The number of homeless people in Japan has dropped to a 15-year low below 5,000, according to the welfare ministry, which credited municipal and prefectural efforts to help them regain independence.

As of January, the ministry said Friday, 4,977 people were living in places such as riverbeds or parks, down 557 from a year ago and under 5,000 for the first time since it began surveying the ranks of the homeless in 2003.

"Support measures from governments, such as counseling, are believed to have produced certain effects" that reduced the number of homeless people, a ministry official said.

The survey was conducted by having local officials patrol communities to spot people without permanent dwellings. More than 90 percent of the total, or 4,607, were men and 177 were women, but the sex of the remaining 193 was left blank as they were bundled up in clothing when they were found.

Three-quarters of the homeless were observed in Tokyo's 23 wards or other major cities.

Tokyo had 1,242 homeless, followed by Osaka with 1,110 and Kanagawa with 934.

Six other prefectures — Aomori, Akita, Yamagata, Nara, Shimane and Nagasaki — reported no homeless people.

The ministry noted, however, that the actual number could be higher because the survey was based on informal observations. A homeless person would not have been included, for example, if he or she was elsewhere when officials strolled by to scan the parks and train stations.