Morning comes early to Tokyo's biggest slum. Well before dawn, hundreds of men in work boots and khakis cluster along the streets, desperate for one thing: a job for the day.

Tsuyoshi Inoue doesn't even bother. With fewer construction company agents cruising the boulevard these days, the chances of getting work in the gritty Sanya neighborhood are waning."There are just no jobs," he said, sitting beside his home - a tarp-covered box next to the Sumida River. "Most of those who have work had it lined up before. The rest are just wasting their time."

Japan is facing its toughest economic slump in decades, with bankruptcies mounting and unemployment climbing to a postwar high - 4.1 percent in April, the government reported Friday. The jobless rate would be higher by Western standards, but Japan counts anyone who works at least one hour in a month as fully employed.

While the economic pain most mainstream Japanese feel is limited to cuts in overtime or shrinking bonuses, the day laborers of Sanya are at the cruel mercy of the market: tough times mean no work at all.

"If the economy is good, this is the last place to benefit," said Kunio Nozaki, head of the city-run Johoku Welfare Center in Sanya. "When the economy is bad, the people here are the first to lose their jobs."

Inoue learned this the hard way. He came to Sanya from Osaka in western Japan 10 years ago, at the height of the 1980s construction boom. But then the real estate market ran off the tracks in the early 1990s - and so did his life.

So far this year, Inoue has been able to scrape up odd jobs six or seven days a month. He was looking forward to three days of work lined up at a festival in a nearby neighborhood.

"There's always a lot of garbage at those festivals, and I'll be cleaning it up," said Inoue, 48.

Hard living in Sanya, in northeast Tokyo, didn't start with Japan's economic troubles. The neighborhood, built on feudal execution grounds, has been a ghetto for minorities and other social castoffs for centuries.

But changes in today's Japan are dealing the area a knockout blow.

The whole Japanese economy is ailing, but the main employer of day laborers in Sanya - the construction industry - is on life-support. Housing starts fell 11.9 percent in March, the 15th straight month of declines, and the government said Friday that new construction contracts plunged 15.1 percent in April, the fourth consecutive monthly drop.

In addition, while all of Japan is graying, Sanya is getting old in a hurry. The average age for laborers here is 57, and many look haggard after years of manual labor, homelessness, hard drinking and disease. Employers often refuse to hire anyone over 50.

"It's a very severe situation," said Nozaki at the welfare center. "It's hard to imagine that things will get better."

Life wasn't always quite so hopeless in Sanya, the biggest of several day-labor markets in Tokyo. The worker population here topped 15,000 in the building boom of the 1950s and 1960s, and the construction surge of the 1980s kept the area bustling until the downturn this decade.

Even now, the area is tidy compared to slums in other countries. Shops, new buildings and spiffy homes are mixed in with run-down lodgings and seedy bars. Around the corner from the welfare center is the Coffee House Bach, where customers listen to concertos while sipping espresso.

But the day laborer way of life is fading. With jobs drying up and employers turning to younger immigrant workers, Sanya is increasingly becoming a place for those whose lives have crashed.

As flophouse rents ratchet higher thanks to urban renewal, homelessness is spreading. Several hundred squatter tents like Inoue's have sprouted along the river.