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  • cover

Digging a well in Osaka
with Ojisans

Kanayo Ueda

(Poet and Representative of non-profit organization Cocoroom: The Room for Full of Voice, Words)

Daijiro Mizuno

(Design Researcher)

Cocoroom in Kamagasaki, Osaka is unlike any ordinary coffee shop. Cocoroom serves as a cafe, hostel, community arts school, and even as a space to provide help to those in need. In April of 2019, a well-digging project began with Cocoroom community members. Why did a diverse group gather to dig a well in the middle of the city on a random afternoon? Design researcher Daijiro Mizuno interviews Kanayo Ueda who founded Cocoroom and initiated the well-digging. Kanayo reflects on the things that became apparent from digging deep into Kamagasaki.

Publicness in Kamagasaki

Mizuno: So how did the well digging begin in the first place?

Ueda: There were multiple things that led to us digging a well, so let me try to explain them one at a time. First, there’s Kamagasaki, where Cocoroom is located. Kamagasaki was developed as a yoseba, or a day-laborer market, during the 1970 Osaka Expo. The market was part of the government plan to move families out of the region to bring in more single men who could be hired as day laborers. There were around 30,000 to 40,000 day-laborers who lived in Kamagasaki during that time, and their construction work was crucial for the country’s rapid economic growth to successfully host the Osaka Expo. But throughout the 1960s, there were a lot of riots that took place; Kamagasaki was infamous for being too dangerous for women and children to live in.
While Japan’s rapid growth left many of these day-laborers in a vulnerable place, I grew up benefiting from the transition. I was born in December of 1969, and I first-handedly experienced the improvements in our quality of life– gradually things were becoming more convenient and comfortable. At the same time, I couldn’t shake off a certain feeling that perhaps, we had left something behind at the expense of such progress and development. I grew up holding on to this sense of uneasiness. As I got older, the uneasiness grew stronger, but I tried to suppress it so that I could blindly enjoy the convenience and comfort.

After the economic bubble burst in the 1990s, there were fewer jobs for day-laborers. Coupled with the fact the day-laborers were getting older, a lot of them ended up homeless. By the early 2000s, many of them were receiving social welfare. It was right around this transitional period for the day laborers, when I ended up starting Cocoroom at Osaka’s iconic Shinsekai’s Festival Gate in 2003. At that time, I wasn’t aware of the history of Kamagasaki.

Mizuno: I have this impression that Cocoroom is truly open and ‘public,’ welcoming anyone in Kamagasaki to be involved.

Ueda: I became more intentional about making spaces more 'public' when I was entrusted with public funds to start Cocoroom using Osaka City's budget. Cocoroom, at first sight seems like an ordinary neighborhood cafe, but really, I wanted to take the opportunity to make contemporary arts more public and accessible.
Then, the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake hit. Seeing how our society would evolve in light of the earthquake, it pushed me to re-think and re-establish my values. And what came to mind were the ojisans (translation: older men) who were isolated in Kamagasaki. So I reached out. Together, we spent time creating poems, haikus, singing, and even started the Kamagasaki University of Arts.
But despite all these arts related activities, construction work was what they felt familiar and comfortable with. That’s where we initially came up with the idea of digging a well.

On a more personal note, my friend Osamu Hasuoka, who I’ve been friends with for 30 years, was previously involved in constructing a well in Afghanistan. He was working with Tetsu Nakamura from Peshawar-kai, an NGO providing humanitarian assistance to the country.
The three of us once had a chat on the topic of sustainability regarding humanitarian aid. Often, when a large sum of capital is provided as aid to a developing country, organizations tend to build large, shiny facilities along main roads. But when these buildings are damaged, local residents lack the knowledge and resources to repair the facilities, and they end up having no use. So instead, Peshawar-kai employs traditional Afghan methods for constructing wells while involving local residents in the process. I wonder which approach to aid is more sustainable?
Today, we live in an age where we are all driven by consumption. I wanted to try and challenge that norm. I was drawn to wells, because they are unlike a faucet where water just comes out with one turn. Meanwhile, I was always thinking about how the ojisans I meant were digging for our country. After three years of contemplation, these two thoughts came together as a well-digging project in Kamagasaki.

A source of water in our daily life

Ueda: So then I had the idea down, but I wasn’t sure where to start. I first called the city office to find out if we needed to get permission to dig a well. They connected me to the Environment Bureau, and they told me that as long as it was a hand pump well, I didn’t need special approval to build it.

