Issues | THE FOREIGN ELEMENT

Homeless in Tokyo: Fallen through society’s cracks and frozen out

by Simon Scott

Contributing Writer

It is 8:30 on a cold Saturday night in mid-December. Around the East Exit of Shinjuku Station, immaculately dressed and preened people of all ages are waiting, smartphones in hand, for their friends or co-workers to arrive.

Many of them are likely about to embark on a night of eating, drinking and revelry in one or more of the hundreds of restaurants, bars, karaoke boxes and clubs packed into the sprawl of crowded alleys that make up one of Tokyo’s top entertainment districts.

Among the throng is a small group of six volunteers from three continents — two Japanese, two Europeans, an American and a Costa Rican — who are here for a very different night out. They are tonight’s Tokyo Spring Homeless Patrol, and their mission is to deliver vital goods to the homeless, those ghosts of Shinjuku who sit freezing and hungry in their cardboard-box homes, seen but unseen by the red-faced crowds walking to the next warm bar or on their way back to their well-heated homes.

Spread out on the ground are an assortment of items, some paid for by the volunteers, others provided by donors, that make up the collection for the evening. Beef stew and hot tea, candy, cookies, Wakaba cigarettes (the most popular brand among the homeless), face towels, masks and key winter items — namely sleeping bags, long thermal underwear, neck warmers (all brand new) and disposable Kairo heat pads.

While this is the Christmas season and there are other homeless patrols run by church and other faith-based groups in the capital, the Tokyo Spring Homeless Patrol is anything but religious. Although Tokyo Spring is a left-wing collective that also runs film screenings, discussions and other events, the patrols are not about politics and volunteers don’t have to be Marxists or anarchists to take part.

The patrol’s co-founder, Bosnian Sulejman Brkic, says the group can always do with more donations, especially in winter, even if it is just something small.

“It doesn’t have to be money,” he says. “Contact us directly to find out what we need or, even better, join us on a patrol and see for yourself. If you don’t want to do either of these, then at least please stop judging the homeless without knowing anything about them. How good a society is, the level of its humanism, can be measured by the way it treats its most vulnerable members.”

American volunteer Chris Warren, 35, brought a large bag of filled bagels donated by Bagel Cafe Nico in Yokosuka.

“These bagels are made from scratch from a variety of high-quality ingredients, so the homeless folks are getting a real treat,” he says. “Most local supermarkets and bakeries have quite a bit of food or produce they’re going to discard that is perfectly edible, so you can collect food from them.”

Warren previously worked as a logistics specialist for the U.S. Navy, but gave up that life to become an English teacher and an anarchist — and he’s not afraid to show it. Surrounded by his naturally dark hair, a bright stripe of dyed red hair over the center of his head forms the traditional black-and-red flag of anarcho-communism.

“Helping the homeless is a great example of both direct action and mutual aid, both of which are core principles in anarchist philosophy,” he explains. “Those bagels were ones that were leftovers that normally would of been tossed but were fine to eat. The fact is we live in a society that has more than enough food for everyone; access to food is the issue. The fact people are homeless and starving in the face of such an abundance of food really says something about the capitalist society we live in.”

Mental issues exacerbated

Once the items have been divided up, the volunteers set out to distribute goods to the clusters of homeless people scattered around the east side of the station.

In a narrow tunnel close to the New South Exit a couple of homeless men have parked up for the night, sitting on folded-out cardboard boxes under glaring strip lights. One, a surprisingly healthy-looking 52-year-old from the Kinki region, tells his story while sipping on his beef stew.

The man, who asked to remain nameless, says he comes to this spot just to sleep, as local government officials sometimes harass him if he stays there in the daytime.

“I used to work full-time at an IT company in the information department about 20 years ago, but it went bust after the bubble economy collapsed,” he says. “After that I did part-time work when I could find it, but I couldn’t make enough money to pay all the bills, and eventually I became homeless about seven years ago.”

In an adjacent tunnel we come across an old homeless man living in a cardboard box full of trinkets and trash. He graciously accepts some cigarettes, a sleeping bag and some other items, but is clearly detached from reality. He tightly grips a large green soft toy of an alien, proudly proclaiming a number of times that it is his child.

On the way to the next stop, Brkic talks about mental illness among the homeless.

“Most of them, as far as I know, do have psychological issues, but that is due to sleeping outside in this weather and eating bad food every day, if they get to eat every day. So who wouldn’t have mental issues in that situation?

“Look at us who are not homeless, how many of us have mental issues. Look at the rate of depression in capitalist countries, look at the loneliness, mainly among young people; all those feelings of isolation and alienation, all those feelings are caused by this system.”

