The State of the Urban Poor in Japan

(written by Hosaka & Peter from ACHR-HP)


In present-day Japan, 80% of the 126 million population is urban. The  urban and rural poor whose income and assets cannot enable them to  sustain the minimum standard of living, are expected to be covered by  the government assistance measures to offset their earnings.  Only  less than 1% of the total population receive the assistance.  The  figure misleads us to grossly underestimate the magnitude of poverty.  In fact, the government has strictly controlled the local authorities  to apply the measures less and less, particularly since the 1980s.


Yet the public assistance recipients may include some portions of the  following groups: aged singles, daily labourers, woman-headed  households, handicapped people, and those who have been living in  socially discriminated settlements. Furthermore there are emerging  poor groups particularly in urban areas who are largely excluded from  public assistance programmes institutionally or practically.  They are  migrant workers said to number one million, and homeless people in  major city centres. The homelessness perhaps represents currently the  most acute urban poverty in Japan.



There has been a fundamental change in human settlement situations  over last twenty years.  Tokyo emerged as a core metropolis in the  globalized market during the 1980s, and this process entailed the  creation of a vast number of marginalized groups and settlements in  and outside the country.  One of the first settlement impacts of the  investment concentration in major Japanese cities was jiage, or  violent uprooting, of old-timer residents from inner town areas by  real estate companies which found speculative opportunities for office  space development in the latter 1980s. Yakuza-related jiage agents  harassed and intimidated people into vacating their legally-occupied  properties.  Government was by and large inactive in those practices.   "Efficient" urban land use was thus promoted replacing low-income  housing units by high-rise buildings.  Meanwhile, the cities received  an unprecedented number of immigrant workers from other Asian and  South American countries. While a majority of "new comer" workers are  deprived of protection and welfare measures, left-over small,  dilapidated apartments in towns have been occupied by these incoming  workers.


The bubble economy created by the excess liquidity in the financial  market blasted in the 1990s. Under the recession, many companies have  taken a decision to lay off their workers or switched to hiring more  part-time workers and reduced full-timers. The worst-ever unemployment  ratio of 4.6% (over 3 million laid off workers) does not seem to  improve in a short run.  According to a recent report, half of those  unemployed are 20-30 years old.  On the other hand, the labour market  for construction works that traditionally absorbed the majority of  middle-aged daily labourers have sharply shrunk.


In the wake of this economic trend, the number of homeless people has  rapidly increased. According to a government document in early 1999,  its number is 8,660 in Osaka, 4,300 in Tokyo, 758 in Nagoya, making  the total 16 thousand homeless population in 14 major Japanese cities;  the figures apparently underestimated or already outdated, coming to  almost half of the current assessment made by NGO activists. (For  example, even Yokohama City's official statistics says the number of  its homeless residents as of August 1999 has grown 1.8 times over last  12 months). They live in tents, shacks, cardboard houses, or sleep  just on benches, in public parks, on river banks or along roads. It is  already a part of landscape of almost every major city in Japan. A  majority of them are single, male, daily-wage labourers who once  contributed to the economic expansion as construction workers, though  more recent homeless people include dismissed younger workers, and  according to a female journalist, 10% of the homeless in Tokyo are  women. 


The traditional and persistent attitude of the public is to view the  homeless to be idle, antipathetic to living with others, dirty and  dangerous.  They are often harassed, and sometimes killed by citizen  groups particularly youngsters. Such public stigma has also prompted  many local authorities to forcibly evict homeless people from public  space.  Former Tokyo Governor Aoshima, after a violent forced eviction  by his government, spoke, "They hold a peculiar type of thinking (of  choosing a life on pavement)".  However our survey of 200, out of

estimated 1500, homeless people in Nagoya in August 1999 show that  more than 60% of them became homeless for the first time in 1998-99.  75% of the homeless quoted unemployment as the major cause of their  homelessness, while less than 10 % listed other reasons such as family  problems, human relations and financial debt.


