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A Look at Sanya: Biggest Slum in Tokyo

biggest slum in TokyoLocated within the bustling city of Tokyo is a hidden slum called Sanya — a place of hostels, displaced individuals and a dark past that lingers. During Japan’s Edo Period, many people flocked to Sanya to take advantage of the low costs of living, but when World War II hit, Sanya was converted into a makeshift town of tents for those displaced by bombings. Eventually, these tents were traded in for wooden hostels, which still remain today.

If one were to try to locate Sanya on a modern map, it would be impossible, having been erased 50 years ago in an attempt to keep the slum’s violence, homelessness and poverty from tainting the image of Tokyo. Sanya is not even located in a single district; it has been divided between the districts of Kiyokawa and Zutsumi. The biggest slum in Tokyo remains officially unnamed, but the name Sanya is kept alive by local residents.

The Population of Sanya

About 1,500 individuals of the Sanya population are low-income workers as well as retired laborers — many of whom were responsible for rebuilding Japan after World War II. Most of these people are between the ages of 60 and 70, and because of this, the once-active hostels are now being transformed into slow retirement homes. The elderly population is isolated in Tokyo’s hidden slum; poverty and age push them farther away from regular, Japanese society — outside of Sanya as well as internally. Because the average age in Sanya is so high, many of the people who reside here are only living off of pensions — contributing to the growing impoverished population in Sanya.

Gentrification Attempts Are Hurting Longtime Residents

To those who have lived in Sanya for decades and are part of the largely impoverished population in the district, gentrification is not the answer to financial problems, but the problem itself. Local authorities fight to resist commercial developments, but are no match for private landowners set on tearing down pre-existing buildings—such as hostels and other lodging facilities—to build more efficient housing. The retired, senior residents living off of mere pensions find this particularly frustrating because, with such little income, it would be incredibly difficult to relocate out of these hostels and start anew elsewhere. 

Hotels, apartments and stores are being built as tourism flourishes — completely changing Sanya’s ambiance. Many residents claim that Tokyo’s hidden slum is not only losing living opportunities for the impoverished due to gentrification but also its culture. Old and original stores are being torn down for new ones, and this irks many residents. 

Hope in the Forgotten District 

Japan is actively working to combat poverty and provide assistance to the impoverished through The Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction (JFPR). Currently, there are hundreds of millions being poured into vital components of the economy, such as health, transport, agriculture and technical assistance. This project was established in 2000 but is geared more toward the international population of Asian countries located near Japan. But Sanya, Tokyo’s hidden slum, has its own prominent business working to combat the struggles of the local impoverished. 

YUI Associates is a community building project based in Sanya and works to help the displaced population through a myriad of initiatives as well as bringing awareness to the issues within Sanya. This social enterprise additionally owns a couple of hotels for both travelers and Sanya residents struggling to get by. 

YUI Associates also owns the Sanya Cafe, a cafe determined to serve affordable items and provide retired laborers with meals in exchange for collected trash. This cafe was also named in an attempt to unofficially emphasize and declare that Sanya is the true name of this district — expunged or not. Not only does YUI Associates work firsthand with the impoverished population of Sanya, but workers also take to the streets on Mondays to clean the community and converse with residents and listen to any that want to talk. 

In a place nicknamed “The Lost District” and the “Place Where People Come to Disappear,” hope prevails in Sanya. Resilience is seen in the strong spirit of the residents, and with businesses like YUI Associates, Sanya improves constantly.

– Nina Argel
Photo: Unsplash