The gift of giving: Tokyo Spring Homeless Patrol volunteer Elena Quesada Diaz distributes candy and cookies to a homeless man near Shinjuku Station.
The gift of giving: Tokyo Spring Homeless Patrol volunteer Elena Quesada Diaz distributes candy and cookies to a homeless man near Shinjuku Station. | SIMON SCOTT

Having covered the east side of the station, the volunteers then head towards Shinjuku Gyoen Park, one of Tokyo’s most popular and attractive cherry blossom viewing spots. The park is shuttered at night, but a smattering of homeless people camp out on the grass between the park’s wire fence and the road.

Kobayashi, a 70-year-old who has been homeless for over 20 years and living in a cardboard-box house in the same spot all that time, has become so accustomed to the harsh lifestyle that he is unfazed by even the worst weather.

Asked if it was hard going when it rained or snowed, his reply is simply: “No, it’s fine. I can use this plastic sheet as a roof.”

He then explains how he became homeless.

“I was a construction worker and got cancer. I wasn’t fired, but I got so sick that I could no longer do the work and then eventually became homeless,” he says. “I have no family to support me and the company I worked for didn’t provide health insurance,” he says.

He adds that while he was in hospital he was visited by someone from social welfare who paid for his surgery, but after that he received no further support.

“I worked hard when I was a young man, but the Japanese government does nothing to help now.” Kobayashi says he is able to survive because volunteer organizations bring food, and through the money he makes collecting and selling aluminum cans.

“This life is hard, but people come and help. I collect cans and make about ¥1,000 per week.”

The last stop

The last stop is the raised concourse on the west side of Shinjuku Station. It’s almost midnight and the wind is cold on the exposed deck, yet a dozen or more homeless people are sleeping in the dark doorways of the shuttered shops. One of them, a 64-year-old former salaryman who didn’t want to give his name, is still awake and willing to talk about the realities of homeless life.

“Once you have started living on the street it becomes extremely hard to find a job,” he explains. “There are jobs in Japan, but without an address, phone or ID it is impossible to get them.”

The homeless face a similar quandary when it comes to getting support from the government. Although they would qualify for welfare, homeless people can’t apply if they don’t have the required documentation.

The man believes that if the government gave money to the homeless, it would not just reduce the numbers who become physically ill due to the harsh life on the streets, but would also motivate them.

House of card: Tokyo Spring
House of card: Tokyo Spring’s Sulejman Brkic hands a new sleeping bag to one of Shinjuku’s homeless. ‘How good a society is … can be measured by the way it treats its most vulnerable members,’ says Brkic. | SIMON SCOTT

“These people,” he says, gesturing to the faceless humans hidden in their cardboard boxes nearby, “have literally never even see money, let alone have any of their own. They just live off food from volunteers.

“If they were to get some money from the government, even just a tiny amount like ¥500 per day or ¥20,000 per month, it would make a big difference. If you never see money, you lose your motivation to go out and get some.”

He says that in Japan the homeless are ignored, not just by the government but also the public, and this sets off a vicious cycle.

“I think most Japanese people feel sorry for us and have sympathy, but still they just walk on by and take no action. Then it just gets worse and worse and motivation further declines. If you do something or give a present to the homeless, it will soften their hearts and raise their spirits.”

He adds that in America or Europe, people often give a few coins to homeless people they see in the streets, but in Japan rarely happens.

“Some people may want to help the homeless, but they don’t feel comfortable doing it when other Japanese are looking,” he explains. “If you think about helping but actually do nothing, it is the same as not thinking about us or not having sympathy. I don’t want to say Japanese people are cold-hearted, but they just don’t want to have a connection to the homeless. That is why we are trapped in this life.”

Standing in the cold at the West Exit of Shinjuku Station before jumping on the last train home, Brkic frankly explains how he feels about doing the homeless patrols.

“To be honest, I don’t want to do it, walking around in dark neighborhoods in the middle of winter putting Band-Aids on a sinking ship; I’d rather be home. I do have better things to do, but then not doing anything would be just too indecent,” he says. “As human beings, we should be decent with one another.”

Tackling poverty

American Charles McJilton founded Second Harvest Japan, the nation’s first food bank, in 2000. Although 2hj works with the homeless, it focuses more on providing food to the poor in general — a much larger group.

“Twenty million people live below the poverty line within Japan. The poverty line is defined as one half of the national average income, so if you have a household income of less than ¥2.3 million you are considered to be relatively poor. Out of that, there are 13 million households who live on roughly ¥100,000 a month,” says McJilton.


Here is a list of groups that work on issues related to poverty, including homelessness:

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