I grew up in the ghettos of Cleveland, OH. It wasn't pleasant, but I didn't fully understand how much until after I had seen the world outside of the ghetto. There were many buildings with windows boarded up. Trash littered the streets. The people who lived there were poor and desperate. Few want to remain in the ghetto. Most people want to improve their lot in life. Somehow, violence, crime, and misfortune are the hallmarks of every American ghetto.
Usually, the ghettos are populated by poor Black and Hispanic people, but sometimes poor whites live there too. I think the poor white version of the ghetto is the trailer park. That's the image I have anyway. I'm sure that there are poor white neighborhoods, just as there are poor black ones. I used to live on the other side of the bridge of one. What I noticed from living there was that we shared the same social problems. There was teen pregnancy, drug abuse, alcoholism, violence, and crime on the black side. On the white side, all of those things existed as well.
Ghettos in America are often downtrodden and depressing places. As a child growing up, I have seen men breaking into my home, I have escaped a shootout, I have been assaulted for no reason, and I have gone hungry many, many, many days and nights. Most of my life was spent trying to escape the ghetto, never to return as a resident. I even remember being about eight years old and having my first poetic moment. That was born from my constant questioning of why the neighborhood was in such shambles. Even at that young age, I could not understand the disheveled state of my environs . While I was thinking about that, I saw the most amazing sunset I had ever seen. The sky was baby blue and accented with pink clouds. All that beauty against all of that decay moved me to poetry.
I suppose the only difference between the two impoverished communities is that poor whites generally have a better chance of getting out of their impoverished communities than black folks because the system was designed for them. Of course, there are way more opportunities available now to everyone than when I was a boy. I was born just a few short years after the civil rights movement and the legal end of Jim Crow, so my birth heralded a new age of opportunity for black people in America that did not exist just four or five years before I was born. It took a lot longer for many of those legal statutes to kick in. To be perfectly honest with you, there are still many social injustices, even today. Practices such as redlining and voter restriction are still widely used to hinder the growth and advancement of Black, Latino, and Indigenous people in America while protecting white American's share of economic power.
If you are unfamiliar with redlining, then let me briefly explain it to you. It's a system of denying various services to people who live in a specific area. In North America, communities are often segregated, which means that black people live in black neighborhoods, Hispanic people live in Hispanic neighborhoods, etc. People living in specific communities are denied banking services, insurance, healthcare, even premium supermarkets. Sociologist John McKnight is the person who came up with the phrase redlining, and he used it to describe the discriminatory practice of fencing off areas where banks would avoid investments based on the racial makeup of the community. Technically the practice is illegal now. However, it does still happen, even today. It occurs in the form of destructive predatory lending in neighborhoods that were once marked off-limits. It occurs with the routine denial of home and business loans. We see it in reduced funding to schools in poor areas and in something seemingly coincidental like slower broadband. The practice of redlining is very well documented, and none of the claims that I'm making here are far-fetched. If you want to confirm the information, all you have to do is Google it.
When I moved to Japan, the thing that struck me first was that there were no obvious ghettos, which are called doya-gai in Japanese. At least, I thought there weren't. There are tons of buildings that look like the housing projects that I grew up in. They are packed with low-wage earners. But that's where the similarities end. There's no war zone like there is in most major cities of America. Rarely do you have to fear for your safety in a Japanese ghetto. There are a few ghettos in Japan's big cities, but the three that stand out the most are Kotobukicho (Yokohama), Sanya (Tokyo), and Kamagasaki (Osaka).
Kotobukicho is the only ghetto that I have been to in Japan. I wasn't avoiding these places. I just didn't have a reason to go. I don't remember why, but my friend Kanna took me to Kotobukicho. She had only told me where we were after we had been there for a while. That made it all the more strange that I could feel an immediate shift in the energy around me when I stepped over the line that marked the border of the neighborhood. It was like stepping through the invisible forcefield of a dome. There was a palpable depression. I did not get that from seeing trash on the streets, buildings crumbling down, or cars that were barely held together by duct tape and bungee cord. None of that existed there. Compared to the ghetto that I grew up in, Kotobukicho was clean and well kept. The thing I felt was from the psychic energy of the people living there. I know this makes me sound crazy or flaky, but it's true. My daughter fell it too the day she visited. She tried to explain it to me before she knew that I had also had a similar experience. She couldn't understand either why she had the same tingling premonition of sadness that I had felt. She was stunned when I told her I had visited once and felt it too.
Aside from the strange sensation and my friend telling me later where we had been, I would never have known it was the ghetto. In Tokyo, there's an area that used to be called Sanya. That name no longer appears on official maps. The area is split between several neighborhoods in Tokyo's Taito and Arakawa wards. I have never been there, but there's a collection of photos on the Internet that show a town area populated by homeless and destitute people. Beyond that, the buildings seemed to be slightly old but relatively well kept.
Near Shin-Imamiya station in Osaka, an area officially called Airin-Chiku, is one of Japan's most destitute ghettos, Kamagasaki. I have never been there, but images of it on the internet show it to be a poor, rundown place much larger than Kotobukicho and Sanya. There are about 25,000 people who live in Kamagasaki. The poverty there seems to be more pronounced. This is a real ghetto slum, the kind that is most similar in appearance to the one that I grew up in.
I read somewhere that the ghettos in Yokohama, Tokyo, and Osaka are inhabited mainly by the untouchable class called the Burakumin. They are the descendants of meat cutters, undertakers, and professionals of various "dirty" jobs. In the 1980s, the Burakumin made up about 70% of the Yamaguchi Gumi, Japan's largest Yakuza syndicate. There was even a report published by Mitsuhiro Suganuma, a former member of the public security intelligence agency, which said that the Buraku make up about 60% of all yakuza members. Here again, we can see that poverty, discrimination, and desperation generate some of the same social ills we see in other communities, like the ghetto I grew up in.
What's ironic is that all of these poor neighborhoods are finding new business among travelers who want cheap accommodations. All of them are also facing gentrification and may soon be extinct within the next 20 years. Low land prices and a low cost of living make it an attractive option for many.
Despite the high number of untouchables in organized crime, Kotobukicho and Sanya do not have the highest crime rates. That honor goes to Shinjuku. It's also interesting to note that murder does not correlate with these impoverished areas. In 2018, 19 people were murdered in Osaka, and the same number of people were murdered in Kanagawa prefecture. Only ten were murdered in Tokyo. During the same year in Baltimore, 309 people were murdered, 16,214 people were murdered in the entire United States. Only 273 people were murdered in Japan. The US had a population (327.2 million) that was three times the size of Japan (126.5 million), but the murder rate was a whopping 59 times greater.
So, here's what I learned from coming to Japan. Crime and poverty don't necessarily have to go hand in hand. While there are more incidents of petty theft, they are far below the world standard. The same is true for murder and most other crimes. Since those crimes are not concentrated in Japan's ghetto areas, there doesn't seem to be a direct correlation between the prevalence of crime and the slums. Despite the cruel reality of poverty, I realized that the ghetto is essentially something we create. I don't know if this difference comes from Japanese collectivism or western individualism. Still, I know that our perception creates our situation just as much as the financial setting that we find ourselves in.
Living in Japan has taught me that the ghetto is not only a physical place but a construct of the mind.