Soccer skills – and a little media savvy – get one man off Japan's streets

Yutaro Gomikawa used his small-time fame on the national homeless soccer team to get government aid usually unavailable to young people.

You wouldn't think that being good at soccer was much use if you were a homeless man looking for work and shelter. But Yutaro Gomikawa can tell you different.

Mr. Gomikawa fell through the holes in Japan's social safety net with an act of foolishness. Last March, getting off work as a forklift driver in a frozen foods factory one evening, he stole a bike to save him the walk to a local videogame arcade.

He was caught, and locked up in a police station for 10 days. Not allowed to call his employer, he could not explain what had happened. By the time he got out and went back to work he found he had been fired. Worse, he had been kicked out of the room in the company dormitory where he had been living. (See related story about Tokyo's rise in homeless.)

No job, nowhere to live, and about $600 in savings – a pretty bleak prospect in the middle of Japan's worst recession since the Second World War, and Gomikawa had soon spent all his money renting cubicles in all-night Internet cafes for $10 a night.

So he moved to a Tokyo park and began making a little money selling the "Big Issue," a magazine benefiting homeless people. Staff at the magazine told him about the soccer team that Japan was planning to send to the Homeless World Cup this month in Milan, Italy. He tried out, and won a place on the team.

Young, voluble, and gifted, he attracted media attention. A national daily interviewed him. A TV channel aired a story about him. And he realized how he could use this to his advantage.

Normally, he says, officials at the welfare office had "a very nasty attitude" when he went to apply for help. That is common in Japan, activists say, and young people scarcely ever get any welfare assistance.

Gomikawa, though, had an ace up his sleeve. "I called the TV station that had covered me and took a crew along with me the next time I went to apply," he says. The officials who interviewed him "were the complete opposite of how they had been before," he recalls.

Now he has a small room and a welfare check generous enough to live on. He still doesn't have a job. But he is going to enjoy his week in Milan to the full.

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