National / Social Issues

'No one wants to be homeless': A glimpse at life on the streets of Tokyo

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Seventy-year-old Yoshitomo Hara now lives in a housing facility, but he is well-versed in strategies to deal with sleeping rough in Tokyo during winter.

“If you have ¥100 or ¥200, McDonald’s stays open until about 3 a.m.,” Hara says in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district in late December. “When that closes, you go to the station. The shutters open about 4 a.m.

“The basement shopping arcade is warm, so you go there,” he says. “You spread out your cardboard and try to cover your face. You’ll find dozens of people sleeping there. In summer, you can sleep in a park. In the afternoon, you can go to a shop such as Yamada Denki where they have seats. You can rest there.”

Hara was, until recently, one of 4,977 homeless people living in Japan, according to the latest figures published in July last year by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. That marked the first time in the 15 years since the ministry began keeping records that the number had fallen below 5,000.

The method by which the ministry collects data — local officials patrolling areas during the afternoon and making informal observations — has been criticized as inaccurate. Tokyo-based nonprofit organization Advocacy and Research Centre for Homelessness, which conducts its own bi-annual count, with more than 800 volunteers going out at night, claims the true number is around 2½ times the official tally.

Regardless of the specific figure, however, the number of homeless people in Japan has undeniably decreased in recent years. In 2003, when the ministry first started keeping records, the official figure stood at 25,296.

In the early 1990s, the fallout from the collapse of the economic bubble created a sudden upsurge in homelessness, with workers being laid off and blue plastic tents springing up in towns and cities around the country. It created a phenomenon that Japan found difficult to deal with, as a country that had established itself as a global economic powerhouse suddenly came face to face with poverty on its own streets.

In February 1994, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Shinjuku Ward teamed up to attempt a forced clearance of a sprawling “cardboard village” that had popped up between Shinjuku Station and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Hundreds of homeless people were displaced after fierce clashes with officials, highlighting a prevailing attitude among the authorities that the homeless were nothing more than an embarrassing eyesore.

A homeless man sits on a street under a railway crossing in Tokyo
A homeless man sits on a street under a railway crossing in Tokyo’s Yurakucho district in January. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

Since then, much has been done to improve their situation. Pressure from various campaign groups led to the enactment of the Special Act in Regards to Supporting the Autonomy of the Homeless Population in August 2002, marking the first time the government had acknowledged its responsibility to help local governments deal with the homeless.

The legislation guaranteed assistance in seeking employment and moving into public or private housing for homeless people willing to work. It also made health care and medical facilities available to them.

That contributed to the reduction in numbers that the latest figures attest to, but thousands of people still remain homeless around Japan. They face problems that the rest of the population may not be able — or even willing — to comprehend.

“Ordinary people would keep me at arm’s length,” says Takashi Owada, a 64-year-old from Fukushima Prefecture who was homeless for about a year. He now lives in an apartment in Tokyo’s Nakano Ward after spending three months in a housing facility when he moved from Saitama Prefecture to the capital in December 2017.

“People wouldn’t want to come anywhere near me,” Owada says. “It made me feel like I was leading a wretched life. I would feel sorry for myself. I used to think about how to get out of that situation. A lot of people would look at me as if to ask what I thought I was doing.”

Being homeless carries a powerful stigma in Japan, where society traditionally places strong importance on self-reliance. Many homeless people feel ashamed of their situation and hide away from public view, living in parks, under expressways or along riversides. Many try to blend in with the rest of the population and spend the night in saunas and internet cafes when they have the money.

Begging on the streets is technically illegal, but ingrained attitudes render such behavior practically non-existent anyway.

“Homeless people think of themselves as working people,” says Tsuyoshi Inaba, co-founder of nonprofit organization Moyai and a longtime campaigner for homeless people’s rights, who first became involved during the 1994 Shinjuku clearances.

Tsuyoshi Inaba, co-founder of nonprofit organization Moyai, says homeless people consider themselves to be working people.
Tsuyoshi Inaba, co-founder of nonprofit organization Moyai, says homeless people consider themselves to be working people. | ANDREW MCKIRDY

“That’s especially true of people who became homeless in the 1990s,” he says. “A lot of those people worked on construction sites and they carry that pride with them. They think of begging as something embarrassing. In Japanese society, there isn’t a culture of compassion for homeless people. Now and again you will see some homeless people begging, but they won’t get any money.”