Mizuno: So it seems like questions like, “Who owns wells?” and “Who owns what lies underground?” first popped up in your head when you contacted the city office. I would have assumed that you’d obviously be allowed to dig a well as long as it's on private property.

Ueda: I guess! But I was playing it on the safe side because I had previous experiences getting told off by public authorities. During our Festival Gate times, we got in some trouble for removing the ceiling without permission to create a center stage.
So then I consulted an insurance company and had them prepare a well-digging insurance package in case any accidents would occur during the process. And then finally, in the spring of 2019, we were able to start digging the well as part of a course we offered at Kamagasaki University of Arts. We brought together Osamu, the ojisans with construction experience from Kamagasaki, and students, and dug in! At first, we thought that it would take about three to four months to construct the well. But it turned into a large-scale, six-month project that involved around 700 people.

Mizuno: That’s a huge project!

Ueda: Exactly! But we’re not a construction company! So we also crowdfunded to properly communicate our intentions with community members. Unfortunately, when we started crowdfunding, a few people who had been supporting us since the beginning of our non-profit journey told us they couldn’t back our well-digging project. They mentioned that they would have supported the project if the well was for a developing country. But had difficulty understanding why it was necessary to collect water in a large, metropolitan city like Osaka. From that point on, I realized how important it is to promote and communicate our intentions behind the project.

Mizuno: I guess the well could also play an important role in Osaka by providing a source of water in case of emergencies like earthquakes or fires. What are some things that happened after you started the digging process?

Ueda: Well, many things happened! But our experience with the neighborhood children in particular, comes to mind. When we started, many children who had never seen a well before would come and help us out of curiosity. I remember one boy in particular, who would peer down into the well but was too scared to go down. He would take a peek, sigh, and take a few steps back. But soon, one of the ojisans invited him over, “Come down with me!” The child was finally able to muster the guts to do it. By the time they came back up, he had a shovel in one hand, looking super excited! After the second time, he even took his friends and was showing off his rope-tying skills. Since then, the children look to the ojisans of Kamagasaki as teachers. Though they seemed a little shy, the ojisans seemed very proud with the impact they had left on the children.

Mizuno: It seems like the ojisans’ expertise led to a new form of communication. Construction work is very technical for those not in the field. But by having a common goal—to dig a well—each person had a role and a way to contribute. This group effort led to new forms of dialogue and relations; the ojisans were not just construction workers or day laborers, but simply individuals who were part of the community.

Ueda: Exactly! Also, since constructing a well does involve a lot of manual labor, there were some who found it difficult to continue digging. But they still had a very important role throughout the process. They were cheering people on by saying things like, “Wow!” or “Amazing!” Working together as a community can mean sharing the workload, but expressing encouragement and enthusiasm is also a very important aspect of coming together to achieve something. Actually, communication is a crucial aspect of well-digging: workers keep each other safe by signaling to one another. Without communication, the process can be very dangerous.

Mizuno: I agree that having people around to boost your energy is super important, regardless of whether they’re directly involved with the process. When I make rice-cake, I have to pound rice with a large wooden stick and my son cheers me on by saying, “You can do it!” Even though he’s not directly helping me pound, he’s part of the process. Cheering and rallying for each other are important ways to participate.

Ueda: Throughout the digging, we got to learn about all the things that go into construction work, but I felt like we also got to learn more about the workers on a personal level. Initially, they seemed hesitant to discuss their previous work experiences, probably because we wouldn’t understand the specific terminologies around construction work. But as we spent more time digging together, they began sharing some details, explaining the specific technicalities around well-digging. Some of them even opened up to us about how they had to spend some time being homeless.
These conversations that would happen on rainy days when we weren’t able to do construction work, later evolved into a series of lectures called the “Kamagasaki Living Wisdom and Skills” in which the workers reflected on their experiences of having to construct their homes from cardboard boxes to survive. It was truly fascinating to witness all of this unfold. The well-digging sparked a lot of interest and respect towards the lives and experiences of these construction workers who were previously segregated from society. In response, the workers were open to sharing their knowledge and skills that they have cultivated over the years.

Mizuno: I see all these pictures from the well-digging and it looks like you’re having so much fun! The whole experience seems so vibrant.

