Opening a shop in Tokyo’s trendy Harajuku district may be every merchant’s dream. But if one is destitute, desperate and hungry, there’s always a market on the street.
Every weekend, more than 100 homeless people set up makeshift stalls on vinyl sheets on a sidewalk along Yoyogi Park, selling a variety of used goods, including scrap material they collected.
“This is where I have made my living for the past two years,” said a 56-year-old former construction worker who sells videotapes and game software.
“It’s not a lot of money, and it takes a lot of effort. But this is the only way available for me to make a living in this economic slump,” said the man, known among his fellow homeless as “Hakase,” or doctor, because he wears glasses. He lives in a tent in Yoyogi Park and gets by on the roughly 10,000 yen he earns over the weekend.
The ranks of street vendors have continued to swell as the economic slump drags on. Five years ago, there was only one, a homeless painter who began selling his pictures.
“Since I began selling my pictures and other belongings here, I kind of regained my dignity,” said the 58-year-old painter, who also lives in the park. “I started urging my fellow homeless people, who were out of money and had no hope in life, to also open stalls.”
Over the past two years, the number of the stalls has soared, he said.
“It symbolizes not just a bad economic situation, but also that there’s no place else in this country where the homeless can earn a living and regain their dignity,” he said.
Displayed on the vinyl tarps by the 100-plus vendors are used clothes, shoes, furniture, watches, cameras, decorative items and electric appliances, including hair dryers, portable cassette players and stereo systems.
The quality of the items varies, ranging from junk that sells for less than 100 yen to antique wrist watches and accessories that cost tens of thousands of yen.
Many vendors said they collected their wares from garbage sites, including outside large apartment complexes, where in some cases they befriended the security people.
According to Hakase, homeless people in Tokyo have a network that systematically collects items and “auctions” them among each other. Some vendors with discerning eyes snap up valuable antiques and other premium items, and sales at their stalls can reach 50,000 yen over a weekend, he said.
The success of the homeless people’s stalls has attracted other vendors over the past year.
Some sell counterfeit brand-name bags, wallets and shirts. There also are an increasing number of young people who bring their belongings and sell them over weekends.
But the street is not always available to the vendors — police come around several times a month and close them down.
One vendor noted that the street is a main public thoroughfare from JR Harajuku Station when events are held in the park, and thus some event organizers ask police to evict the vendors at those times.
A spokesman for Yoyogi Police Station said that whenever they receive complaints, they have no choice but to remove the stalls.
“Whatever the reason,” he said, “they are illegally occupying the sidewalk.”
On recent weekends, another element has posed a threat to the vendors.
One Sunday evening in late October, as a customer and vender bargained over an item, five men suddenly disrupted them, loudly identifying themselves as mobsters.
They confronted vendors and demanded to know who allowed them to set up stalls and threatened to uproot them if they didn’t fork over a “tenant fee,” successfully extorting 500 yen to 1,000 yen from several of their prey.
“That was not a small amount for me,” said a vendor who paid 1,000 yen to the thugs. “But if they hang around and harass us, they will scare away our customers, who may never come back,” he said. The toughs returned the following weekend to exact more cash.
To legitimize their presence, some of the homeless vendors have started a petition drive to seek Tokyo Metropolitan Government permission to use the street over the weekends.
But most hold out little hope of approval.
“We opened these stalls so that we would not need to rely on the government, which has done absolutely nothing for us,” said a 49-year-old former part-time factory worker, who walks around central Tokyo five or six hours on weekdays to collect items to sell over the weekends.
“Maybe I should just steal something and go to jail,” he said. “That may be better than this life.”
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