Police order food service for Shibuya homeless to find new location


Staff Writer

Police have intervened in a long-running daily food service for the homeless in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, ordering volunteers who make and distribute onigiri rice balls each morning to shift from a spot they have used for years, said several individuals involved with the food service.

On Monday, a police officer approached a man handing out onigiri beneath a railway bridge near JR Shibuya Station, telling him the operation would no longer be tolerated at that location, the individual said. There are no commercial premises or residential buildings nearby and usually no pedestrians at 5:15 a.m., when the food delivery takes place.

The group of mainly foreigners has been helping feed Tokyo’s homeless for at least 29 years, said one volunteer who helps to coordinate the effort. They have used that particular spot for the past seven years without complaint, he said.

“I thought it was the perfect location,” the coordinator said. “The police are not bad guys. They don’t care (as long as) we are not putting garbage, or making noise. But as soon as someone complains, they have to ask us to leave.”

The group said police did not inform them of the nature of the complaint, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Police declined to comment on the matter when contacted by a reporter.

In December, Shibuya Ward closed three public parks for an extended period over the New Year holiday to prevent well-wishers from conducting a holiday soup run for homeless people.

It is not known whether Shibuya Ward played any part in the latest development. Complaints can also be made by businesses or individuals.

Every day, foreign and Japanese volunteers make about 150 sour plum onigiri in a kitchen at the Franciscan Chapel Center in Roppongi, enough to feed between 70 and 80 homeless people, said a coordinator with the group. At times, they also distribute fruit, T-shirts and underwear.

On Wednesday, when a reporter accompanied the food service, about 40 homeless individuals were lined up to receive two individually packaged onigiri, plus a sachet of nori dried seaweed, a traditional combination.

One homeless man approached the reporter and expressed thanks for the food effort.

Another, who gave his name as Oliver, aged 41, took leftover rice balls and placed them outside the shacks of people who had slept through the distribution. He said the handouts are a central part of the daily routine of the homeless in the area.

He expressed no animosity toward the police, but said the possibility of police patrols means every morning he packs up the cardboard shack he sleeps in beneath a pedestrian bridge and sets it out again later in the day.

The food volunteers are mostly foreigners drawn from Tokyo’s Catholic, Protestant and Mormon communities, but they include large numbers of nonchurch contributors, including corporate teams from local offices of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. and State Street Corp., said the Rev. Russell Becker, pastor of the Franciscan Chapel Center.

“We’re in a difficult position because we’re guests in somebody’s country. We’re foreigners and we see things that people who live here don’t see or don’t want to see, and we want to help,” Becker said.

He said the program meets a clear need for the homeless living in Shibuya, who may get no other assistance.

“It highlights the fact that the government doesn’t have any programs for them, that people have learned to push people to the edges by just ignoring that they exist,” he said.

Becker said the food service prides itself on having provided the service for so long, uninterrupted.

“What we’ve done is we’ve made the homeless a member of our family, and you can’t take off a day feeding your family. It’s part of your onward commitment,” he said.

“So that’s why we work very hard to get the summers covered and the mid-semester breaks, and Golden Week, and times when people will travel. We still will make sure that we feed our family.”

  • The Franciscan Chapel deliveries used to be to Shinjuku. They were kicked out of delivering at the park there for the same reason. At that time they asked to be part of the Tokyo Union Church, Shibuya mission to our homeless neighbors (MOHN) Since their rice packs and delivery times were not easy to coordinate and their system is delivering to those who line up, we decided they might do the Miyashita parking lot section.
    I have been part of the Shibuya deliveries since we started 22 years ago. Then, there were fewer homeless and they were spread over two basement levels between the station and 109, around outside the station, upper and lower Miyashita Park and the park outside Children’s Hall.
    In the past 22 years I have watched how the city deals with those homeless, and see no move to help them. First they were kicked out of the lower park area to make room for bicycle parking. Then kicked out of the upper park to make space for Nike. Then kicked out of the basement areas of the station to “clean” the floors. They began to use the shelter of the open parking lot outside the Ku office, but suddenly a gate was added and they parked construction vehicles there (gate was kept closed after those vehicles were removed).
    It seems to me there is a certain culture in Japan, that IF YOU DO NOT SEE IT, IT DOESN’T EXIST. (I notice this on trains as well, those sitting in the silver seats can not see the elderly or crippled because they are sleeping, reading, texting, and even putting on makeup)!
    The public is quick to judge … they are lazy … they should get jobs … they are drunk ..or gamble. Well, many are not fit to work. Many are too old or have given up. Maybe it is better to be homeless and anonymous than be hounded by creditors … who are we to judge them? Kicking them out will not solve the problem. Keeping the few who want to help from giving them a few rice balls a day will not solve the problem. Meanwhile, we all need to be aware that “There, but for the grace of God, go I”.

    • MA Tin

      Wise words, and indeed the image of the 3 Apes are mostly perfect to fit for this problem. Nothing to see nothing to hear nothing to say

  • keratomileusis

    Sadly, compassion isn’t a principle of Japanese religion. Temples and shrines have no charity outreach programs. Since Japan is half Buddhist, and half Shinto, when bad things happen to people, it’s their karma. Better luck next life! It’s not difficult to see why sadomasochistic cruelty during WWII continues to haunt Japan to this very day. Charity is a Catholic value.