Find the kitty: Hollister, CA

Find the kitty

Neighbors told me the story; the cat confirmed it…

The neighborhood story is the old man who lives in this house is a millionaire widower whose wife died 25 years ago. She was a beautician, the story goes, and the man keeps the old-fashioned hair drying machine on the porch to preserve her memory. He comes out at least once a day and sits in the hair dryer, watching the world go by but never speaking to anyone.

(Hollister, California, April 2016. See more of my work here.)

Scenes from a Tokyo skid row clinic

by Dan Ryan

This is a condensed, reworked excerpt from my recent Amazon Kindle photo essay book “Ningenkusai: A Tokyo Panic Stories Mini-book.” I prepared it for exclusive publication by the Japan Subculture Research Center. But, happily, it was then picked up and republished by Zero Hedge. You can buy a copy of the full book at Amazon.


You’ve probably never heard of Sanya. The Tokyo City Government doesn’t acknowledge its existence, and you won’t find it on any official maps. Sanya is more or less Tokyo’s skid row, where people, mostly men, end up when the other parts of this immense, gleaming city have stopped offering comfort and opportunity.

Sanya is where the Japanese outcasts, food animal butchers, leather tanners, and other professions considered “unclean” by Japan’s traditionally Buddhist ruling class, a.k.a. the burakumin, or dowa, plied their trades for centuries. These tradesmen may mostly be gone, and the smell of the blood they spilled long-since drifted away, but the stigma of what Sanya once was remains, and it clings to the many of the people who live and work here.

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Sanya is a blue-collar place, where an aging population of day laborers lingers on the fringe of Tokyo society. Many laborers have drinking problems, and they’ve ended up in Sanya to hide their abuses from their families. Sights like this fellow are pretty common, except in rainy weather.

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And even then Sanya has a shōtengai dotted with little bars and liquor stores.

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For many men in Sanya, government welfare assistance is available but is a problematic thing. Applying for it requires identity verification by contacting an applicant’s family. Most Sanya men who have fallen on hard times and taken to excessive drinking don’t want this. They would rather their families not know where they are or how they live. Revealing this would mean bringing unbearable shame upon their loved ones.

So when you’re down in Sanya and public assistance isn’t an option for some reason, what do you do? You go private, to a small outfit like Sanyūkai NPO, a non-religious non-profit organization. The Sanyūkai NPO and the free medical clinic within it is run by a couple of foreign missionaries who have been doing charity work in Sanya since the early ‘80s.

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Deacon Jean LeBeau, the director of Sanyūkai NPO, is a French-Canadian Catholic with the Quebec Foreign Mission Society. Deacon Jean has been in Japan for 41 years, including 28 years in Sanya. He’s a humble, affable man, who would rather speak Japanese than either English or his native French.

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Sister Rita Burdzy, head nurse of Sanyūkai clinic, is an American from St. Louis, Missouri who came to Japan in 1981. She is a nun with the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic of Ossining, New York, a Roman Catholic order whose members devote their lives to service overseas in specialties such as medicine and agriculture. Sister Rita holds a Japanese nursing license and is the nurse in charge of most of the activities at the clinic.

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It’s a small facility, with only two beds in the examination room. Hundreds of ailing men have passed through this place since it opened in 1984. And somehow it manages to keep doing the job.

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In addition to Sister Rita, medical services are supplied by a volunteer roster of over 30 medical doctors and registered nurses. Doctor Kanade Hagiwara, an urologist at a general hospital in Tokyo, is one of those volunteers. She treats patients at the clinic on the fourth Saturday of each month. The NPO is not a religious organization, and therefore does not insist that either volunteers or clients adhere to any one faith, or have any religious faith at all.

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Within the clinic, the one concession to spiritual matters is this hand-made banner and the shrine beside it, which is dedicated to recently-departed clients and patients of the clinic.

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Since Sanya does not officially exist, Sanyūkai clinic has an address in Kiyokawa, in Taito-ku ward, on a small street that could easily pass for an alleyway. Outside the clinic, unless it is raining or bitterly cold, men in need of clinic services sit on benches and wait, often with Sister Rita and Deacon Jean (whose back is shown) somewhere nearby.

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But the men who gather outside Sanyūkai clinic tend to make it more of a social venue than the dreary medical waiting-room scene you might expect. They’re a diverse group, even though most are older day laborers who get less and less work as they age. The men in the middle and the right fall into that category. The guy on the left is a transplant from nearby Asakusa, whose reasons for ending up in Sanya are not entirely clear.