The same survey also indicates that, for 43% of them, the previous  residence immediately before the present homeless situation was  related to employers company dormitories, company-rented apartments,  or construction site accommodations.  It suggests the vulnerability of  the poor that once employment opportunities lost, they were alienated  from even a place to live.



In Nagoya, a daily worker Mr. K. Hayashi filed a case against the  Nagoya City Hall in 1993. Due to the prolonged recession he became  homeless, and he could not find a job because of his age and the pain  on his leg. He applied for the public assistance measures for  livelihood and housing. The City approved the medical assistance only.  The City's decision was in line with the ministerial policy that  practically denied the entitlement of the homeless to the welfare  measures just because they had no residence. Despite the fifty-year  old legislation on public assistance that guarantees equal aŠ„]~s to  public life support programmes "irrespective of reasons for poverty",  it has become rather a customary practice of local authorities not to  extend such measures unless an established residence is proved. In  Kobe, after the Great Earthquake in 1995, people staying in evacuation  centres were also refused to apply for the assistance, on account of  non-established residence.  Mr. Hayashi's case provoked a movement  among supporters and social welfare activists to demand the government  to assure every citizen of the constitutional right to the minimum  standard of living. The case won the local court, but lost in the high  court.


There are about 400 homeless people living in Shibuya ward, an  inner-city spot in Tokyo. They, together with supporters, built  solidarity through common activities such as free meals and night  patrolling. They tried to sleep collectively on the pavement. Their  organization is called Nojiren (implying Freedom Association for  Livelihood and Housing Rights of the Homeless). By early 1999, they  became aware that the administration was not serious in helping them  get job and shelter. It was also felt difficult to keep alive the  community efforts only by confronting the authorities. The Nojiren  then started self-managed activities, the movement of a new type at  least in the Japanese context. Some younger homeless fellows built  four temporary structures in a less visible place in a near-by park,  with tacit recognition from the authorities. These are easily  dismantled in case of eviction, but used temporarily by colleagues who  luckily get a regular job but still cannot afford to rent a room. The  Nojiren has also created a community reserve fund. It lends money to  fellow colleagues in need of transportation expenses while looking for  jobs. They in turn contribute to this fund by sharing a portion of  their first wages.


Some Nojiren members are formerly professional cooks. They prepare  lunches and cakes to be brought jointly to various public gatherings  for sale, and contribute partly to the community fund. Other members  collect recycle materials, exchange job information. The homeless are  thus beginning to manage their own funds. Up till now the magnitude of  the fund is insignificant, but people find meaning in this.  While  homeless people were made to feel themselves useless, they are now  recovering the human dignity by working together and enjoying the  common experience. Furthermore some go to rural farms and work during  harvest seasons. They have found a piece of idle land, and are  negotiating with the owner so that the Nojiren could rent it as a  community farm.



The central government, finally made aware of the seriousness of the  rapid increase in the homeless population, convened an inter-agency  working group on the issue with participation of representatives of  five major cities, and discussed several immediate measures.  It is  reported that in that process most of the city representatives  requested for new legislation enabling them to "smoothly evict"  homeless people from public places. While the working group is likely  to propose intensifying some control measures, it has also identified  measures promoting employment, establishing local support centres for  self-reliance, and preventing communicable diseases.  However the  wording is very vague without legal and financial reference, and final  configurations of new measures are yet to be seen.


The government, central and local, did and perhaps still does neither  admit nor recognize the existence of homeless population. They have  simply claimed that public land must be cleared for public use and  resorted to forced eviction, and they have refused to extend welfare  measures to homeless people, making strange remarks that required  examination and follow-up are not possible for those without  residence. The change of government attitude depends largely on  heightened awareness by the general public on the human rights  standards, an aspect on which Japanese society is seriously retarded.  And the effectiveness of anticipated new measures will have to be  implemented with activated civic society organizations, an approach  for which Japanese have much to learn from other Asian societies.