Browsing magazine racks for too long can start to feel like drowning in an engorged river of celebrities, elite businessmen, and famous artists. As you flip through the lifestyles and philosophies of people clamoring for media attention, it can get harder and harder to hold the daydreams at bay.
“I can be like these people!” “Someday, somehow, I want to live like that.” “I want to make an ‘impact’ on the world too!”
As we think these thoughts, not many of us stop to wonder who built the road we walked across to buy the magazines, or who laid the girders that hold up the buildings where we sit back and dream our masochistic dreams. Who installed the waterworks that keep our urban lifestyle flowing? Who built the power lines, or the gas lines?
The answer is as obvious as it is unglamorous. Construction workers, working in obscurity in plain sight – often in danger, usually in mud – built all those things.
Founded in Tokyo this spring, BLUE’S MAGAZINE is a Japanese free paper that dares to turn the media spotlight back on the people who built it. Self-billed as a “construction culture magazine,” its covers highlight topics, from features on “today’s” construction market to profiles of the personal dramas and aesthetic sensibilities shaped by life in the construction world. At a glance, the concept might seem to raise the eternal media question “is there any demand for this,” but while we scratch our heads about market research, more and more bookstores and magazine sellers are reporting selling out of the magazine. With barely half a year in circulation, BLUE’S itself is on the verge of becoming part of the story.
But is it about the construction lifestyle that appeals to so many readers across Japan?
“There’s no media anywhere about these guys, but they’re so cool!”
The concept behind BLUE’S MAGAZINE began with that thought, which had haunted Tomonobu Yanagi for years. Active in Japan’s punk rock scene, Yanagi simultaneously works as the manager of a waterworks construction firm with around thirty employees. He took over as manager of the crew when he was only twenty-three, and in the ten years since then he’s known little rest as he rushes from site to site and stage to stage.
A dedicated construction man, Yanagi says his greatest source of pride comes from working with his crew. Making money runs a distant second to the joys of throwing all his skill and knowledge into a project and achieving something great, in spite of all the difficulties and dangers along the way. Even with broken bones and other major injuries, Yanagi never takes a day off. He hears echoes, he says, of his beloved golden age of 70s punk in the “brass knuckles” mentality his crew brings to work every day. According to Yanagi, the inspiration behind BLUE’S came when he realized the general public couldn’t see what he saw.
“TV, radio, magazines – no matter what media I looked at, there was nothing that put a spotlight on these guys. When people think about construction, most of them imagine corrupt officials who use tax money for useless works projects – or worse, they just imagine these soulless, scary-looking guys working behind fences, whose lives have nothing to do with theirs. But every one of those guys has his own drama and his own beauty. It’s wrong to keep that locked up behind a fence.”
“Let’s show the world the life you guys live!”
Last year, Yanagi met an unlikely partner who would help give voice to his passion. His name was Gensho Ishimaru, a pioneer of Japanese “new journalism” best known for writing lurid prose about his experience with drugs. Ishimaru says he first met Yanagi on Twitter, and within three minutes the two knew they were onto something special.
“When I listened to Yanagi-san’s stories, I thought ‘we can make a magazine tomorrow!’”
What has surprised Ishimaru most about making the magazine, however, has been the chance to rediscover construction workers as “part of the cultural life of cities.” Often ridiculed and feared as “dirty, rough, and dangerous,” Japanese construction workers, according to Ishimaru, are sometimes seen as living a life completely alienated from what we think of as culture.
“But that’s just not how it is,” Ishimaru says. “The truth is, when you look around a construction site, you can find a lot of aspiring actors and musicians, working sort of in embryo. In other words, a construction site is a crossroads for really expressive people – and even if they’re not quite ‘artists,’ you see that the workers have a sense of beauty about them, like a mindset that they should absolutely wear high-end things. That’s what I learned from Yanagi-san: there are all kinds of culture mixing together at every construction site, from music and fashion to literature and cuisine. If we could show people this, I knew we’d be able to help create a completely new kind of urban culture.”
“Their day begins with exhausting physical work and ends with sake and early sleep,” say enough songs, poems, and novels to fill a library. But Yanagi, who has lived the punk lifestyle while working construction, understands the cultural life concealed under the hardhats, and he recognizes that cultural sensibility as part of the fierce energy that drives his employees in their work. These men, he says, live within and help build the emotional and cultural life of Japan’s cities – in the end, they’re really no different from the rest of us living in the cities.
Driven by this awareness, BLUE’S MAGAZINE opens a door onto the intellectual and creative life hidden beneath Yanagi’s taciturn construction crews. As the stories flood off the pages, it’s hard not to be warmed by the pride and loyalty that has driven Yanagi for his thirty years as a waterworks construction manager. As they work laying pipes around the city, most of Yanagi’s men are full of secret, lively ambitions to become rappers and punk musicians.
