OSAKA — Visit Yoshisune Nagamine at his office beside Osaka Castle and you’re in for a surprise.
As is the case at most Japanese offices, the guest is greeted warmly, ushered into a waiting room and brought hot tea by an office lady. Nagamine’s office, however, is not a plush modern building but a makeshift tent with battered furniture serving as the waiting room. A metal trash can stuffed with burning wood serves as a stove.
Neither is the office lady of the designer handbag brigade. Providing the tea is an elderly homeless woman who belongs to Tomo no Kai, a volunteer group formed by Nagamine and run for the homeless of Osaka Castle Park.
“For years I had been living in the park after construction work dried up in the early 1990s,” Nagamine said. “Finally, last February, I decided it was time to do something to help the other homeless.”
Although the homeless community’s transient nature makes its size difficult to judge, about 900 to 1,000 people currently live in the park.
Nagamine set up Tomo no Kai by dividing Osaka Castle Park into six zones and asking members in each zone to choose a representative to report problems within the zone to Nagamine on a daily basis. Nagamine also contacted sympathetic local merchants who donated unsold food for the soup kitchens that Tomo no Kai operates on Mondays and Fridays.
“We get along very well with local police and keep them apprised of any trouble in the homeless community, especially ‘bosozoku’ bikers,” he said.
While Tomo no Kai is a new concept for Osaka, it is one that is receiving increasing community support. As the homeless situation in Osaka continues to worsen, those living on the streets have begun organizing themselves without the aid, or, in Tomo no Kai’s case, official approval.
And officials, ranging from Mayor Takafumi Isomura to Gov. Fusae Ota, admit the situation is the worst it has been for many years.
About 10,000 homeless roam the streets of Osaka and blue vinyl sheets serving as makeshift homes can be seen in almost every park. Most homeless are in their 60s or 70s and can no longer work. Many are in need of medical care.
They are also in need of protection. Reported attacks on the homeless have risen sharply. In July, a homeless man living near the Yodogawa River was slain in his tent when it was burned up by three other homeless men.
A few days later, another homeless man, Toshiharu Kobayashi, was found dead in the streets of south Osaka, also apparently slain.
Police said at the time they believed a roving gang of youths had killed him. A few weeks later, four high school students, aged 15 to 17, were arrested in the slaying.
The sheer number of homeless means police alone have been unable to curb the violence. Thus, volunteers now patrol Airin — better known as Kamagasaki — as well as other districts, such as Abeno, Tennoji, Nipponbashi and Shinsaibashi on a regular basis.
Between last March and July, some 44 attacks on the homeless in the Nipponbashi district alone, an area of about 1.2 sq. km, were reported to the volunteers. Attacks were made with wooden swords, and even air guns. Other attacks involved fire extinguishers, and arson.
“It has become extremely dangerous for the homeless,” said Sen Arimura, a Kamagasaki volunteer and “manga” comic artist who has chronicled the plight of Osaka’s homeless.
The traditional area for Osaka’s day laborers is Kamagasaki, which had over 6,000 homeless located in an area just over half a square kilometer in 1998. Today, officials and residents agree that number is higher and is unlikely to decrease anytime soon.
For years, Arimura said, Kamagasaki had operated as a quasi-independent ward. While massive urban renewal efforts took place in other parts of Osaka, Kamagasaki remained an area of cheap bars, hotels and small shops.
Nearly 90 percent of the area’s 20,000 residents are men. The death rate for the area is estimated at nearly 1,000 people a year, and deaths are usually due to sickness and disease.
In response to the crisis, local efforts are now being made to both revitalize the area and bring the homeless in off the streets. One way this is being done is to turn cheap hotels into living quarters.
“Those living in Kamagasaki have drawn up an urban renewal plan that calls for 2,000 hotel rooms in the area to be converted into welfare mansions for the elderly,” Arimura said. “At present, three former flophouses now operate as welfare mansions.”
Monthly rent is just over 41,000 yen for a single room, the amount people with social security receive for apartment rent. There are no restrictions on who may apply for a room and no limit on how long they may stay.
At Ohana, a former flophouse that was turned into a welfare mansion in November, the atmosphere is reminiscent of a medium-priced business hotel or “ryokan” inn. Clean, bright and freshly painted, Ohana is now a showcase apartment complex with a communal living and reading room for its 94 residents.
The city operates several temporary homeless shelters, including those in the Nanko harbor district, the north Umeda district and in Nagai Park. Despite this, Arimura believes Osaka is making a halfhearted attempt to address the homeless problem.
He believes one reason for the progress of volunteer efforts in Kamagasaki is that city bureaucrats and politicians don’t care what happens there.
“The mayor and most Osaka politicians only care about the tourist areas of the city, like Umeda, which are already developed,” Arimura said. “They’re only thinking about the image of the areas that foreigners will see. As a result, they’ve not attempted to interfere in our efforts.”
Although some are concerned that the city will try to rid the streets of homeless before International Olympic Committee members arrive to inspect Osaka in late February, Nagamine, who lives in the shadow of the city’s top tourist draw, Osaka Castle, is unconcerned.
“We aren’t worried about being evicted by the city (from the castle site) because there are no major sports facilities in the area that are of interest to the World Cup or the International Olympic Committee,” he said.
“We’re more concerned about taking care of those who are already here,” Nagamine said. “Once the Olympic hoopla dies down, the city is going to find the IOC dignitaries have left but we’re still here.”