Ueda: I had a lot of fun for sure! And the whole process definitely made me tougher. There were so many issues and situations that kept popping up; some were minor and others were more serious. But every single time, there were people who helped me muddle through. There were a number of times when I was sure the project would be over, but those moments actually just pushed me to become tougher.
For example, when we first started digging, the water that came out was super smelly, gross, and mud-like. I was so discouraged and thought it would all be over. We would have given up, if it weren’t for the geologist I knew that offered to help. We kept digging, and after about three meters or so, we finally had beautiful, crystal clear water gushing out. In that moment, I felt so appreciative towards water – an element that literally sustains us and our lives. And I knew that we could rely on this water as a life-line.
For three years, I was debating on whether or not to do this project. I couldn’t even bring myself to make a phone call to make it start. But like there are a billion stars, there are endless possibilities in our daily lives that can lead to such experiences, if only we would reach out to grab them.

Carrying on the legacy of creating things on our own

Ueda: Many of the construction workers who participated in the project were retired and physically very weak as well. But they got their dusty helmets out of their closets, took a shovel in hand, and got things done. Of course, there were times we had to intervene, and warned them to be safe. I assume that by 2025, many of these workers may no longer be with us. Faced with the urgency of this situation, I feel the need to pass on their knowledge and skills.

Mizuno: With this aging population, we may lose the expertise and wisdom of the ojisans of Kamagasaki, who poured their life into Japan’s rapid economic growth. And so, we may lose our “ability to rebuild our public.” This is a serious issue not only for Osaka, but for many parts of Japan.
As a society, we are losing the interest in repairing or reusing the remnants of large-scale infrastructure projects like highways and other developments. I guess the same can be said for smaller, public development projects as well. Given all of this, what do you think is the takeaway from the history of Kamagasaki and the well-digging?

Ueda: I think the generation of Kamagasaki workers shows us what it looks like to have the power to live - to build things from the ground up with their own hands. Our generation tends to take everything for granted: we get water with a turn of a faucet, electricity with a flick of a switch, and we order things with a simple click. But those who are now 70 or older, they’re from a generation of being able to sustain their lives on their own: whether it's by raising cows or crafting kimonos. I want to continue to understand their experiences by listening to their stories and shadowing their work.

Mizuno: I guess those in their seventies are from the generation that aren’t entirely dependent on consumerism! Even if we create a sustainable society and invite people to keep it going, or encourage them to learn from what’s going on in Peshawar-kai, the generation in their forties and fifties might be like, “I don’t get it.” I guess they are the poster children of mass consumer society. I can see them being like, “Can’t we just buy it?” So, it’s necessary to document the experiences and skills of those in their 70s, to carry on their legacy of creating things on our own.

Ueda: Exactly. I think the question for us, those who inherit their knowledge and skills, will then be about which direction we want our society to go towards, and what kind of relationships we want to foster.
This may be a bit off-tangent, but I was thinking the other day about our times in 2019 when we were digging the well. Many of the people in Kamagasaki had left their hometowns and moved here to work in construction to sustain their living. Once a project was done, they went onto the next site without getting to experience and enjoy what they had built. Instead, someone who visits from somewhere else gets to enjoy the fruits of their labor. I feel like there are many of these contradicting intersections within our lives, and I would like to find a way to reconfigure these relationships.

Mizuno: Day-laborers are highly mobile in nature and they often live in temporary housing, frequently moving from site-to-site. You mentioned that many workers moved to Kamagasaki from different parts of Japan, but when you see this phenomenon from a larger perspective, this migration also happens on a global scale. In recent years, there are also many people who have moved to Japan from other countries to find work. Have you noticed a more diverse, multinational group of people in Kamagasaki?

Ueda: Definitely. Since housing is cheaper in the Kamagasaki area, many foreigners have come to live here, and some of them work in construction. Because of the pandemic, many of them are in very difficult situations; their passports or visas have expired, and they have lost their homes. There was one time when someone who fled from the Middle East came to visit Cocoroom. When I told him we were digging a well, he wanted to help out. He spent a lot of time in the well, digging a huge amount of soil. When he got out, he looked super excited, and shouted: “People call me a refugee, but that’s not who I am. I’m human!” Through the physical act of digging, perhaps he felt like he contributed to something meaningful. His words and sentiments left a strong impression on me; I realized that working on something together can bring people together, regardless of their race or nationality.

