Japan's economic downturn pushes more onto streets

Homelessness has doubled over the past year, say some, as once-vaunted community and company support has frayed. Many people sleep in parks or 24-hour Internet cafes.

Homelessness has doubled over the past year in Japan as the nation faces economic downturn. Some say once-vaunted community and company support has frayed and many people now sleep in parks or 24-hour Internet cafes.

By the time the police arrived at 7 a.m. last Monday to move him on from the Ikebukuro subway station where he had spent the night, Isao Ito had been awake for some time.

He had been poring over the jobs section of a magazine, and he hadn't slept well anyway.

Newly arrived in the capital in search of work, he said, "I haven't eaten or slept for three days. I'm alone, and I'm nervous about sleeping rough."

Welcome to the global recession, Japanese style. As Mr. Ito has just found, perhaps nowhere else in the industrialized world is it so easy to slip from just getting by to utter destitution.

Some 460,000 people have lost their jobs in Japan since the "Lehman shokku," as people here call it – the day last September when the collapse of Lehman Bros. bank triggered a worldwide financial crisis.

Half of them, like Ito, were on temporary or part-time contracts that gave them no unemployment or other social security insurance.

Thousands lived in company housing, and when they lost their livelihoods, they lost their homes. Today they sleep in parks, under bridges, and in railway stations. If they still have a little money, they bunk down for the night in cubicles in 24-hour Internet cafes.

Homeless numbers swell

Though official figures disguise the scale of the crisis, says Shoji Sano, founder of the Japanese edition of the "Big Issue," a magazine sold by homeless people, "judging by the number of people who go to soup kitchens, I'd say the number of homeless in Tokyo has doubled" over the past year.

Government statistics say there are 3,105 homeless in the capital. But when "Big Issue" volunteers handed out a booklet to homeless people offering advice on finding food, jobs, and medical help, they got through 11,000 in a few weeks, says Eriko Sato, a staffer on the magazine.

And the homeless, camped under blue tarpaulins along the riverbank or stretched out on cardboard boxes in railway stations, are only the most visible signs of a broader problem in a nation that prides itself on being middle class. Twenty million people, one-sixth of the population, now live below the poverty line, according to official figures.

"When you fall out of the safety net in Japan, you wouldn't believe what is not available," says Charles McJilton, who runs a food bank distributing food to needy Tokyo residents.

Seventy-seven percent of unemployed Japanese have no unemployment insurance for example, according to a report earlier this year by the International Labor Organization. That compares with 57 percent in the United States.

Japan's traditional support system was based on the family and community on one hand, and on companies that often offered jobs for life on the other. Community and family ties have frayed in a more mobile society, and companies jumped at the chance that free-market reforms earlier this decade gave them to hire temporary workers without paying social security contributions, and to fire them at will.

As those poorly paid workers lose their jobs, with few chances of finding another one so long as the recession lasts, more and more younger men are ending up on the streets.

Of the 5,400 people that an official survey found sleeping in Internet cafes two years ago, 41 percent were under 30.

"The average age of people staying here has fallen from 53 to 49," says Hiroshi Ibe, manager of a homeless shelter in the Chiyoda district of central Tokyo. "Most of them used to be construction day laborers, but it is clear that more and more of the homeless now used to work in manufacturing."

In recent months, says Isao Matsumoto, an official at "Tokyo Challenge," a municipal agency helping the homeless, the city's five shelters have been swamped. "A year ago they were 70 percent full," he recalls. "Now they are 100 percent full. More people come seeking shelter than we have room for."

Until Sept. 1, men who left a shelter had to wait three months before they were readmitted. Now the waiting period has been extended to six months. "We want to give everyone a chance," says Mr. Ibe.

Big barriers to finding a job or home

When they leave the shelter, they are meant to move to a self-support center and start looking for work. Only half of them actually do so, however. The other half, Ibe acknowledges, go back to the streets – often because they see no hope of finding a job. (Read about how Yutaro Gomikawa's skill at soccer changed unemployment officials' attitude toward the homeless man.)

"If I talked about my situation openly I don't think an employer would hire me," says Kenji Yoshida, who had been living rough for 10 months before he sought help at the Chiyoda shelter. "That's why I always hide my homelessness."

And even those lucky few who do find jobs are hardly any nearer to finding a home. Japanese landlords generally require two months' rental as "key money," two months' rental as deposit, and a month's rent in advance, not to mention a guarantor who will pay any overdue bills. Few homeless men can come up with that.

Late last year, the government made 13,000 housing units available to homeless people, and has so far filled 7,666 of them, according to official figures. But that is not a lasting solution, argues Mr. McJilton, who once lived as a homeless person in Tokyo for 18 months.

Welfare officials are notoriously reluctant to put young single men on the rolls, finding all kinds of excuses to exclude them, according to homeless activists. And without welfare or a job, many of the newly housed homeless are unable to pay their utility bills.

The housing project may have cleared a lot of people off the streets, but it has not done much more, argues McJilton. "The government is more interested in keeping the peace than in solving the problem," he complains.

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