“The magazine’s name comes from ‘blue collar,’” Yanagi explains, “but it’s not just a masochistic thing. I wanted to make a magazine that shouts out, proudly, ‘we’re the BLUE team!’”
For all his pride, Yanagi doesn’t deny the harsh realities of the construction business, and he takes today’s shortage of young laborers very seriously. In the old days, he says, young people lined up to join a business they saw as robust and exciting, but those numbers have dropped sharply today – despite overwhelming demand for new, skilled workers. In water infrastructure alone, more than seventy percent of the pipes running through Tokyo need to be replaced with “aseismatic pipes” that can withstand high-magnitude earthquakes. People have been clamoring for years, Yanagi says, about the risk of underground earthquakes in Tokyo, but if current conditions are left as they are, serious dangers may lie in wait for the city.
This lack of public appreciation for construction work is also visible in responses to the rebuilding efforts around the Tohoku region, which was ravaged by the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. The first three issues of BLUE’S MAGAZINE featured continuing coverage of reconstruction projects in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, with intense reportage on the personal experiences of many of the workers who helped out in the area.
“The magazine focuses on the construction world in general,” Ishimaru says, “but reconstruction in the Fukushima area is too huge a reality to ignore. If there were no construction workers, this reconstruction couldn’t happen. You’d think the workers who rebuilt these towns would be treated as heroes, but it’s been shocking to see how few people have done anything to praise them. People may have ‘felt’ thankful, but not many of them took the time to say it. In the end, I figured that if the mainstream media wasn’t going to cover these stories, we’d do it ourselves.”
Another important but little-publicized issue in the last few years has been the growing number of foreign guest workers who have come to Japan to fill the gap created by the shrinking supply of Japanese workers. Ever since its prelaunch issue, BLUE’S has featured a monthly column titled “From Far Away – Japan’s Foreign Workers,”* which collects stories from these workers and shines a light on the life of a foreign laborer in Japan.
*“Tōku Hanarete: Za Gaikokujin Rōdōsha” in Japanese.
“Originally, these workers were mostly Asian, but recently there have been a lot more workers from Africa and America,” Yanagi explains. “And despite the stereotype, they’re not just coming to send money back home. We’re getting more and more skilled laborers with work visas who want to stay in Japan permanently – and the truth is, most of them do really great work. We have this mindset that ‘we’re the country that knows how to make things,’ but if you take time to teach people the skills and customs that go into the work, you see that it really makes no difference where they’re from – they can learn it as well as anyone else. As time goes by, you start to realize that foreign labor can help build Japan’s future too.”
So far, BLUE’S MAGAZINE has published articles on workers from Côte d’Ivoire, China, and the Palestinian Territories.
As I continue talking with Yanagi and Ishimaru, my mind keeps coming back to a subject that stays with me as a member of the media: just by shining a light on people who rarely receive media coverage, BLUE’S MAGAZINE has a chance to overturn the values that shape so much of our work in media.
Before BLUE’S, no “culture magazine” had ever written profiles of the men who work at construction sites. Because of that, though, there are really no fixed rules or formulas for how to make such a magazine. Every issue’s layout, Ishimaru says, presents a fresh challenge, and forces the pair to reinvent the rules from zero. The best example of this may be the magazine’s cover design, which features photos of construction artist Hironari Kubota in a loincloth.
“I doubt a normal industry magazine would consider running a cover page like this, but but this represents an avant-garde power we have.
As he says this, the pride in Ishimaru’s voice is unmistakable.
The provocations and innovations don’t stop there. The magazine’s “food” section, for example, is devoted to spotlighting the favorite foods of laborers – and most of these, it turns out, are heavy on salt and oil. This material might seem out of step with a world where everyone seems to be going “low-cal” and “high fiber,” but in Ishimaru’s view, “the truth is that not that many people really live like that anyway.” In a cramped, rigid value system where everyone talks about “the right thing” or “the thing you can’t argue with,” the unadorned tastes of these workers may help give those of us outside the construction world the courage to live as we please.”
Yanagi continues. “Whenever I hear something in the news about a young person who’s committed some terrible crime because he’s dissatisfied with society or he feels like there’s nothing real in his life, I always think, ‘before you do something like that, come and see what we do!’ It’s really hard work, obviously, but there’s exactly as much fun in it as there is difficulty, and it comes with a real feeling of fulfillment. I want more people to understand that about what we do.”
Looking ahead, BLUE’S MAGAZINE plans to keep running material that’s a step or two outside the borders of mainstream society. Upcoming features articles which encourages “Fistfights” and a special issue about the traditional tattoos worn by Japanese laborers.
Behind their jumpsuited, grubby exteriors, the workers you see along Japan’s streets help create one of the hidden faces of urban culture – and, just maybe, a freer, more open way of life. At BLUE’S MAGAZINE, the experiment to “overturn” cultural values has only begun.