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.

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.

Downward spiral

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.

Similarly, each ward makes ad-hoc decisions on where to allow the homeless to stay. The homeless can set up tents in one limited strip of Yoyogi Park, provided they keep it clean and don't spill over into the popular pedestrian areas. In Shinjuku Park, the local government parceled up part of the green space into a grid of two-tatami mat spaces - about the size of the smallest possible bedroom. Packed into dense rows, the tents here are marked as though they were real addresses, with painted wooden markers in the dirt that read, like Hideo Wada's, "3-29" (row 3, tent 29).

Inside, Mr. Wada and a friend hunch over a sliced apple, their two bodies filling Wada's entire home, heads almost touching the ceiling. The Shinjuku ward office once gave out noodles, he says, but now has stopped. They fear it's because conservative Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara - whose mammoth municipal office nearby virtually towers over their tents - wants to clear them out of the park before next year's World Cup soccer tournament, to be held here and in Korea.

"We know that lots of foreign visitors will come, and they'll be shocked that these kinds of conditions exist in Japan," says Wada, whose box has some of the trappings of an ordinary home: a calendar on a chopstick-thin beam holding up the "wall," an umbrella sitting outside, a one-burner portable stove.

This tent slum, which numbers about 130 people, includes three married couples and a few who have held down corporate jobs, he says. But more common are those like Wada and his friend, men in their late '50s who had relied on day jobs. They are too young to receive the social security they can receive at 65. And, having fallen into a transient position in life, they wound up without an address with which to apply for welfare.

Many others refuse to apply for any government help at all.

Indignity of asking for help

"It's beneath their pride. They don't want to be a burden on the people of Japan," says Thomas Gill, a University of Tokyo anthropologist and expert on Japan's homeless and day laborers.

"There are also many people who apply for assistance and get turned down," he adds. Welfare is a temporary measure. One must show a disability or illness to receive help, a citizen must have worked for some time in order to obtain unemployment insurance; new college graduates, for example, are not eligible. But most problematic, he says, is the need to show an address in order to apply. "It's a great paradox here: you need welfare because you're homeless, but because you're homeless you can't get welfare because you have no address."

But Japanese leaders, Professor Gill adds, are no longer closing their eyes.

"I think the government has started to take notice," he says. Last year's national budget had an allocation for the homeless for the first time: 100 million yen, or about $815,000. "It's small, but it's a sign that the government isn't totally in denial."

But some here wonder whether homeless people will accept government help if they, like Sasaki, won't accept it from their own families. "I know they're well-off now and they have grandchildren, but I could never go back to them because I wouldn't want to be in anyone's care," says Sasaki, over a conversation in his living room - a park picnic table - as women glide by for an afternoon jog.

One of Sasaki's odd jobs involves waiting on line for baseball tickets for the yakuza, Japan's mafia. The yakuza scalpers pay nominal fees for waiting on line, then collect hundreds of tickets for scalping at higher prices. The job affords him a mobile phone, which sticks out of his shirt pocket so casually, so cleanly, that a passerby might mistake him for a retired schoolteacher. His contacts can call him, but he can't use the phone for personal calls.

"Living like this, at least we have the knowledge that we can live on our own, control our own lives," he says. "If some of these salarymen got thrown out because of restructuring, they wouldn't know what to do or how to survive. You have to get used to this life, and I have. But I would like to live better. When the economy was doing well, there were more jobs on construction sites, more extra food to be found. It's getting harder to get by now."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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