Well-ordered homelessness: life on Japan's fringe
Mr. Sasaki has nearly hit rock bottom. But like any respectable Japanese, when he's at home, his shoes are neatly set outside his dwelling - a tarp-covered cardboard box.Skip to next paragraph
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Once upon a time, Sasaki was a chemical-company employee and family man. But last year, he joined the growing ranks of Japanese living in public gardens, subway stations, or simply on the street.
Most of Japan's homeless are, like Sasaki, in their late '50s or older. Yet in a culture that takes pride in a strong safety net for all citizens and places respect for older people high on its list of priorities, the weakening of two institutions responsible for helping out - the government and families - is becoming more acute.
"To hide a tree, you put it in a forest," says Sasaki, who lives in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park and uses an assumed name because he won't seek help from his children or his five siblings. He prefers to stay self-sufficient, he says, making some money from odd jobs.
In Tokyo alone, the number of homeless has swelled to 5,700, more than double that of five years ago. The world's second-largest economy now has at least 20,500 homeless. This may pale in comparison with the US, a country with twice Japan's population and about 750,000 homeless "on any given night," according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington, and as many as 2 million "who experience homelessness for some period of time."
But according to Japan's homeless advocates and academics, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare's statistics belie numbers that are far higher. Sasaki's story is not exactly typical, they say: The middle-class "salaryman" being laid off and tossed into the street overnight is more myth than reality. Yet thousands are winding up homeless after taking the same route as Sasaki - to pay-per-day construction work that is drying up in Japan's economic slump.
After he got divorced 15 years ago, Sasaki made his way to a neighborhood in northeast Tokyo known as a mecca for men willing to work for day rates. During Japan's "bubble years," when the economy was caught in a euphoric growth spurt, workers could depend on earning enough to eat and pay the rent in flophouses and cheap hotels.
That bubble lost much of its air in the early 1990s, and was deflated yet again in the '97 Asian financial crisis, from which Japan has yet to recover. Now, amid a world economic downturn felt particularly hard in debt-ridden Japan, there is scant cash for new building projects. For thousands, the construction slowdown has erased the ability to keep food on one's table - and a roof over one's head that is made of more than blue plastic sheeting.
In Tokyo's parks, the homes of the homeless are made of such identical materials and of such uniform shape - either a rectangular box or a peaked, triangle - that they look at first glance like modern campgrounds. Surroundings are immaculate and lacking in evidence of the scourges that tend to run parallel to homelessness in the West: alcohol and drug abuse. Virtually nowhere in this city are the poor seen panhandling or asking for donations, viewed by most as a degrading act.
But there is also a scarcity of volunteer groups working to help the homeless where the government does not, because independent charities don't enjoy widespread popularity in Japan.
And Tokyo only has two homeless shelters - with an extra one opened for winter but closed in March - though the city government promised to start building a 300-bed facility in April.
Each of Tokyo's 23 wards sets its own policy for how it wants to deal with the homeless. Many, but not all, wards have a small daily or weekly handout of various survival goods. Some distribute a serving of rice or noodles, while others give a kit that includes clean underwear and a toothbrush, or a voucher to bathe at a sento, or public bath.