Tokyo might be
rich, technologically advanced and the pride of the developed world, yet many people are
sleeping on the streets. Stuart Braun investigates.
It's 5am and amid the shriek of crows and the clanging of early morning delivery vans over
200 men, most aged over 50, line up in an orderly fashion to receive their morning rations
of rice and bread. This is not Bombay, nor Moscow, but Tokyo's Shinjuku station at the
west exit that leads to the financial heart of one of the world's richest cities. Having
slept rough on scraps of cardboard around the exit and facing eviction by police if they
resume their position, the men eat their food and take to the streets in search of work -
day laboring, selling discarded magazines - or somewhere to rest. Most will wander between
rubbish bins and, in the winter, patches of sunshine, till bunking down in the evening in
the corner of a building or train station. For those long out of work and resigned to
destitution, they might decide to erect a semi-permanent cardboard or tarpaulin shelter in
a nearby park or under the cover of a railway-bridge or expressway. With no address, no
social welfare and no connection to a homogenous social structure that has little room for
the jobless and homeless, these men will add to the rising number of people that modern
Japan has forgotten.
No fixed address
Nojuku - people sleeping in the open air - is one of the most conspicuous hangovers of
Japan's burst bubble economy. The fabled salarymen of postwar Japan have, in contemporary
parlance, been "cut loose," and along with their jobs has gone their livelihood.
While official estimates vary, the current rate of homelessness is almost twice as high as
five years ago, and anyone who has lived long in the city will have noticed emergent
colonies of blue tarp tents spreading across Tokyo's parks and train stations. With
unemployment at an all-time high, an aging population and few government measures to
tackle the problem, the numbers will continue to spiral. According to figures released by
the Tokyo Metropolitan Government last March, 70 percent of homeless people in Tokyo are
able-bodied, and often skilled, men who lost their jobs through corporate restructuring
and a decline in the day-laborer market. Eighty percent of homeless people want to find
to figures released by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government last March, 70 percent of
homeless people in Tokyo are able-bodied, and often skilled, men who lost their jobs
through corporate restructuring and a decline in the day-laborer market.
"This is a crisis that was waiting to happen. It was going to occur with or without
the recession," says Charles McJilton, a homeless activist for over ten years and
coordinator for Foodbank Japan, a non-profit organization providing food to the homeless
and needy. In the early 1960s, he explains, a lot of workers, average age 25, entered the
city to build the infrastructure for the Olympics. Today, many of these men, average age
60, are unemployable. Combined with the recession and a huge influx of foreign labor, the
burgeoning homeless problem had long been on the horizon. "Even if there was a
recovery, these people are too old. The government knew this was going to happen but
hasn't addressed it, hasn't provided the pension benefits to deal with it," says
|Typical make-shift shelter
Lying at the fringes of northeast Tokyo, Sanya is the hidden, derelict face of the city. A
clearinghouse for the day laborers who fed the construction boom of the ?80s, thousands of
workers still use Sanya to broker employment in the stalling building industry. But today
many of these itinerant workers are jobless and, as a result, homeless. Flanked by rundown
flophouses, the main street is crowded with men sprawled on pavements and in gutters
sleeping. According to a coordinator at the Sanya Welfare Centre known as
"Nasubi," half of the gray, single-room apartments dominating Sanya's
streetscape are empty.
Nasubi is en route to Sanya's yearly summer festival for day laborers. Today, he notes, it
is a festival for the homeless. Sanya's transformation from working class area to ghetto
is a foreboding image for a country facing it's worst ever recession. In July,
unemployment in Japan rose to unprecedented levels (nudging five percent), and no social
safety net exists to deal with the problem. In a country whose social support system had
long hinged on the family and local community, the rapid social changes wrought since the
war, including a breakdown of the family unit, have resulted in extensive social
dislocation. But according to the government and the public in general, homelessness is an
individual, not a social or economic, problem. In effect, then, these men have chosen to
|Sanya day laborer (read: homeless)
Many of the men of Sanya
came to Tokyo from the countryside and have nowhere to go once the work dries up. Men like
Inoue-san are typical. Once a chef and then a day laborer, he was, until recently, without
regular work for 12 years. Having come to Tokyo from the country as a young man, he was
forced to live in a tarpaulin dwelling on the Sumida River and, though finding occasional
work, could not raise the money to pay the deposit on a room. Nor could he receive public
health care or public housing, having not worked 28 days out of the last two months - the
requirement to qualify for assistance. Recently he has found his way into regular work
but, as is typical, is forced to undertake compromising and dangerous tasks. Currently he
is working as a cleaner at a garbage incinerator and worries about exposure to toxic
dioxin chemicals. Still, he has little choice but to accept such poor working conditions.
At the least he is off the streets and can finally afford short-term accommodation.
