Tokyo Homeless Get Booted, A Sign of Japanese Unease

IN scenes reminiscent of similar confrontations in US cities, Tokyo police yesterday ducked eggs and insults as they pulled homeless people from a barricade of plywood and potted trees.

Squads of blue-uniformed police evicted some 200 people from a long, underground walkway in Tokyo's massive Shinjuku train station.

''To tell you the truth,'' says Maria Shibano, a supporter of the homeless, ''I'm really worried about martial law.''

In all likelihood, however, Tokyo's way of handling a growing number of street people is not an indication of resurgent militarism. Instead, say other analysts, it is a sign that Japan is not the country it used to be, where families and communities provided finely knotted, social safety nets.

Now some Japanese wind up on the street, particularly older male laborers who have had a difficult time finding work during Japan's four-year-long recession. The problem, says Tadamasa Fukiura, who heads a private organization that has long struggled to have the government help sometimes impoverished refugees, is that there is no tradition of public welfare in Japan.

''The general public does not feel sympathy for [homeless people],'' he adds. There is a feeling ''that they are lazy people who cannot adjust themselves to the community.''

As for the government, Mr. Fukiura concludes, ''The idea of social welfare is imported from other countries.''

''In Japan the overwhelming majority of homeless people are single middle-aged or elderly unemployed men,'' Osaka University sociologist Midori Komobuchi told the Mainichi newspaper late last year. ''That's because family solidarity in Japan is breaking down, and social conscience is at a low ebb,'' he says.

But the use of force prompted concerns like Ms. Shibano's. She asserts that Japan's police and military are intent on expanding their role in government. In the wake of the nerve-gas attacks in the Tokyo subway system last March, some Japanese also worried that the government would use repressive means to maintain social order.

The city has been offering the Shinjuku train station homeless the use of shelter in an industrial part of Tokyo once used to accommodate Indochinese refugees. But of the 200 people evicted from the station, news reports say, only 50 have agreed to go to the shelter.

''We won't go to the shelter,'' one bearded man said yesterday, squatting near piles of cardboard and blankets apparently salvaged from the police eviction. Exhibiting an unwillingness to sacrifice independence for creature comforts accompanied by rules and regulations, the man insists that ''only those who can't feed themselves will go to the shelter.''

Sitting with two other men, one keeping a gloved hand over his nose against the winter cold, he adds: ''We can feed ourselves.''

Japanese sometimes complain about the inadequacies of their lifestyle, but the populace is overwhelmingly well-educated, well-fed, and employed. There are poor people, but they are relatively few and largely inconspicuous.

But since 1990, the number of homeless in big cities has grown as the economy slowed down. Last year census takers reported a homeless population of some 3,500 in Tokyo, but advocates and those who help street people say the number may be three times as high.

The Shinjuku walkway, whose western end lies near the foot of the massive skyscraper that houses Tokyo's municipal bureaucrats, has long been a gathering spot for homeless people.

Men and some women regularly assembled cardboard shanties in the evening, rolling in carts that contained their possessions. The shopkeepers and restaurateurs whose businesses line the walkway complained vociferously.

The local business association funded a private cleaning service to combat the smell of urine that offended many commuters and would-be customers passing through the walkway.

Police and city officials repeatedly attempted eviction, warning that the city would follow through on an announced plan to build a moving walkway that would displace the cardboard shanties. Yesterday, they carried out that promise.

Shopkeepers like Yuka Kasagi, who works in a drugstore near the walkway, feel that the police eviction was appropriate and necessary. ''I sympathize with them,'' she says of the homeless, ''but I think their removal was inevitable.''

She and other merchants say the homeless frightened customers, occasionally shoplifted, and generally presented an ''image problem.''

In some respects, the eviction underscores how much Japan's urban centers are coming to resemble the world's other leading cities, rather than standing apart as oases of safety, order, and cleanliness.

That message has come home in more brutal ways. In the past three months, two homeless men have been killed by youths, according to police. In an Oct. 18 Osaka case, police say, young men placed a cart, in which a homeless man was sleeping, astride the rail of a bridge.

When he awoke, he fell into the river and drowned. This crime and a more recent incident in Tokyo have shocked many Japanese.

One columnist, writing on the Osaka district where the October incident took place, mournfully recalled that the people of the area are known ''for their lack of affectation and their warmth, even to strangers.''

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