Mizuno: I wonder if those in their seventies in Kamagasaki can pass down their wisdom and skill sets to people from different countries, including some immigrants from the Middle East, who would then discover new ways to utilize them. When you think about it, it’s impossible for craftsmanship to survive within one culture; we have an aging population for one, and two, the younger generation is less and less able to craft things within their daily lives. In Kamagasaki, the collaboration and manual work through the well-digging forms new, unexpected relationships between those with diverse backgrounds or those who are marginalized. I personally think it would be interesting to see this form of relationships being forecasted into our society beyond 2025.

Ueda: That’s so true. There are diverse relationships that are formed in Kamagasaki, and my hope is that these relations will be a precedent for something more significant. In general, when discussing collaboration and co-creation in design and business sectors, people often refer to the term “stakeholders.” I personally don’t think we have to use such complicated terminology. It’s more simple than that: people with similar interests coming together to work on something. That naturally yields to community encouragement and new encounters.

A knowledge sharing commons to give new life to materials

Mizuno: What happens after a spaceship takes off? I sometimes think about this. Like, what gets left behind for local residents after big events like the Expo? What would be ideal is for the reminnets from such events to be reused, so the legacy of such a major event could remain one that is positive and constructive. Not just a big public flea market or thrift store where people take home or re-use the scrap wood or whatever material they might find useful. But having a system that is more long-term, sustainable, and meaningful.
To have such a system, perhaps we can learn from the hyakusho farmers, who construct everything they need to sustain their work and life. My friend Hajime Ishikawa, who researches old farmhouses, told me that these hyakusho farmers collect and categorize materials like tape, rope, wood, thin objects, long objects, flat objects, and store them for future use.

Ueda: I think without the desire to want to craft or create things, or the thought of making some kind of bricolage with what you have, you don’t have the need or desire to keep and store things. Without the right perspective and outlook, these leftover materials simply just become trash.
When digging the well, people gathered different tools from all over. I had no idea how to use them. But those who did would! And also explain to us what we needed to collect from where. In general, my hope is that those with the expertise pass on their skills on how to use tools and materials to those with absolutely no experience. This opens up a path for anyone to be involved in the crafting process.

Mizuno: In a sense, you’re describing a new type of commons where people gather to share their knowledge, skill sets, and experiences. I think this type of commons has the potential to give new life to materials. Indeed, even things that were used once are no longer trash as long as one understands how it can be reused. Of course, there already are facilities like FabLabs that operate also as kind of a commons, where people can come to learn and use tools to reuse materials. But unless these systems are put in place beforehand, large corporations can easily come by and wipe everything out. All the things that held everything together instantly becomes trash.

Ueda: Exactly! And the pavilion for the Expo doesn't all have to be built from scratch. There could be a portion of it that could be made from reused materials. Kind of like how the Ise Grand Shrine goes through reconstruction once every few decades in order to pass down the skills and techniques for constructions.

Mizuno: That’s true! And by the way, I’m curious – do you plan to regularly repair the well you’ve made?

Ueda: The thing is, the well is so sturdy! As if it’s reflecting the pride of Kamagasaki, standing tall and declaring,“We’ll be here for a thousand years!”

Mizuno: Amazing! It would also be great to plan out ways that people can have fun within their daily lives, even after the Expo.
I mean, the Expo’s logo concept is about creating a future full of “brightness and glow” isn't it?

Ueda: True! But the thing is, our lives are full of “brightness and glow” to begin with. We just have to make sure not to cloud it.

Kanayo Ueda was born in 1969 in Nara prefecture. She was only three years old when she began writing poetry, and by the time she was seventeen, she was hosting poetry recitals. In 2003, she opened Cocoroom as a part of Shinsekai’s Festival Gate in Osaka. Later in 2008, she startedInfoshop Café Cocoroom in Nishinari ward (commonly known as Kamagasaki), The cafe fostered spontaneous encounters between locals and visitors. She then ventured out to run a cafe-meets-hostel space; she opened Cocoroom Guesthouse Café and Garden Kamagasaki University of Arts in the same shopping area that hosts thirty-plus beds.

Daijiro Mizuno was born in 1979 in Tokyo. He obtained a PhD in Fashion Design from the Royal College of Art in 2008. In 2012, he began teaching at the Faculty of Environment and Information Studies at Keio University. In 2019, he was appointed as Project Professor for KYOTO design lab at Kyoto Institute of Technology. In 2020, he was also appointed as Distinguished Visiting Professor at Keio University’s Graduate School of Media and Governance. Along with Hiroshi Ashida, he is the co-editor of vanitas, a fashion critique magazine. His co-authored books include Inclusive Design and Circular Design, both published by Gakugei Shuppansha.