But Inoue is one of the few to regain his independence. Nasubi says that the Sanya Welfare
Centre is one of only a handful of agencies set up to deal with the burgeoning number of
men who come knocking at their door. The lack of outside support is highlighted by the
fact that the resource center for the Welfare Centre was erected by the day laborers
themselves. Asked if the government helped fund the project, Nasubi laughs. "No, no,
we receive no help from government," he says. The situation is unlikely to change.
Recent comments from Prime Minister Koizumi that homeless people have low literacy levels
and, therefore, are the lowest rung of Japanese society are only reinforcing the sense of
hopelessness and marginality, says Nasubi.
A number of homeless - particularly older men - are reconciled to the increasing
likelihood that they will not be able to reenter mainstream society. People are going to
ask, "Where did you come from?" notes McJilton. But lobby groups such as the
Shibuya Free Association for the Right to Housing and Well-being of the HOMELESS
(Nojiren), have come out fighting, organizing petitions and lobbying hard to maintain the
standing of the homeless in the community. "We find ourselves stripped of shelter and
denied the means for a decent life. It is with anger that we, who have been condemned to
live on the streets as ?the wretched of the earth'? seek a right to housing," says
Nojiren's founding charter.
Tokyo's homeless also have a strong backing from unions who have been forced to shift
their focus from labor disputes to the plight, and rights, of the homeless. Itinerant
laborers have long rebelled against exploitation, from business, government, the yakuza
and the public at large. The movement was galvanized in the mid-'80s when a filmmaker,
documenting the life of the Sanya community, and a union boss were executed by the yakuza
in the streets of Sanya after exposing the Mafia's stranglehold on labor-contracting. Very
few jobs are available to day laborers through public employment agencies and the yakuza,
who often demand kickbacks, still control the hiring of construction workers, meaning that
salaries remain low and that homeless who find work have little chance of improving their
financial woes. Still, for most the work is not available, and the battle is against
police and governments bent on evicting the homeless from their dwellings along the Sumida
River and in Ueno Park.
The blue tarpaulin and cardboard shantytowns spreading across Tokyo's parks and train
stations signal a new culture for the city. More than a short-term blight on a prosperous
metropolis, these shantytowns are here to stay and the people who fill them are staying
faithful to the conventions of Japanese society. While "modern convenience"
might be a bit strong, primary locations for the homeless - on parts of the Sumida River,
for example, where there are fewer systematic "clean-outs" - have witnessed the
erection of clean and livable dwellings, some of which even contain solar power. And these
people are house-proud. Shoes must be taken off before entering and the interiors are
filled with books, magazines and curios collected from the street.
"Moving on" -
a homeless man is evicted from his
For 15 months Charles
McJilton lived in a cardboard house on the Sumida River, a place he still visits
regularly. What most impressed him was the way people looked after one another.
"People helped each other out in an effort to find work, and there was very little
theft because people looked out for your stuff." Still, there was the occasional
instance of harassment, particularly from young people, a problem that was highlighted by
the murder of a homeless person in Ryogoku recently. As for the threat of eviction,
McJilton describes the "bureaucratic ballet" - the monthly eviction process in
which the homeless dismantle their homes for an afternoon and move back in after the
inspectors have left. "It happens like clockwork. If anyone complains, the
bureaucrats have a photo to prove that the site is empty." Police and government are
covertly cooperative because they have no choice. "Where else are they going to
go?" he says.
While many of Tokyo's homeless are retaining their dignity in the face of a worsening
economy, the prognosis for the future is grim. Some might be industrious enough to secure
occasional work or procure money via the recycling of cardboard, aluminum cans or
magazines, but few will be able to afford accommodation, or adequate health care, and many
will die in the coming winter months. Terry White, coordinator of the Daily Rice Patrol, a
group of volunteers who have been delivering food to the homeless for 15 years, says he
has met thousands of people without a home. "Some have been young and have
consciously decided to drop out of society, some are alcoholics, some have missed the last
train home and some have been corporate presidents who have fallen out after a bad loan.
Some of these guys are hopeful, but there are many for whom it's a downward spiral? Once
these people have suffered a loss of face, a loss of stance in the community," he
continues, "then there is no one they can turn to." In the coming months, give a
thought then to the people sleeping rough in parks and train stations. For most, they have
How to help
Each of the following organizations could use contributions of food (rice), time or money.
Food Bank Japan
Contact: Charles E. McJilton
4-14-19-106 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku
Tel/fax (English): 03-3838-3827.
Tel/fax (Japanese): 03-3470-4639.
Email: FoodBankJapan@aol.com www.foodbankjapan.org Food
Bank will host a homeless forum on Dec 8 in Yotsuya, while in Aug "Study Walks"
will be held along the Sumida River.
Sanya Welfare Centre for Day
1-25-11 Nihon-zutumi, Taito-ku
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org www.jca.apc.org/nojukusha
Contact: Terry White (Franciscan Chapel Centre) 4-2-37 Roppongi, 4-chome, Minato-ku
Tel: (toll free) 01-3401-2141. Mobile 090-8501-8918. Email: email@example.com