Open House

Stuart Braun

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 work.

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.

"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 McJilton.

Typical make-shift shelter
Michael McDonagh

Skid row
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 become homeless.

Sanya day laborer (read: homeless) summer festival
Stuart Braun

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.

House proud
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 
street abode

Michael McDonagh

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 no choice.

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:  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 Laborers' Association
Contact: Nasubi 
1-25-11 Nihon-zutumi, Taito-ku 
Tel/fax: 03-3876-7073. 

Rice Patrol
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:



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394: Sister act
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391: Everything old is new
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389: Up from the underground
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388: First wave
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387: Water world
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386: Open house
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385: A moveable feast
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384: Hair
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383: Summer in the city
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382: Tokyo Tomorrow
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381: From zero to hero
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380: Island escapade
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379: Open-air fare
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377: Sonic relief
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376: All at sea
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375: Your cup of tea
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373: Freetown
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370: Admit one
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369: After a fashion
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368: Bandwidth wagon
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367: Just for sports
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366: Life's a hitch
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364: The Fringe Club
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361: The lowdown on TC
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360: A reversal of fortune
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359: Funny Valentine
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358: Two-faced
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357: Read all about it comes to Japan
356: Daikanyama
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355: Wash out
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354: Means to an end
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352/3: Last Laugh
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351: It's a wrap
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350: Cable ready
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I called it home

An American roughs it in Yoyogi Park

by Dan Grunebaum

From October to December 1998, American Ken Heath (not his real name), and his Japanese girlfriend called Yoyogi Park home. "I was not prepared to pay rent on two places, my marriage was ending and I wanted to live with my girlfriend," Heath explains. For almost three months Heath and his girlfriend slept, cooked, and commuted to work from the park, bathing at a nearby Harajuku public bath.

The 30-something English teacher rejects the common image of homeless as derelict, alcoholic, or mentally ill. "You never saw bunches of guys sitting around getting tanked, and I see more mentally ill on the train than I did in the park," he says.

To the contrary, Heath says that he could leave his things lying around without fear of theft. "In comparison, I was recently in the States and was working next to a homeless hangout. It was intimidating to walk by and there was often trouble. But in Yoyogi Park there was none."

Heath was a bit worried when he first moved in. "I was nervous how I would be received. I pitched my tent in the first place I happened on. A guy came over and said not here, it was too close to him. So I went into the hills of the park and decided on a really nice location. There was an old guy there and he said it was fine as there weren't so many people around.

"He had been there 20 years and became our friend, often sharing meals with us. He chose to live there because - for whatever reasons - he didn't want to cut it with society. He was a carpenter and had set up a nice two-bedroom villa."

Heath says that many of the "residents" of Yoyogi Park go to work every day, and that some come to sleep only at night. He believes that many have fallen out with their families, and rather than face them they have run away.

But things weren't entirely a lark in the woods. Heath recalls that one day, word filtered around that there had been two suicides. "These are the same people getting beaten up by punks when they go around convenience stores looking for food," he notes.

Once a week two volunteers would come around and check on every single inhabitant, taking a serious interest in their welfare.

But he takes a dimmer view of the government handling of the situation. "Once a month, in order to verify there are no homeless in Tokyo, everybody is asked to move out for a few hours. Then they take photographs and show their higher-ups and say, 'See, there aren't any homeless here.'"

"A lot of people would be aghast," concludes Heath about his sojourn in Yoyogi Park. "But for me it wasn't being homeless. It was home. We had friends, beautiful scenery - it was a good time and a great location."