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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Working in the Margins

Dec. 7, 2016

An area of Osaka that was once bustling with day laborers has run into hard times. Many of the jobs have disappeared, but one man proudly makes his own way by collecting cans.

Most big cities in Japan have one, a part of town the day laborers call home, and in Osaka it's Airin. The men who worked there -- and contributed greatly to the nation's rapid postwar rise -- have slipped to the margins as their once-plentiful construction jobs all but dried up.

Airin isn't just on the wrong side of the tracks; it's surrounded by them. Thirty thousand people lived in an area that covers less than one square kilometer, but now there is barely half that number.

"There are no jobs for us now," says one local resident.

But a man known as "Macchan." carries on in the old ways, and he's proud of the living he scratches out from his modest work.

"While I'm healthy, I want to live on my own. I take pride in it," he says.

Macchan leaves his cheap lodgings at 2:30 a.m. to start work. His morning wakeup ritual includes a 50-cent coffee. Macchan works as a "can-can," collecting aluminum cans to turn in for cash.

Before coming to Airin, Macchan worked in construction and shipbuilding, but he piled up gambling debts, and lost his house and family. His life now, though, is comfortable. Nobody asks him about his past.

Macchan gets between 80 cents and one dollar per kilogram of aluminum, but that's only half what it was 10 years ago.

"I got 2970 yen," he said on one recent trip to the local recycling yard.

Macchan was just 33 when he arrived in the neighborhood 20 years ago, but this "town of laborers" has changed drastically since then.

Back then, workers were desperately needed for rebuilding after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. Macchan was among the many laborers who came from across Japan looking for work.

Middlemen and day laborers used to flood a local job placement center, but no longer. The number of jobs is just a fifth of what it was 20 years ago.

"I can't find any jobs. Only the usual guys get work," says one day laborer.

The older they get, the harder things become. Many of the elderly have no choice but to live on welfare, so 40 percent of the town's residents receive public assistance.

People in the area often line up for free meals, but Macchan never takes handouts -- even when he can't collect enough cans to get by.

"I never line up. I don't want to. I'd rather keep scrabbling than stop for a free meal," Macchan says.

He had cancer surgery 8 years ago. Only then did he accept welfare, but just once. As soon as he recovered, he went back to can collecting.

The tiny room he lives in costs him about 8 dollars a day.

"Tempura and noodles with a boiled egg. They're less than 1 dollar each. Cheap, aren't they?" he says, referring to a meal he has purchased.

Macchan says he can live as he likes, with the money he earns, and that's his style.

"In this town, you can make a living if you're willing to do something," he says. "It would be tough to make it elsewhere but here nobody bothers you, no matter what you do, whether it's picking up cans or newspapers."

But his neighborhood has changed a lot over the past 10 years. The loss of day laborers left many lodgings vacant and some were turned into guesthouses for foreign tourists. They're fully booked with backpackers traveling on the cheap.

The area has even started attracting investors from China. Lin Chuanlong is from Fujian province, and runs a real estate business. Lin has acquired 20 shuttered shops that no one else wanted to rent.

"If all the shops are closed, you don't have a shopping arcade. If the owners sell me their closed outlets, I'm happy to reopen them," Lin says.

He owns many of the local karaoke bars, where Chinese hostesses greet the guests. Hostess bars are still rare in the town. They charge about 4 dollars for a drink, which is costly for day laborers. But they spend what little money they have, and they're eager to chat with the hostesses.

"Some people in the shopping arcade complain that the Chinese came in and caused chaos. But that's nonsense -- I work hard to make things better," Lin says.

Even as the world changes around him, Macchan wants to keep doing things his own way. Autumn and winter are tough times for can collectors like him, but he is blessed with people who support him.

Macchan stays true to himself even as the town around him changes.

"We have to cherish each day. We never know when we'll die. Although we're talking now, we may die in the evening. It happens all the time. So it's vital to live freely each and every day," he says.

At the end of the day, people like Macchan still go about their business one day at a time in the place they call home.