Homeless people in Japan have other ways of making money. Some collect aluminum cans and sell them to recycling plants. One 45-liter rubbish bag full of crushed cans weighing around 5 kilograms will sell for around ¥500. Others collect and sell discarded comic books and magazines, while some make money cleaning up after fireworks displays in the summer months.

Those lucky enough can also find day-to-day employment as laborers. Most work available to homeless people requires physical effort, however, and many are not up to the task.

In September 2017, a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare survey revealed that 42.8 percent of Japan’s homeless population was over 65, the first time the figure had ever gone above 40 percent. The average age — 61.5 — was over 60 for the first time.

Jean Le Beau, a Canadian who first came to Japan as a missionary 48 years ago and has been director of nonprofit organization Sanyukai for the past 30 years, believes the general public has the wrong impression of homeless people’s attitudes.

Right: Canadian Jean Le Beau first came to Japan as a missionary 48 years ago and has been director of nonprofit organization Sanyukai for the past 30 years.
Right: Canadian Jean Le Beau first came to Japan as a missionary 48 years ago and has been director of nonprofit organization Sanyukai for the past 30 years. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

“People in Japan work a lot and they think homeless people don’t want to work, but it’s exactly the opposite,” says Le Beau, whose organization provides food, shelter and medical care for the homeless in the hardscrabble Sanya district in northeastern Tokyo.

“I don’t think people really recognize anything outside their own world,” he says. “They don’t have room to look beyond their own horizons. They have TV, but it’s difficult to feel compassion just through that.

“There are very few people who have gotten used to being homeless. No one wants to be homeless. They’re homeless because of their circumstances.”

Escaping homelessness can be a long and circuitous road. Even taking the step of applying for government welfare can be a fraught process.

According to Inaba, welfare officials in the 1980s and ’90s would actively try to discourage homeless people from applying when they turned up at local government offices.

Inaba describes officials using insulting, dismissive language or giving false or misleading information, and uses the phrase “mizugiwa sakusen” — a military term for the tactic of repelling invaders as soon as they reach shore.

Inaba and other campaigners teamed up with lawyers in the early 2000s to offer support for homeless people applying for welfare, forcing a change to the way officials dealt with their requests. Other issues with the system, however, still remain.

“Some homeless people feel they want to keep trying without welfare, so they don’t apply for it,” says Kazunori Yui, deputy director of Sanyukai. “Some people don’t know that there is a welfare system. But the big thing is that they don’t want their family to find out that they’re homeless.

“The rule is that you can only go on welfare if your family can’t look after you and you don’t have any other means of support. So first they have to check that your family can’t support you. A lot of people don’t want their family to find out, or they don’t want to cause any trouble for their family.”

Once on welfare, homeless people will be moved into a housing facility as a first step. This typically involves sharing a large dormitory room with several others, with money deducted from welfare checks at the start of the month to pay for rent, utilities and meals.

Shared accommodation, however, is not to everyone’s liking. Many people become homeless because they feel unable to deal with the pressures of society, and the stress of living with strangers can cause them to return to the streets.

“I used to do day-to-day jobs and sleep in parks and on bus stop benches at night, but the jobs started drying up and so did my money, so I went to the local government office and asked if I could go on welfare,” says 46-year-old Motonobu Watanabe, who has lived alone in an apartment for the past three years after a long history of transitory jobs, health problems and homelessness.

“They put me in a room with three other people,” Watanabe says. “You had to pay for breakfast and dinner whether you ate it or not. After I had paid for everything, I was left with only ¥20,000 for a month. I didn’t like living with the other people. They were scary and it didn’t suit me. I would leave for a day or a week at a time.”

Nonprofit organization Tenohasi provides food, clothing, advice and medical checks for homeless people in Ikebukuro.
Nonprofit organization Tenohasi provides food, clothing, advice and medical checks for homeless people in Ikebukuro. | ANDREW MCKIRDY

Many people find themselves bouncing back and forth between homelessness and housing facilities. Kenji Seino, director of nonprofit organization Tenohasi, which provides food, clothing, advice and medical checks for homeless people in Ikebukuro, believes the answer lies with Housing First. This approach, which began in the United States in the 1990s, advocates moving homeless people straight into one-person apartments rather than spending transitional stages in communal shelters.

