homeless and destitute people in the heart of Kamagasaki district [Joe Jackson/Al Jazeera]

Yui, the nonprofit director, said despite the changes, it's still a gathering place for those who have nowhere else to go. He noted that foreign lodging owners and foreign guests - who first emerged during the 2002 World Cup - now make up around 10 percent of guests. "Even businessmen are coming [to stay]."

In Yokohama officials envisage that Kotobuki, which draws needy people from elsewhere to its government support offices, will grow as a hub for accessing services owing to its compact size.

"That's the biggest role we're playing right now," Odagiri Takumi, of the city's social welfare bureau, said via a translator. "We take it as an advantage."

In Osaka, the local government has a five-year plan to transform Kamagasaki. A gleaming commercial facility completed in 2014 in a neighbouring area and featuring the tallest skyscraper in Japan now looms large on the skyline.

Officials have created a special district with dedicated funding, and formed a 35-member committee to chart a future. Measures introduced include removing men sleeping rough from the streets; improving security with more police and enforcement of things such as illegal dumping and gambling; and offering better employment guidance and support.

But Mizuno, the wily volunteer and a committee member, is among the skeptics: "I'm kind of opposing making the town nicer because they might kick out the poor people."

Source: Al Jazeera