In a corner of Tokyo, existence is far from glitzy

Northeastern Tokyo has been the center of the city's homeless community for centuries.

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    A homeless man sat on a chair in front of a clinic run by a civic group supporting the homeless in Tokyo’s Sanya district, in December 2008.
    Toru Yamanaka/Newscom
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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

In the seedy northeastern corner of this wealthy capital, thousands of people live under makeshift shelters in public parks or share cramped quarters in rooming houses. It’s been that way for three centuries or more, since leather workers and other outcasts were first relegated to the Sanya neighborhood between the Sumida River and the historic Yoshiwara.

For the aging men who camp out in the local parks or on the sidewalks, a small evangelical Christian mission provides a lifeline in a society in which Christians make up barely 1 percent of the populace. On a typical Sunday, volunteers make rice balls seasoned with spices and sesame seeds to hand out to patiently waiting lines of men and a few women.

The stories of their plights vary.

A number of the men say they are looking for jobs as day laborers on construction projects, but that steady work is hard to come by. Another man scrapes by, picking up old newspapers and selling them for a pittance to a recycling firm. All count on welfare from the government.

At the Christian mission, Azusa Imamura delivers a sermon before she and others hand out lunches of Japanese-style curry rice. She wonders if the government is helping them enough while resources are diverted for the March 11 earthquake and tsunami devastation.

“What is the government doing here for the people?” she asks. “Now they’re loaning money to rebuild small hotels. They are too expensive for poor people to stay in them.”

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