Japan's homeless face ageism

Living in a shack under Tokyo's elevated expressway, Hiroshi finds himself hitting an invisible wall - his age.

The stocky man in his early 50s, who declined to give his real name, started living on the street after losing his job as a forklift operator. Despite decades of experience in that job, he cannot get rehired.

"I apply for the position many times, but companies never look at my skill but only pay attention to my age," he says, shaking his head in wonder.

Hiroshi's experience is not unique. The number of homeless people in Japan is on the rise, and experts say that ingrained cultural attitudes about age are exacerbating the situation. The problem has become so prevalent that Doctors Without Borders - a nongovernmental health organization accustomed to missions in the poorest of nations - has sent staff to this hi-tech, high-rise capital.

In central Tokyo, the number of the homeless nearly doubled to about 6,000 in February 2003 from 3,200 five years ago. A first-ever nationwide survey found 25,296 homeless people in Japan. But the actual number of the homeless is much larger, insist those close to the issue.

The survey also shows that the average age of the homeless is 55. 9 years old and that those from 50 to 64 years old make up about two-thirds of that population. Moreover, about 55 percent of them used to work in construction; many were day laborers who toiled without fringe benefits to help Japan flourish in the postwar era. But the recession has hit contractors hard.

In February this year, Tokyo announced that 2,000 apartment rooms would be rented out in the next two years to park dwellers. The government will employ them for six months in such jobs as cleaning or guarding public spaces.

Some welcomed Tokyo's step and said other big cities should follow suit. But Mitsuo Nakamura, a leader of a support group for the homeless, says renting out rooms is not the answer.

"Many of the homeless are desperate for a job. But there are no jobs," Mr. Nakamura says. "We should respect their willingness to work."

In Japan, however, not only the homeless but those over 35 have difficulty finding a job - especially if they are unmarried. Companies expect married men to work more strenuously, since husbands here are usually the sole breadwinners.

That's why most of the homeless are middle-aged or older single men - a unique aspect of the problem of homelessness in Japan, activists say.

"Most of the homeless are systematically eliminated from society," says Nakamura. Japan's homeless problem is attributed to "deeply rooted discrimination."

While homeless people suffer from low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy, age discrimination reinforces their sense of alienation, say those who look after them.

Yoshie Omura, a nurse with Doctors Without Borders, says one homeless man broke into tears when she simply said hello. "Because they are alienated from society for a long time, they don't expect to be spoken to," she says.

Nobuyuki Kanematsu, director of the Association Against Ageism, a nonprofit organization near Tokyo, says age discrimination comes from a prejudice against middle-aged and older people.

"Companies tend to think people in that age group are stubborn, inflexible, weak, and forgetful," says Mr. Kanematsu. "Regardless of age, there are capable people."

Another factor of the discrimination is Japanese discomfort with a younger boss having an older subordinate, he adds.

Some citizens like Kanematsu, who has brought a lawsuit against the government for ageism, are demanding that the government outlaw such discrimination. Officials at the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare say they will take action by the end of the year against those employers who discriminate against older job applicants without "legitimate reason."

Kanematsu worries about loopholes. He argues that Japan must develop interest groups that look after the rights of minorities, like the elderly and homeless, to keep pressure on the government to act.

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