In 2014, Inaba’s Tsukuroi Tokyo Fund established a pilot scheme called Tsukuroi House near Numabukuro Station in Tokyo’s Nakano Ward. The facility offers private rooms for people coming straight out of homelessness, and around 60 have since gone on to live in individual apartments.

The problems, however, do not necessarily end there.

“People dying alone is a big problem in society,” says Le Beau. “It’s difficult to say that once someone is on welfare, the case is closed. We try to get them involved by helping out with food handouts. We also try to make sure they’re contactable with phone numbers and addresses, and we visit them. That’s very important. Although the number of homeless people is decreasing, Sanyukai’s workload doesn’t get any lighter.”

As most people who have spent time on the streets no longer have any ties to their families, loneliness and isolation can become a serious issue. Le Beau is fiercely protective of the people who use Sanyukai’s services — almost exclusively older men — and describes them as his family. Four years ago, he established a grave in the group’s name to give them dignity and solidarity in death.

In 2017, Tsukuroi Tokyo Fund set up a cafe called Shio No Michi, not far from Tsukuroi House. The cafe gives people who have left the facility to move into their own apartments a place to meet, with jobs also available. The cafe roasts its own free-trade coffee beans on the first floor.

Many people who were formerly homeless also help out with food handouts and night patrols, giving them a sense of responsibility as well as belonging.

“I never had a place that I could call home before, or people that I belonged with,” Watanabe says. “I was always on my own. Now there are people who care about me.”

Watanabe found a job cleaning up parks two years ago. He has gotten used to living alone in an apartment after initial feelings of anxiety, and he believes his presence at food handouts helps to show homeless people that there is a way out.

The opinions of the wider population are a different matter, but Seino believes attitudes are shifting.

“When the economic bubble burst and suddenly there were lots of homeless people on the streets, the first thing people thought about was why they weren’t working when there were lots of jobs to go around,” says Seino, who first became involved with the homeless after junior high school students whom he taught social studies to beat a homeless man to death in 2002.

“Then, in the second half of the 2000s, you began to hear the phrases ‘working poor’ and ‘child poverty,'” Seino says. “Then you had the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and part-time and contract workers began to lose their jobs. People became conscious of the fact that there was poverty in Japan. People realized that there were people who needed help. There became less of an attitude that you only have to look out for yourself, but that culture is still very prevalent in Japan.”

‘I only thought about each day as it came’

Koji Kameda, 47

“I have epilepsy. I can’t remember things that I’ve said or done. I used to be a yankii. When I was 25, I got into a fight and someone hit me on the head with a baton. After that, symptoms started showing and I couldn’t even live my daily life.

“I was the owner of a snack pub in Osaka. I couldn’t continue after my injury. I went back and forth between Tokyo and Osaka, then when I was 39, I got arrested. I stole a car from a security company and went to prison for 10 months.

Koji Kameda
Koji Kameda | ANDREW MCKIRDY

“I came out of prison with nowhere to go. I had about ¥14,000 in total. I had heard you could get on welfare quickly in Yokohama, so I went there. They told me to live on my own money, but it was all gone in about three or four days. I couldn’t get on welfare and I couldn’t get an apartment, so I gave up on life.

“I went to the suicide forest near Mount Fuji with the intention of killing myself. I had the rope around my neck but then I changed my mind. It wasn’t my time to die. I walked all the way back from Yamanashi Prefecture to Tokyo.

“I went to Toshima Ward to apply for welfare. I was put in a shared room without any privacy. There were about 20 people living in one room, sleeping in bunk beds. I ran away after a month.

“After that, I slept on park benches. I had a pocket game, so during the daytime I would kill time by playing that. In the winter, I would wear layers of jumpers and get in my sleeping bag and try to keep out the cold. I didn’t earn any money at all.

“I thought if I stayed in Tokyo, I could get food and clothes handouts and take a shower and wash my clothes. I only thought about each day as it came.

“I can’t say that I looked good, but I tried to dress up so I could blend in with people as much as possible. People think homeless people are depraved.

“I asked a nonprofit organization for advice, and someone went with me to apply for welfare.

“After about three months, I got it. I attended Hello Work lectures for three months and got a home helper qualification. I worked at a group home for a year and a half.

“I hid the fact that I had a brain injury from them and, when they found out, I lost my job. Now I live in an apartment. The doctor told me not to work anymore.

“I’d like to go back to work for a nursing company. There’s no way I want to go back to being homeless.”