Japan’s collective image of homelessness is a fairly bleak one: Men in unwashed clothing, faces devoid of expression, hauling armfuls of flattened cardboard that will be their resting place for the night; rows of depressingly permanent-looking blue tarp huts in parks and beneath bridges, tucked out of sight and out of mind.
The homeless men who gather around Sumiyoshi Park in Shinjuku on weekends, however, defy stereotypes. Clad in immaculate uniforms, the men laugh and shout as they run around the field, kicking a soccer ball about with the volunteers and staff of Big Issue Japan, a magazine that supports the homeless.
“It’s tough,” says Takayoshi Hirose, 44. “I used to do track and field, but it’s been nearly 20 years since I’ve had to run this hard.”
A former member of the Ground Self Defense Force, Hirose maneuvers the ball with surprising ease and continues to practice while the other players go on their break.
“My doctor told me not to train too hard because of my health problems,” confides Hitoshi Shibuki, 56, who sells the Big Issue on the streets of Tokyo. “But playing soccer is so much fun, it makes me want to beat my illnesses.”
Living without a permanent address or steady income, most of the players usually have little idea where they will be a week from now, let alone in six months. This winter, however, they plan to be in Melbourne, Australia, for the 2008 Homeless World Cup, which runs Dec. 1 to 7.
Launched in 2003, the Homeless World Cup is an annual soccer tournament aimed at raising awareness of the fact that an estimated one billion people around the world are currently living without secure shelter. Drawing homeless players from 48 different countries, including Afghanistan, Lithuania and Zimbabwe, it is one of the biggest soccer events of the year and boasts high-profile sponsors such as Nike and Manchester United.
The event has been widely covered by the overseas media because of the dramatic impact the tournament has had on its participants: Studies in 2003 and 2006 found that over a third of participants went on to find full-time jobs and improve their housing situation.
Japan has been represented only once in the tournament, at the 2004 competition in Goteborg, Sweden, where it stood out as the oldest team in the competition (average age 52 1/2) and took home the Fair Play Award. This year, Big Issue Japan is attempting once again to send a team to the Homeless World Cup.
The players, male and mostly middle-aged, represent the core demographic of the 18,564 homeless people living in Japan today, according to a 2007 survey by the labor ministry.
Hirose, who is currently a Big Issue vendor in Tokyo’s Omotesando area, worked for 10 years in a manufacturing plant after leaving the military. Despite obtaining a welding license to boost his resume, work was hard to come by during the recession of the 1990s and he soon found himself unable to pay the rent for his apartment.
Shibuki, the vendor for Ikebukuro, used to work in a restaurant before the long hours left him hospitalized and out of a job. He feels “grateful” to have experienced homelessness, as it gave it gave him the chance to work for Big Issue and become involved with the antiwar movement.
After practice, the homeless players stopped by the Big Issue office near Akebonobashi Station to buy their stock of magazines to sell that day. The magazine’s staff, some of whom were also at the practice, discussed how they would find the means to send their players to the Homeless World Cup.
Funding is a massive hurdle: According to Kat Byles, the media director of the Homeless World Cup, it costs at least £10,000 (about ¥2 million) to send the players to the tournament, with the amount varying depending on the team’s location. While lodging and food are provided by the organizers, each team pays its own travel expenses to get to the event. Sweden, for example, raises funds by creating and selling an original calendar; Brazil organizes car washes as well as relying on individual donors. Japan, so far, is struggling to provide even the basic necessities for its team to practice.
“We really lack everything,” says Hirotaka Hattori, the advertising director for Big Issue Japan. “Soccer boots, proper uniforms, even a regular space to practice.”
Miku Sano, the manager of Big Issue in Tokyo, is currently looking into finding sponsors for plane tickets to Melbourne.
Despite the financial struggles, Hattori feels that what the team really needs at the moment is moral support and understanding from the public.
“In Japan, there’s a fairly narrow range of activities that are deemed acceptable for homeless people,” he explains. “Anything fun, such as playing soccer, is completely out of the question.”
His concerns are echoed by writer Kayo Kushida, who described in her book “Big Issue to Youkina Homeless no Fukkatsusen” how some Japanese media outlets refused to cover the Japanese team in 2004 out of fear of provoking criticism from the public.
Hattori, who has practiced with the team since February, nevertheless feels that soccer will give the players a chance to “change from the inside” and gain the necessary skills to get their life back on track.
“It goes beyond merely renting an apartment,” he says. “It’s about learning to deal with people and following through with personal goals.”
Even among the players, however, there is skepticism about the extent to which the Homeless World Cup will change their lives. The youngest member of the team, Satoshi Haruno, 30, an aspiring comedian who came to Tokyo from Hyogo Prefecture, repeatedly stresses that he may not get to go to Melbourne, and is hesitant to talk about his plans after the event.
“Of course, my goal is to find a regular job,” he says. “But I don’t really think I should talk about my dreams. We all have dreams as children, but who would think that they’d end up homeless, like I did?”
He has heard the success stories of previous participants in the Homeless World Cup, but is doubtful that practicing soccer today will help him in the future.
Members of Team Japan 2004 might beg to differ. Of the eight members who took part in the contest that year, five have found housing and full-time jobs. Yasuharu Kawaharada, 62, was able to get off the streets a year after the tournament, and continues to work for the Big Issue in Osaka. Yoshifumi Iio, 39, proudly shows off the Fair Play award that his team won in Sweden four years ago at the Big Issue office in Tokyo. Cradling the small golden medal, he says that the Homeless World Cup gave him the confidence and motivation needed to get off the streets. Iio now has a place to live and has been working as a security guard for the last two years.
“We really felt that we were doing things that most people would never dare to do,” he says, recalling the week he spent playing soccer in Sweden. “It took a bit of time, but it pushed me to try doing things on my own after I came back.”
Although Iio’s sun-weathered face and missing teeth reflect the hardships of life on the street, it’s the transformation of players like him that inspires Big Issue Japan in its bid to take a team Down Under this year.
“It would be great to be able to go to Melbourne,” says Shibuki, looking at Sumiyoshi Park but appearing to see the world beyond the narrow playing grounds. “To be able to see Japan from the outside — that would give me a whole new perspective on life.”
Big Issue Japan is seeking volunteers and corporate sponsors for the homeless soccer team. For more details, please call (03) 6802-6073 or mail firstname.lastname@example.org (for the Osaka team, (06) 6344-2260 or email@example.com). Send comments and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org