When I was living in Kyoto in the late 1960s, I would often see homeless people along the banks of the Kamo River. They generally lived under the bridges in structures made of cardboard and blue sheeting. Having seen many homeless people in my native Los Angeles, I was particularly struck by the neatness of these makeshift homes, with residents’ shoes lined up neatly outside, and often an umbrella or two in a stand by the entrance.
As the recycling movement gained momentum in the 1980s and ’90s, homeless people gathering aluminum cans and plastic bottles became a common sight around Japan.
However, this superficial decorum and marginal economic activity hid the miserable facts plaguing the homeless, about which very little had been written in Japan. After all, this was supposed to be a country where everyone was middle class or at least had a roof over their head. The homeless should not exist.
Today, after nearly two decades of economic stagnation, homelessness has become a major problem in Japan. As in many other countries, the homeless are ridiculed, feared and often bashed. In a country where the koseki (family registry) establishes the official identity of all citizens, to fall off that domiciliary edge is to become invisible, a non-entity. Everyone, including the good, the bad and the ugly, has a place in Japan — save for the official non-entities.
There are an estimated 10,000 homeless in Tokyo, and the same number in Osaka. Naturally, the smaller cities have fewer. The three main reasons for becoming homeless in Japan are, by my reckoning, the following:
First, economics — particularly unemployment in the cities and lack of work in the country, from where men drift to population centers.
Second, illness of various sorts, including the upward of one-third of those living on the streets who are said to suffer from depression.
And third, there are issues surrounding abuse or domestic violence — either by or to the homeless person.
Now, Yukio Godo has put a human and tragic face to homelessness, with his new book, titled “Tenraku” (“Downfall”), published last month by Astra. This book, which is actually Godo’s third one on the homeless, introduces the personal testimonies of 100 homeless men and women. It is a book I would unequivocally recommend as an important social document on contemporary Japan.
The names of the people in the book are not their real ones, although their photographs appear there, mostly face on. Mr. Konishi, for one, was a victim of the recession. He suffers from cirrhosis of the liver, but because he does not have medical insurance, he cannot afford the ¥10,000 it costs for even a single IV injection. Cast out by his family, he says, “I have never once been able to experience the warm pleasures of a happy home.”
Ms. Hara was orphaned at age 3, and thereafter was brutally abused by an aunt who took her in.
Mr. Fukuoka, from Gunma Prefecture, looked after his demented mother for 13 years, and at age 57 lost his job at an ironworks. He found his way to Tokyo only to discover that there was no job anywhere for him. “It’s as if I came to the capital in order to be homeless,” he says. “What’s the point of my life anyway?”
Mr. Hayashi, a wheelchair-bound hemiplegic, was thrown out of his family by his father, who beat him up and ejected him physically onto the street in front of their home. “My father,” says Hayashi, “is a man with neither tears nor blood.”
Not all of the homeless, though, have difficult or disadvantaged backgrounds.
Mr. Isa is a graduate of the prestigious University of Tokyo, in economics no less. “I was married at 29,” he says, “and worked my way up to section chief (at my company). . . . But I am too quiet and withdrawn by nature to get ahead. . . . My marriage fell apart after seven or eight years, and when my kids grew up I was left alone. . . . But people won’t rent an apartment to old people who live by themselves. Now I spend my days going from one welfare institution to another. I guess I’m the only economics graduate of the University of Tokyo who’s living like this.”
Mr. Shimazaki recounts how his family were subsistence farmers. When he put on the light to do his primary-school homework, his parents switched it off, telling him, “What’s the use of study, eh? It’s a waste of electricity.” He has lived for 30 years on the streets of the Sanya district in Tokyo, where a lot of homeless and day-laborers congregate.
The stories go on and on, each one in its own way unique, each one in its pathos and misery exactly like the next.
Mr. Watanabe, once quite well-to-do, made the mistake of putting up every yen he had as collateral on a friend’s loan. Now on the street, he told his son, “Just make sure you never become a guarantor for anyone.”
Perhaps one of the saddest lives cited here is that of Ms. Sekimoto. She married the man she loved at age 28. Her second pregnancy was ectopic; and after a major operation, she spent an incredible five years in a hospital bed. She felt it unfair to her husband to have such a wife, and so filed for divorce. Her first child, a boy, was sent to her brother-in-law and adopted by him.
Once out of hospital, she landed a job as a waitress at a coffee shop and worked there until she retired at 55. After that her savings steadily dwindled to nothing and, at age 68, she was obliged to leave her apartment. “Since then,” she says, “I have been based in the park.”
In “Tenraku,” Godo writes, “(Many of) the homeless have been pawns sacrificed in the name of adjustment of the volatile economic cycle. No company is going to stretch out a helping hand to people who have fallen onto the street.”
Take Mr. Morinaga, No. 93 of the 100 homeless portrayed in the book. His company went belly up and he started working as a carpenter in the construction industry. Eventually, despite his expertise, the industry began favoring younger, part-time workers. In any case, the company he was working for went bankrupt, and he found himself on the streets, getting any kind of day work that he could.
“The trend toward abandoning veteran workers with their experience and wisdom is crazy,” says Mr. Morinaga, whose photo in the book shows him at night on a park bench with his back to us. “If this keeps up, the ship that is Japan is sure to sink.”