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Sumida schools confront assaults on the homeless

In a reversal, students get chance to listen to society's less fortunate

Kyodo

Elementary and junior high schools in Sumida Ward, Tokyo, have embarked on a new program to address a jump in violence against homeless people in the area.

One of the sessions took place July 10 at Hikifune Elementary School, where two homeless men who introduced themselves as Kato, 74, and Koyama, 66, talked about their lives and experiences in front of an audience of about 60 sixth-graders.

They were assisted by Koichiro Mukai, 42, of the Sanya Welfare Center for Day-Laborers’ Association, which helps the men and other homeless people in the area.

Kato, who was a fisherman in his younger days, changed jobs to enter a construction company where he built metal components for building structures.

Koyama is an experienced construction worker who was formerly employed in the project to build International Stadium Yokohama, also known as Nissan Stadium.

However, the two have since had trouble finding jobs and as a result became unable to paying their rent. Both live on about ¥1,000 a day — money received from collecting aluminum cans for recycling during the day.

The children were quietly listening to the men’s stories, but when they were shown a photograph of the makeshift hut Koyama lives in, they reacted with surprise and amazement.

“There are cats!” one student said.

“Eight?” another exclaimed after Koyama said he was living with eight abandoned kittens found nearby. He said he just couldn’t stand them being left to die.

Koyama said that he buys them food with money he gets for the cans, adding that “it costs me half of my entire income.”

“People like these two men often fall victims to violence,” Mukai explained. “Imagine how they may feel when someone throws a stone at them or the place where they live. They can’t sleep at night, feeling insecure.”

Of all the acts of intimidation and violence waged against the homeless in Tokyo in 2012 and 2013, some were committed by teenagers from junior high schools in Sumida Ward.

Some of the homeless in the area seek help from the local board of education and related organizations.

In reaction, Sumida’s schools decided to organize lectures in hopes of preventing such acts. The period just before summer break is when youth assaults rise significantly.

All elementary school students in fifth and sixth grades and all in junior high are asked to attend the sessions, which started in June. Hikifune Elementary School, however, was the first to invite homeless people to open up to students, while others have been using videos and other materials to explain the situation they face.

“All of us who used to look only at the exterior of the blue vinyl sheets (tied together as makeshift homes) have learned that inside, the homeless actually have their own homes and lives,” said Hikifune Elementary teacher Minori Yoshida, 58, who organized the July 10 session.

“Many of them are also working. I believe that children who have seen their real lives won’t be able to throw stones at them anymore,” Yoshida said.

Meanwhile, Kenji Okamoto of the Sumida Ward board of education said the ward has changed its approach for preventing children from assaulting the homeless, because its previous methods weren’t working.

“Until recently, we kept telling students to stay away from homeless people, but it didn’t stop the kids from committing such acts,” he said.

He also said that the board decided to help children understand the issues that homeless people face, adding that only time will tell whether the sessions will result in a drop in assaults.

Meanwhile, both Kato and Koyama, who returned to their makeshift homes after the lecture, said they were satisfied with the visit and said it was worthwhile.

“It may take time to understand (homelessness),” Koyama said. “But I think that other homeless people should take part in these sessions, too.”