Japan's Disposable Workers

Japan's economic rise post-WWII was the subject of vast commentary in the West among politicians, economic policy wonks in the media, to references in popular culture (see, for instance, the film version, or read the book written by Michael Crichton, Rising Sun).

Stereotypes of the Japanese worker as loyal, self-sacrificing Samurai to the feudal lord of an inhuman Japanese executive were both ubiquitous and often used, especially the 80's and 90's, to castigate what was deemed as a threat to American economic hegemony.

But as often happens with stereotypes, whether there is or isn't any semblance of truth to some overarching theme used for easy descriptions when seeming to cast shade on an entire society, there are very real people who live a certain reality, and they are often forgotten for whatever theme seems popular or overwhelmingly pervasive at the time. There is also a certain amount of ignorance in the West about what happened outside of Europe and the United States during the economic crisis of the last years; Japan was hit extremely hard, and this while China's influence was rising as an economic power.

With context such as this in mind, watching Japan's Disposable Workers, a collaboration among MediaStorm, The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Japanese photographer, Shiho Fukada, brings home, in very moving, sometimes truly raw terms, Japanese men and women affected by the very real economic stress in Japan, who also pierce the convenient veil of stereotype and instead are shown to be who they are: deeply, explicitly, and poignantly human.

Both MediaStorm and The Pulitzer Center have been known to bring exceptional works to public attention regarding issues that are often forgotten in the mainstream press. Their strength is in the power of the nuance and bringing a very important level of humanity to subjects that are often simply glossed over as too difficult, overall, to effectively address, so are instead consigned to the realm of some nebulous "issue" that sees people as masses instead of as individuals.

Says Brian Storm, the Founder of MediaStorm and Executive Producer of the project: "We're always trying to find the human element of the story, that thing that other people can relate to. This series is obviously a story about the absolute extreme edge of the work ethic associated with Japanese workers and the horrific ramifications of it. But you also see them as people. It's not a number, it's not a statistic."

From The Pulitzer Center's Nathalie Applewhite: "Shiho submitted a proposal to us in late December 2011 for travel to Japan to build on her series on economic hardship in Japan that she had already begun working on. Given the global economic climate at the time, we felt that the crisis of joblessness in rich countries like Japan had really strong potential, and was a story that needed to be told... Her images are striking, sensitive and soulful and we knew that, as a Japanese, she could tell the story in a way we hadn't seen in the news."

Included in this project are "chapters"--each depicting a particular reality among Japanese workers, from the specific stories of those suffering from depression, at times resulting in suicide and the aftermath for their families, both personal and financial, to workers who are forced to live in cybercafés either because of high living costs or because they are unemployed, to a town in Japan that is seen as a "dumping ground" for workers who can no longer work or are no longer considered as being useful.

Applewhite: "[F]rom what we have seen, the reception to the work has been very strong, including through the in-person screenings we've organized in Washington DC and in St. Louis. We included the film in our first (mini) film festival as part of a series of shorts, which sold out both nights. We've even brought Shiho into classrooms at universities and secondary schools to introduce the material-and the reactions have been intense."

For MediaStorm Producer Eric Maierson, asked about what moved him the most in watching and working with Fukada in editing certain footage, and in this case, regarding the chapter on those living in cybercafés:

"The thing that really got me was the visceral sense of living inside of basically a closet at the net cafe. It really made me feel claustrophobic. The indignity of it, and then the isolation. I tried to capture that by showing the time sped up and the time slowed down. You're always in this same location and it's almost like this dream state of having to always be in that one little room without escape. I really wanted to capture that in a way that felt emotional and in a way that felt like you were experiencing it as well."

Overall, and as is true of the best of visual storytelling in the current sphere (despite the backlash of the term "storyteller" suddenly being popular enough to elicit derision from certain sources), Shiho Fukada's collaboration with two of the most revered producers of this form has indeed produced something that cannot help but make the viewer feel, whether it's anger, compassion, sadness, or any among a realm of human emotions one would hope upon viewing the content.

Here, the microcosm of the reality of individual workers amidst an almost goliath power of the role of business as macrocosm is deeply profound, and it's something that in this age of the brutal power international business holds on world economic reality, we can place ourselves in the shoes of these workers, even to the point of our own discomfort--and in this age of media desensitization--this is indeed a powerful accomplishment.

For the full interviews of Brian Storm, Eric Maierson, and Nathalie Applewhite, please visit http://www.mipj.org.