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A Report on the Kyosei Summer School, 2019: Reflection on cohabitation including both human and non-human


The RESPECT program in collaboration with the Department of Kyosei Studies in the Graduate School of Human Sciences, Osaka University, invited students from the University of Toronto to participate in the Kyosei Summer School for 8 days. During the fieldwork, we visited the Kamagasaki area in Nishinari Ward and held discussions on the actual conditions of day laborers living in poverty. In addition, through the sessions on Minamata disease in Kumamoto and explorations of the Ibaraki River, a river running through Ibaraki City, Osaka, we learned about the history of infrastructure and local people in waterfront areas. In this report, we would like to describe our findings in the fieldwork in Kamagasaki and in the sessions on life in waterfront areas.

Kamagasaki: Whose voice would tell us the truth?

[Pic. 1]The former Airin Labor Welfare Center in Kamagasaki (photo by Nakagawa).

[Pic. 2]The inner part of cheap accommodations in Kamagasaki (photo by Tamada).

The time spent in Kamagasaki provoked the question how we can relate to people who have different thoughts and values. Before venturing into Kamagasaki for fieldwork to listen to the voices of the workers as well as many of their supporters, we were given a lecture on the area from Professor Tatsuya Shirahase, a sociologist at Momoyama Gakuin University. He informed us of the history of the area and the reasons behind the problems faced by the people living there, such as how the local administration gathered and kept day laborers in this area. The Kamagasaki area is known for its function of providing day-laborers with employment. The situation in which the day-laborers are placed is severe, and from the history Kamagasaki has gone through, it is clear that there is a need not just to provide support but also to advocate for the voices of the workers as well.

However, we experienced a situation that made us realize the difficulty of truly listening to the voices of the daily laborers. During the fieldwork, we participated in a session where the day-laborers talked about their lives under the guidance of their supporters. When the day-laborers were asked about their present situation, one of them said that he was very content and happy even though he was not wealthy. At this moment, though, he was prompted by the supporters to talk about the life struggle he had experienced. Considering that it is almost impossible for an outsider to fully understand the situation of the field just by visiting for a day, it seemed crucial for the supporters to intervene so that we could be exposed to the problems in Kamagasaki. However, it was hard for us to decide if the words expressed at that moment by the day-laborer were genuine. It seems he accepted his situation, but was perhaps unwilling to share with strangers, especially those from another country, more intimate details of the actual struggles he faced on a day to day basis. We felt as if we were intruding into his private life and that the supporters were pressurizing him into presenting an image of Kamagasaki that they wished us to experience. Certainly, the graduate students from the University of Toronto were concerned about this as they expressed in later discussions back in the classroom.

As outsiders, we need to be aware that we may have been pushing the informants into our pre-determined definition of their circumstances and consequently attempted to manipulate them into talking about their struggles and problems. It is essential for an outsider to fully understand the whole picture of a situation in order to fight for the rights of the most vulnerable. Therefore, it is important to realize that a brief visit to an area such as Kamagasaki cannot really provide us with a true understanding of the problems and that we have to be careful not to pre-judge the situation based upon what we have been told. In fact, for many of the students from Toronto, the area did not seem so bad compared to other such areas around the world and they were surprised how clean and organized the area was. The few hours spent in the area were not enough for them to actually experience the true nature of the place and it seems the supporters tried to make the day-laborers talk more about the problems, which they did not want to do. From this experience, we learnt it is necessary to be more aware of the effect of our presence and always to have an open-minded attitude towards others to truly know one another.

Ibaraki: Life with Water

[Pic. 3]Walking tour at the Ibaraki river (photo by Gergely Mohacsi).

[Pic. 4]Students who participated KSS (photo by Gergely Mohacsi).

While we discussed how people relate to other people through the fieldwork in Kamagasaki, the summer school also made us think about how people relate to non-human entities such as rivers, seas, and the animals and plants that live in and around water. During the weeklong seminar, we considered the connections between people and infrastructure in the cases of the Ibaraki River and Minamata.

The Ibaraki River runs through Ibaraki City, Osaka. The Ibaraki River was once redirected to join the Ai River, another river flowing in a nearby area, in 1941. The present Ibaraki River has high and strong embankments on both sides, and it seems unlikely that people will be exposed to immediate danger when it rains. However, the former Ibaraki River often flooded and damaged towns and villages. In order to protect their lives and livelihoods from “a dangerous river,” people built dikes, an example of “infrastructure”.

The lives of the people in Minamata, too, are connected to a river and the sea. However, from the time when the Chisso Corporation’s chemical plant released methylmercury into the sea, even though fish floated dead in the water, animals moved in strange ways and the suffering of many people living around the sea became apparent, people in Minamata did not try to build a wall against this “dangerous sea.” Instead, they fought against Japan’s move towards “modernization,” which negatively impacted on human life. “Infrastructure” for them was not material necessities such as walls between themselves and the sea but the necessity to clean the sea to enable themselves to keep living in the area.

The lesson we can learn from these two examples of Minamata disease and the Ibaraki River is that the concept of infrastructure is more complicated than we might think: it changes according to the lives and lifestyles of the residents which have developed throughout the long histories of these areas.

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In summary, conflict will occur when various human and non-human entities try to live together. In the fieldwork in Kamagasaki, we learnt that it is important to listen carefully to and engage with the people living there. But it is something that needs time and cannot be achieved in a few hours. It is necessary to respect the people living there, and not push them into talking about things that maybe invades their privacy, otherwise we can end up mistakenly assuming we are helping them when in actuality we are merely patronizing them. We could learn from Professor Shirahase that infrastructure and history has contributed to the problems faced by the people living in Kamagasaki. Furthermore, the study of infrastructure during the Kyosei Summer School also allowed us to appreciate how the two different “infrastructures” observed at the Ibaraki River and in Minamata, have arisen not only from the traditions and culture of the residents, but also as a result of the history of the areas, which include natural disasters and social issues. This investigation into ideas on how we can engage with both human and non-human beings was an integral part of the “Landscapes of Cohabitation” seminar which constituted the Kyosei Summer School of 2019.

(October 2, 2019, Nagisa Fujihara, Koto Kihara, Kaho Nakagawa, Natsumi Tamada and Eri Yamamoto)

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