Outcast status of the traditional Japanese underclass persists in Tokyo's Sanya district. Known in Japanese as "burakumin" or "eta-hinin" this group was historically employed in the now-declining leather industry.
Cars rumble down “Bone Street.” Signs mark a neighborhood named “Bridge of Tears.” A district where members of an “untouchable” class called home. Is this India? Chechnya? Far from it – it’s a small area inside Tokyo a city of vast extremes.
The glitzy and hyperactive futurity of Shibuya contrasts sharply with the traditional charm of Asakusa. And off the spectrum in Tokyo’s North-East is Sanya a small neighborhood in the Taito Ward. But you won’t find the name “Sanya” on any city maps – supposedly it was removed because of the historical and social stigma of the area.
According to a local tool shop owner who declined to be named “There is no longer a geographical name called ‘Sanya.’ They just changed the name of the district that used to be called ‘Sanya’. Now it’s called ‘Higashi-Asakusa’, ‘Nihonzutsumi’ or ‘Kiyokawa.’ Sanya shows a darker side of traditional Tokyo with a simple, local appeal free of tourist kitsch and bustle.
A 6 minute ride on the Hibiya line from Ueno will take you to Minami-Senju Station. After leaving the station, walking over a pedestrian bridge and up the street you come to an intersection. The name of the point where Sanya begins hints at the neighbourhood’s historical status: at the intersection you will see signs for Namidabashi “Bridge of Tears” in Japanese. Beyond that is Sanya.
According to recent history, Namidabashi marks where centuries ago prisoners said their final goodbye’s to loved ones at a canal before they were taken to the adjacent Kozukappara execution grounds. Enmeiji Temple a short walk across the street from Minami-Senju Station sits near the former grounds, long since built over with railway tracks.
This street sign marks the traditional "Bridge of Tears" where prisoners bade farewell before execution.
The main street is also significant. It is colloquially known as Kotsu Dori “Bone Street” – referencing the rows of severed heads that were displayed there after executions.
Open and overgrown lot where buildings once stood.
Execution grounds now covered by railway tracks.
Enmeiji Buddha shrine with train overpass that overlooks former execution grounds.
One of the first things you notice here are the plethora of places to stay: business hotels, tourist hostels, flophouses and guesthouses. Lower rents in this part of Tokyo allow such establishments to flourish but a less tourist-friendly reason explains their profusion. Sanya’s considerable homeless and day-laborer population favor inexpensive places to stay.
A common sight in Sanya: labourers transporting goods by cart.
Local business hotel with giant graffiti wall.
Unfortunately Sanya’s low social status isn’t new and extends back to the Edo period. Sanya shows signs of having been a “buraku” area inhabited by members of the pre-Meiji era burakumin underclass. Officially the lower caste or burakumin status was abolished long ago but in parts of Japan discrimination against this group and its accompanying low socio-economic status persists. “Sanya” along with other burakumin communities weren’t shown on maps because traditionally the burakumin weren’t considered fully human nor were their members counted in censes.
Jinichi Kigoshi, owner of the leather works company Espresso Digital Workshop connects the burakumin or eta issue with Sanya, “There was a kind of caste system in Japan in the Edo era, and the untouchables in this system (the very bottom layer of this hierarchy) were called eta-hinin, who used to live around these districts.”
Jinichi Kigoshi, owner of Espresso Digital Workshop.
Kigoshi traces the origin of the burakumin to human relations with cattle in traditional Japan. “Since using cows for purposes other than as barn animals is prohibited in Buddhism, some decided to make others non-human, which were eta-hinin, to work with the animals. This was the beginning. And as the generations passed, these people called ‘eta-hinin’ were still suffering from discrimination which leads to the Douwa Issue. The discriminated people had problems finding work. This area between the corner of Asakusa and Shirahine-bashi is called ‘Douwa-chiku’ (Douwa District) where people of low birth have lived and where making leather products was regarded as humble work. And when the Western culture of shoes came to Japan and people started using leather products, this area was the one where all leather products were made.”
The leather industry was both the mainstay of Taito and the strongest centre for leather manufacturing in all of Tokyo. As Yoshihisa Hojo, a young shoe company owner in Asakusa explains, “This is where the leather industry was the biggest in Tokyo. Leather or other materials for shoes. This is the town of shoes. Asakusa is the biggest town that concentrated all of the leather industry. Especially in Mukojima, Asakusa.”
Kigoshi adds, “It was the best shoe town in Japan. There still are buildings for wholesalers for department stores. As far as leather for shoes goes, Taito-ku was the strongest. Japanese shoes all originated from Taito-ku, where now Asakusa high school is.”
But the leather industry in Taito is in decline. As you walk down the streets many leather shops are buzzing with activity. Workers cutting or sewing large pieces of leather with machines can be seen through the storefront windows. Unfortunately just as many shops are boarded up and silent.
Quiet street corner along Kotsu Dori.
Sparse Kotsu Dori.
On the individual level some businesses are doing quite well. Hojo has European customers eager to buy the high-quality, “Made-in-Japan” label. And Kigoshi recently returned to Tokyo from a trade show in Italy. But on the broader level Kigoshi does not believe the trends are moving in a favorable direction, “We cannot hope to be stronger now. The strongest time for this area was in the 70's. It was after the war, and at the time Japan was experiencing economic growth. There was a need for leather. However all the products that Japanese used to manufacture are now done in China. Most people around this area are now penetrating into China, even wholesalers. Now Japanese manufacturers don’t manufacture the entire shoes anymore. They leave parts of the manufacturing process in China, import accessory parts from China and only assemble the parts coming from China.”
With leather manufacturing facing an unknown future the question emerges what is left for the Sanya area? The tool shop owner offers a mixed outlook, “There are hardly any new industries anymore. People are just living meager lives here. But the Asakusa travel industry can be the one to help this district. With that, people can get by to live their lives.”
Hojo sees the future with a qualified optimism, “It will be difficult to expect more development, unless we can find something the States may purchase, like value-added Japanese products. I think this industry is not going to vanish if we can pioneer our own market. We receive orders from Italy and Switzerland for Made-in-Japan products. Currently it is not very common for Japanese manufacturers to sell their products to these countries, but I wish it will be more common in the future.”