Like many Zen-inspired structures, Okawara’s hut is a monument to simplicity. The size of a large tool shed, the wooden building blends seamlessly with the surrounding park. His door opens to a full view of Tokyo’s Tama River.
Okawara is not your typical architect: He’s homeless. But the elegant austerity of his hut and thousands of others like it has turned the country’s destitute into unwitting purveyors of an emerging art form that’s catching the eye of international connoisseurs.
The dwellings — carefully built, meticulously kept and collapsible for quick movement when police move in — have inspired a rash of art books, and Japanese promoters are discussing them with curators in North America and Europe.
Fans are inspired by the shacks’ design and function: elaborate triangular roofs, or intricate networks of metal piping to keep the structures standing. One book showcased a home powered by solar batteries.
Even to the untrained eye, the dwellings of Japan’s homeless are remarkably well-built and cared for. Some are fitted with tatami mats; others boast carefully tended gardens with neatly trimmed camellias and bonsai trees.
The dwellers, like the houses themselves, are modest.
“The house wasn’t so hard to make, because I kept the structure to a minimum,” said Okawara, who wanted only his last name used because of the stigma associated with homelessness in Japan.
He said he purchased many of the materials for his home at a hardware store — like the spotless floorboards leading to his bedroom. “It sometimes gets cold, but I like the view of the river,” Okawara said.
But design experts see in these simple houses an aesthetic sense with deep roots in Japan’s austere Zen Buddhist tradition.
“These homes embody simplicity and functionality and are at one with their environment, like the tea house of Sen Rikyu,” said architect Kyohei Sakaguchi, referring to a 16th-century tea master who preached frugality through the art of tea ceremony.
Sakaguchi published a study of homeless architecture titled, “Zero Yen Houses,” in 2004.
“I don’t want to idealize the situation homeless people find themselves in,” he said. “But in a world where most of us live in mass-produced, concrete boxes, Zero Yen Houses are precious works of art. They deserve to be recognized.”
Sakaguchi is trying to make sure they are. He is planning an exhibit based on homeless architecture at a gallery in Vancouver, British Columbia, later this year and has discussed similar ideas with galleries in London and the U.S.
In his recent booklet, “Asakusa Style,” photographer Kanta Sogi wrote that he was overwhelmed the moment he first saw some of the dwellings.
“Since then, I’ve seen many more houses and my feeling of wonder has grown ever stronger,” Sogi wrote.
The modish world of museums and art galleries couldn’t be further from the realities of life for Japan’s estimated 25,300 homeless, who are largely seen as a shameful blight on the country’s orderly, affluent society.
Homelessness was mostly unheard of in Japan until the economic boom of the 1980s ran off the rails in the early 1990s, prompting a decade and a half of corporate restructuring and layoffs that clotted urban parks and river embankments with the newly destitute.
Street-dwellers are often harassed by police, who periodically drive them from riversides and parks. Recently, a group of homeless people clashed with hundreds of police and public employees, who knocked down their makeshift homes in Osaka to make way for springtime flower festivals.
The homeless deal with their tenuous claim to living space in ingenious ways. Their dwellings are often collapsible, allowing them to quickly fold them away on news of police raids and rebuild them — often just hours later — in the same spot when the heat is off.
“I used to try to keep fit, but I’ve been a little slack this winter,” Okawara said, glancing at a makeshift sit-up bench in one corner of his small, neat garden. Orderly rows of cooking utensils line the shelves of a small lean-to that serves as his kitchen.
Farther down the river, Shoji, 65, said he plans to stay put in his dwelling as long as authorities let him despite being eligible, at age 65, for state-run housing.
“I have a sturdy house and I’m free to do what I like,” Shoji said of his hand-built cube, which sits on 1.5-meter-high stilts to prevent flooding. A multitude of tools and personal effects hang from the ceiling of the shack, which is more ornamented than Okawara’s frugal abode.
“This is much better than going to a shelter,” he said.