Social activist Makoto Yuasa caused a stir by bringing poverty out into the open when he teamed up with unions and nonprofit organizations to open a tent village for jobless people in Tokyo’s Hibiya Park over the yearend holidays.
Yuasa, 39, said temporary workers have to keep on living after they’ve been laid off, after they’ve been discarded like an old refrigerator or washing machine, but the society doesn’t really take this into consideration.
“That’s why people were surprised when they saw so many jobless (in the park),” he said.
Some 500 people, many of whom lost their jobs and housing in the massive layoffs of late 2008, came to the tent city from Dec. 31 to Jan. 5 seeking free food and shelter from the cold.
The crowd had grown to more than 300 by Jan. 2, prompting the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry to open up a hall to accommodate some of the people. With the help of the tent village committee, 207 people received public assistance and 125 registered for job hunting programs.
The crowd of jobless people in Hibiya Park, situated right across from the Imperial Palace, drew heavy media coverage and grabbed the public’s attention. But it was no surprise to Yuasa. “Homeless people have always existed, whether they are at one place or scattered.”
Yuasa claimed it is difficult to grasp the extent of Japan’s poverty problem because those not exposed to it try to avoid it. Poverty is sometimes intentionally hidden, for example, when international sports events or conferences are held, he said, noting how homeless people are occasionally evicted from parks and other public places if they become an inconvenience.
“The poverty tends to be invisible . . . The aim of the tent village was to make the issue visible to everybody, and in that sense, it was a success,” he said.
Yuasa has been supporting homeless people since 1995, the year he started his postgraduate studies in Tokyo. He said he joined a support group for the destitute simply because his friend was involved, not because he had a sense of responsibility or mission at the time.
But he continued with it because he felt addressing the problems of the homeless with his friends was interesting and meaningful, he said.
In 2001, he set up Independent Life Support Center Moyai in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, to provide homeless people with cosigners so they could rent apartments. The idea for the name, which means “mooring rope,” came from his partner, Tsuyoshi Inaba, who believes people should support each other because while one ship alone may be lost in a storm, two or three may survive if they tie up alongside each other.
In the year the nonprofit organization was established, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government published its first white paper on homelessness, recognizing it as a social issue.
Around that time, employment centers had been set up in Tokyo to help the homeless find jobs. But the problem was that they were unable to apply for work because they were having difficulty finding places to live. Housing requires guarantors.
“The government did not offer help, so we had to do it,” Yuasa said.
Moyai is managed by five part-time workers and some 50 volunteers and is mostly financed by donations. The NPO also runs a cafe for people in need of legal consultation or support in applying for public assistance.
When he set up Moyai, the majority of those who came in were either middle-aged homeless people or foreigners who were victims of domestic violence. But in 2003, more and more young people began coming to his office to seek help. Yuasa knew immediately that a new trend was beginning.
“The number of young people coming to us really increased that year,” he said, adding that Moyai received its first Internet cafe refugee the same year.
In the latter half of 2008, Yuasa found that the type of people seeking support had grown more diverse, ranging from homeowners to young singles and the elderly.
Yuasa was raised in a middle-class family with a journalist father and an elementary school teacher mother. But he said having an older brother suffering a muscle-weakening disease influenced his perspectives on society.
When Yuasa was in the third and fourth grade at elementary school, he used to push his wheelchair-bound brother home. His brother always wanted him to avoid busy streets because of the excessive attention people with disabilities got at the time.
“I told my brother that he should take the main street, and we would argue,” he said. “But I also knew that people would stare at him,” he added, noting this helped him grow up being on the side of people who are different or targeted by prejudice.
In addition, philosophy books he read in high school, including those by Takaaki Yoshimoto and Karl Marx, also helped him think more about politics and society, he said.
“I started to understand social structure and its relation to the issue my brother was facing,” he said.
After completing his bachelor’s degree at the University of Tokyo in 1995, Yuasa decided to pursue graduate studies. But he quit in 2003 before writing his doctoral dissertation because he was unable to manage both his studies and support activities at the same time.
“I decided to continue (the NPO activity) because it’s interesting,” he said, adding that it is both challenging and worthwhile working for the homeless.
Yuasa believes society must stop “the spiral of poverty.”
Many temporary or contract workers tend to look for jobs that will also provide housing because they usually do not have enough savings to pay both the “key money” and deposit typically needed to rent an apartment, he said.
And because their pay level is too low to save anyway, it is difficult for them to get regular jobs and survive the month or so needed to get their first pay check.
This vicious cycle has created even tougher labor conditions, generating more part-time workers while forcing regular employees to do more overtime, he said.
“It’s important to relate the issue of poverty to the issues of long working hours, “karoshi” (death from overwork) and unemployment that you may be facing,” Yuasa said.