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Missionary devotes lifework to helping Tokyo homeless

by Alex Martin

Jean Le Beau says his decision to pursue a life dedicated to the benefit of others was inspired in high school when he read the story of Father Damien, a 19th-century Roman Catholic missionary from Belgium who spent his life caring for lepers cast out of normal society and quarantined on the Hawaiian island of Molokai.

“I felt that if you were going to do something for others, you should take it that far,” said Le Beau. And the French-Canadian missionary is indeed taking it that far, spending his own life with homeless Japanese — many of whom feel like social outcasts.

Le Beau is director of Sanyukai, a nonprofit organization that provides food and medical care for the homeless living in the Sanya district in northeastern Tokyo. The group offers a place to sleep for those who otherwise would be living in tents or sleeping under the stars.

His office in Taito Ward, near Asakusa, is crowded with local residents — many who live on the streets and are kindly referred to as ojisan (middle-aged men) — hanging around to receive the NPO’s services, to offer their assistance with the organization’s activities, and to chat with Le Beau and the cheery staff.

“They are my family,” said Le Beau, 64, explaining his relationship with his team of volunteers and ojisan. “I feel most content when I am with them. We go on outings. We get drunk together. I plan on spending the rest of my life with them.”

Le Beau has been working with the NPO for over 20 years and by now speaks fluent Japanese. It wasn’t always so.

Born in Quebec to Catholic parents, Le Beau said he was the only one in the family who decided to pursue a career as a priest, and then a missionary. “I wanted to go to a foreign country,” he said, adding that up until his big move to Japan, he never traveled overseas. “Vancouver was about as far as I went,” he said.

He jokingly admitted that he’d been known as a rebel during his days at the Catholic seminary preceding his mission. At the time he wanted to pursue a career in medicine. “I wanted to be a doctor, to go to Africa,” he said. “But a teacher told me that it was just as important to heal people’s minds.”

When Le Beau was 27, the Quebec-based missionary association with which he was affiliated granted his request for a foreign mission, and he flew to Japan. That was 38 years ago, and he arrived to find a Tokyo where foreigners were relatively few and a train ticket “only cost ¥30.”

“I spoke no Japanese whatsoever when I first came here,” he recalled. Soon after, a member of a local church introduced Le Beau to a cafe in Ginza, where he worked as a waiter during weekdays, attending a Japanese language school and helping out with church activities during his time off.

Le Beau said he learned to speak Japanese relatively quickly, but it took longer for him to learn the written language.

“After two years or so, our teacher asked us what form of written Japanese we would like to learn to read,” Le Beau said. “I wanted to be able to read the newspapers, but the rest of the class wanted to read the Bible in Japanese,” he said. “So I didn’t really attend classes, spent most of the time working in the cafe,” he said with a laugh.

Le Beau proceeded to work in a bar in Kawasaki, and then as a used-car dealer. “Back then, most Japanese would look at me as if I had no business in their country,” he said. “I figured that to understand Japan, to get to know who the Japanese are, I must work with them, spend time with them.”

It was around then that he began volunteering for Sanyukai, Le Beau said, and he hasn’t looked back ever since. Eventually taking the post of director of the organization, he has dedicated himself full-time to the organization’s activities, literally living with those who have lost their homes. A few at a time, he invites whomever cannot find shelter to his apartment in Asakusa.

“I have a great team of Japanese volunteers,” Le Beau said. “They go out and really get to know the people on the streets.” He added that although Sanya has traditionally been known as a town of day laborers, the population has aged over the years, and many of the residents are now essentially old and unemployed without sufficient pensions to live on. “We are now concentrating our activities on case-working and welfare for the old and poor,” he said.

Regarding the occasional prejudice his ojisan encounter, Le Beau said it is wrong to consider them socially inferior. “We were lucky, they weren’t, that’s all. One mistake in your life, and you’re considered an outcast. You know, that’s just too cruel.”

Looking back, Le Beau said he probably wouldn’t have remained a priest for long if he hadn’t become a missionary and come to Japan. “Yeah, it’s been tough at times, but I feel I was able to carve out my own path. I wouldn’t have been able to get to know the ojisan this well if I had done otherwise,” he said.

“Sometimes we joke around, and they tell me how I’m a strange foreigner. I tell them “No, you guys are the strange Japanese.”

“This is where I belong,” he said, “where my life belongs.”