Activists want to give Tokyo’s homeless people dignity in death. They are raising funds to create a special grave for their ashes rather than the anonymous, communal disposal afforded to people who die without means and mourners.
Potential beneficiaries include Shigeru Ikeda, not his real name, who came to Tokyo from an upland town in Iwate Prefecture around 25 years ago, and worked mostly as a construction worker.
The day laborer began by sleeping in saunas and cheap lodging houses, but eventually ended up on Tokyo’s streets — and remained there for more than 10 years.
“I was focused on getting by each day, so I couldn’t afford to worry about my future,” said Ikeda, 63. “I have severed ties with my relatives due to family circumstances following a long absence. Now I worry what will happen to me when I grow old and sick.”
People like Ikeda often die a lonely death and end up in common graves for those who have no relatives to mourn them.
Now Sanyukai, a Tokyo nonprofit organization, is trying to raise ¥2 million by Jan. 24 to build a grave at Koshoin Temple for the ashes of people such as former day laborers so they will have solidarity in death as they did in life.
“We hope the grave will help them not to be lonely when they are alive, and likewise after death,” said Jean Le Beau, a Catholic missionary from Canada who is serving as director of the group.
Sanyukai has been supporting people in financial difficulty in Tokyo’s Sanya district since 1984, with particular attention to the homeless and day workers.
It runs a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, and a clinic that sees 200 to 300 patients annually, said Kazunori Yui, a senior representative of the group.
Ikeda stopped sleeping rough in August after Sanyukai stepped in to help him. He has been on welfare since then and lives near the NPO’s office.
The Sanya area was a source of manpower for civil engineering and construction projects during Japan’s rapid postwar economic spurt because it offered plenty of cheap accommodation for workers. But after the bubble economy imploded in the early 1990s, many saw the work dry up and ended up homeless, Yui said.
Like Ikeda, many of them abandoned the rural areas and migrated to Tokyo.
“Among the homeless people were some war orphans,” who lost their parents in World War II, said Yui.
“When they pass away in Sanya, we attend their cremations and hold farewell parties,” he said. “We also record their names in the list of the dead from this area so their friends can remember them and so traces of their existence are not erased.”
One of the rooms at the Sanyukai office is filled with portraits of those with ties to the organization who have since died.