Hataraki-ing (Work-ing): Kaoruko Yamamoto
Interviewed and written by Kaori Kasai, Geppo Japanese Editor
Translated by Aro Hamakawa
For this month’s article, we interviewed Ms. Kaoruko Yamamoto, who has a more unique career than most people.
First, could you describe what sociologists do?
In Vancouver, I conduct field research on the support systems for DTES (Downtown Eastside) residents and the homeless, and issues around housing and gentrification (the influx of middle-class or affluent people into low-income areas).
I came to UBC for a sociology conference in 2007. The conference organized a bus tour around the Downtown area. It has been five years since I started doing a research study in the DTES in 2012.
My research is funded by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan. Usually, I go talk to support groups, social enterprises, or go see community activities to interview them about their works.
Why did you choose Vancouver?
I started looking into a day-worker’s town (Yoseba) called Kotobuki-cho in Yokohama and continued the research for 10 years. I had been looking for a place like Kotobuki-cho to do comparison study. Then my friend who is an artist showed me the DTES in 2010. Then I learned about the support activities for the homeless and low-income residents, the history of Little Tokyo, and Japanese school’s involvement. I started wanting to know more about them.
The DTES has many shelters and facilities that the homeless can use. Compared to what we have in Japan, they have more choices and I was amazed by that. Also, the gentrification problem is not well-known to the general public but people are more involved with this issue in the DTES.
There are many arts and culture opportunities in the DTES like art shows with grants available for local artists. Many events like hiking, theatre play, etc. are organized by Carnegie Community Centre on Main St. and Hastings St.
Normally the facility is just for low-income residents, but I have been there once to see the cafeteria as part of my research.
I’m curious why you stepped into a place like the DTES, which is not always a pleasant place to be in. You don’t usually see a visitor from Japan walking on East Hastings St. Could you tell me how you became involved in this area?
Right… When I was in middle school, I lived in Los Angeles for a year. There, I had many classmates who were immigrants or refugees, and that’s when I first became interested in subjects like racial discrimination and social justice.
I went back to Japan in the late 80s, during the “bubble” economy. In the 90s, problems around foreign workers were discussed on the news more. After living in a country like the US, where there are more immigrants and especially by living there as a foreigner myself, it was very natural for me to become more interested in immigration issues after returning to Japan.
I went to a university in Kanagawa prefecture. The school was close to the ISUZU factory and there were many foreign workers like Japanese Peruvians or Japanese Brazilians.
It was around this time when the Berlin Wall was taken down, so I decided to study International Relations, International Politics and Foreign Languages under the faculty of Policy Management. After that, I wanted to keep studying more about foreign workers so I continued on to a graduate school.
What does it mean to study sociology?
Basically, it is the study of a society, developed and organized by humans, and their social behaviors. Psychology is the study of the internal psyche of humans but sociology goes beyond individuals and examines what is behind their behaviours and thoughts.
After starting graduate school, I was looking for a support group for foreign workers and I attended an information session for a group in Yokohama where I found Kotobuki-cho. Although I had heard about an area (Doyagai) where there are more than a hundred of cheap lodging houses call Doya, I had never actually been there. I first was studying foreign workers who were coming to the support group but I gradually expand my research to Kotobuki-cho.
For you, how does doing research differ from doing volunteer work at that type of place?
I think volunteers and researchers have different perspectives. My work is driven by my desire to gain a deeper understanding of these issues.
I think most people, including myself, don’t know much about Kotobuki-cho, do they?
In Kotobuki-cho, one of the biggest problems is redesigning a new community building, much like the Carnegie Community Centre in the DTES. Many people from outside come to Kotobuki-cho saying “I want to make this town better” or “I want to improve (this town)”, but in my opinion there are things that don’t need to change. I can say the same thing for the DTES, the value or the quality of the town is contained in what is natural for the community.
What will your research lead to?
Good question… First, my research will be published as an article or a book. It will be just another piece of research in this field.
Speaking frankly, I don’t think my research will change the law or policies, or urban development. Research can be separated into two major categories: basic research and applied research. Sociology research is a part of basic research so our goal is to understand “what is happening” and “why is it happening.” I hope that these results will eventually help local residents.
Thank you for this opportunity to hear about the place I live (Vancouver’s DTES) from your unique perceptive.
For more information:
Kaoruko Yamamoto, Associate Professor
Tokyo Metropolitan University Graduate School of Urban Environmental Sciences, Department of Urban Science
The original article, in Japanese, appeared in the April 2016 issue of the Bulletin/Geppo.