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But this man, who died of a brain hemorrhage in June 2012, used to own a bar next to the clinic.

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While this fellow is a professional cook who does not always get daily work.

If the men who frequent the Sanyūkai clinic share one thing, it is a quality Sister Rita calls “ningenkusai” (人間くさい), which she says “is a quality of being very human, of smelling comfortably human. Of being full of human traits.” She adds that this is the best English translation she could offer for a concept that she says is uniquely Japanese.

With obvious fondness, Sister Rita goes on to say that despite their backgrounds and personal secrets “these men have a purity of heart and are very charming. There is no guile in these men.” She sums things up by saying when men come to the clinic off of Sanya’s streets and ask for help “no questions are asked. We’re a family.”

And you can feel the truth of it when she says it.

So, there’s no crime story here, and no breaking scandal. It is surprising, and shameful, that a city like Tokyo has had a problem like this for so long. But at least the phenomenon of homeless and chronically drunk and unemployed street men isn’t being ignored. Good people are on the case. People like Sister Rita and Deacon Jean.

Reporting and photography for this story was done in Sanya, Tokyo in April, 2012.

The shooters: a photoessay

by Dan Ryan

They were young boys shooting corks from toy rifles at a street fair in a poor Tokyo neighborhood. It was a sunny, gorgeous Saturday in late April, 2012, the beginning of an extended holiday called Golden Week. And the gunplay was an innocent thing, just kids having fun taking harmless pop-shots at a child’s treasure trove of prizes. My only agenda when I took these photos was to record happy aspects of street life in Sanya, a grubby section in northeast Tokyo that has been shunned and ignored for decades due to its association with professions Buddhists traditionally consider unclean, such as butchering food animals. Sanya isn’t even on any official maps nor recognized by the Tokyo city government.

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Here in the United States, Sanya would probably be riddled with gangs, guns, drugs, and crime, instead of an aging population of day laborers, many of whom stumble about the streets drunk on cheap beer and rice wine. But since the December, 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, these particular photographs have acquired a new context for me.

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Japan’s gun laws are far more restrictive than ours in the US. I can look at these photos and be nearly certain that these children will never own an actual working handgun, shotgun, or assault rifle. They don’t live in a culture where gun murders and school shootings occur with enough regularity as to have become tragically commonplace.

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Forty years ago when I was a boy of eight or nine, I could have been one of these Japanese kids. I remember having a cap-gun battles in a friend’s back yard, or trying to win a prize with a cork bullet at a schoolmate’s cowboy-themed birthday party shooting game. It isn’t like that in America anymore. Our culture has changed. Guns have become so prevalent in the US, and so easy to get, that children bring firearms to school to deal with bullies or get revenge upon other students who have treated them as social outcasts.  Or even just to show off.

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We have lost control of our American gun culture, so much so that toy guns are widely considered distasteful and politically-incorrect. And they should be, even though a child can get in almost as much trouble bringing a toy gun to school as he or she would for bringing a real gun. The link between childhood toy gunplay and irresponsible gun use or ownership in later life may be problematic and difficult to prove, but many of us know we have a huge gun problem in America. Unfortunately it is easier to control the toys our children play with than to demand our elected officials and judicial appointees look after our safety and best interests the way they are supposed to.

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But due to their laws, the Japanese don’t have these problems. And thanks to that these photographs will always bring me happy memories. Because when I look at them in a week or a decade from now, I won’t wonder if any of the children in my pictures caught a stray bullet in his local park or school, or grew up to become a murderous gun-toting thug or schoolyard shootist. These toy guns are almost certainly the most threatening firearms these kids will ever have to face.

So take that picture of your beloved kids out of your purse or wallet, my fellow Americans, and tell me with fear-free confidence that they won’t ever be touched by some kind of gun violence.

(Pictures taken at the Iroha shōtengai in Sanya, Tokyo on April 28th, 2012)

Nota Bene #117: Wake Up!

“Hollywood is so crooked that Mafia gangsters are entirely outclassed and don’t stand a chance. People in Hollywood are smarter. They have more sophisticated knowledge of money and deals and how to steal legally rather than illegally.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #113: Seth's Near-Death

“Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.” Who said it? Continue reading