Tokyo's New Homeless

Taisuke Matsumoto worked for 32 years as a sushi chef in a luxury hotel in Shizuoka. Now he barely sleeps. Like approximately 600 other residents of Tokyo's Shinjuku Station. Matsumoto, 53, lives in a cardboard box. Wake-up time is 2:30 a.m., early enough to get a good place in line for the 5 a.m. arrival of Christian volunteers who bring breakfast --- two rice balls. During the night he is restless, wary of intruders. "I must keep guard," he said, explaining that he shares the living quarters with a woman and an elderly man. Recently, violence among and against the homeless has increased.

For the first four years after he was fired, Matsumoto survived by working occasional two-week stints, but "then suddenly there wasn't any work," he said. "Everyone here is old, everyone can't find job," he said occasionally gazing at the rows of cardboard shelters nearby. "Everyone is crying."

Matsumoto is one of Tokyo's "new homeless." Back in the days of the "bubble" economy, most of the nation's homeless were confined to neighborhoods where the day labor market operates. In Tokyo, Sanya has always been the center: workers stay in cheap hotels when construction work is available, and on the street when money or jobs are scare.

In the past few years however, a new breed of homeless has become increasingly visible, not only inside big train stations such as Shinjuku, Takadanobaba and Shibuya, but in small playgrounds in residential neighborhoods scattered throughout Tokyo.

No one knows exactly how many people live on Tokyo street, official estimates put in at 3,300. People who work with the homeless say the figure probably falls somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000. But most would agree that, spurred by the weak economy, the breakdown of the lifetime employment system, and the shift away from extended families sharing one roof, for the first time in postwar Japan the numbers are growing rapidly.

"These are three times as many people as before," said Matsumoto.

For many, there is little in the way of a support system. The vast majority of the newly impoverished are middle-aged men, many of whom worked in small business, or in positions at larger companies that did not survive the present economic downturn. Although public assistance for the poor exists, obtaing it is not easy if one is male, younger than 65, and healthy, according to those who work with the homeless. Masami Iwata, a professor of social welfare at Tokyo Metropolitan University, estimates that only 20 percent to 30 percent of the poor who apply actually receive assistance.

In a nation with few government polices to deal with the problem, a minimal network of non-profit assistance organizations and a cultural ethic that makes the homeless feel disgraceful turning to families for help, the newly poor have nowhere to go.

"(In the U.S.), there's a safety net," said Tony Guzewicz, a native New Yorker who is currently studying the homeless on a Fulbright fellowship. "Here, if you fall, there's nothing."

Recently, however, with Shinjuku station's cardboard city a growing presence on their doorstep, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has started to take notice. In August, for the first time, the government published a report outlining the situation. Next year the government plans to expand the capacity of its rehabilitation centers for homeless men from 470 to 510.

But as Tokyo's short-stay winter shelters have space for only 388, the city's facilities cannot house even a third of the street dwellers, even under the most conservative estimates of the population's size. Iwata of Tokyo Metropolitan University, says the projects in the 147 page report focus mainly on short-term solutions, ignoring the possibility that recession ends.

For every step of recognition, the government seems to take two steps back, apparently in the hope that the problem Will vanish into thin air. Tokyo Governor Yukio Aoshima has commented that the homeless are not doing anything unlawful, but their presence disrupts pedestrians. A plan is afoot to build a moving walkway through Shinjuku station, directly through the area where many of the homeless pitch their cardboard shelters.

In July, the water pressure was reduced at the faucets in Chuo Park, where many of Shinjuku's homeless wash, do laundry and cook. Advocates for the homeless believe the government was trying to send a message to the residents to get out.

Under the current system, if an applicant for public assistance is lucky or desperate enough to receive the ward office's initial approval, a through investigation of family assets and savings follows. Counselors often visit relatives to confirm that there is no one who can help.

Many homeless are so worried about their families finding out about their situation that they disappear from hospital beds or shelters before the application process can be completed, explains Jeong Sil Moon, a lecturer at Meiji University who volunteers with the homeless.

"They have the right to receive the assistance by law, but it's embarrassing to have your home called.... It doesn't feel like a right. There's a stigma attached," she said.

The law is not for people who do lot want to work, insists Masashi Matsuda, a section chief at the Social Welfare Department of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. "You know why? Because I also don't want to work. But I have to. This is only a law for those who try to find work."

But many homeless say they do want to work, and they look for work, but jobs are just not available.

Shoichi Samukawa, 42, sits on a bench underneath the crimson and gold trees in Chuo Park, which faces the ominous facade of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. He says he has been looking for work for about a year and a half, since he lost his job at an automobile manufacturer because plant operations were moving abroad. "If only there were work," said Samukawa, adding. "The Japanese government doesn't think about it at all."

Those familiar with the homeless problem elsewhere in the world suggest that Japan needs not just better government policy, but a stronger volunteer network and corporate and public funding of nonprofit activities.

But the Japanese piblic's attitude toward the homeless, regarding them as lazy and responsible their position in society, tend to prompt indifference, not volunteerism.

Shimomura Atsushi, a volunteer, paused near the rows of brightly painted cardboard homes in Shinjuku station.

"(The public) don't think of helping them at all, they only look," he said, as commuters rushed by. "They have no heart."

Right now the United States has hundreds of thousands of more homeless than Japan, said Sherri Blake, an architectural designer who studied Sanya for her master's degree at Tokyo University. "But it will come here.... It's happening now. It's fine to wait until it happens. But it's better to be proactive than reactive," she said.

The homeless fear harassment

On a chilly afternoon in early December a group of five huddled in the Ikebukuro studio apartment of Daisuke Endoh because, they said, for the seventh time in three weeks teenagers had slashed a homeless man in Shinjuku with a pocket knife. Endoh, a film-maker who produced a documentary on the station's homeless, darted back and forth between his table of guests and the telephone. An air of tension filled the air. Hasty arrangements seemed to be in the making.

"I wonder if it's a boom in harassment of the homeless," said Yuki Akira, 43, when Endoh stepped outside for a few minutes. Akira, who volunteers with the homeless, said that if he's not on patrol, youths tend to target the old and the weak.

Young men and teenagers are being held for two homicides of homeless men in October: One in Osaka on Oct. 18 and another in Higashi Jujo, Tokyo, on Oct,15.

Some observers speculate that the beatings and other harassment are an outlet for frustration and tension. "Japan is stressful society. Young people are particularly Stressed by societal competition," said Tetsu Mugikura, a professor at Tokyo Daigakuin Junior College, who researches the homeless and prostitution. "After the war, everyone understood what it was like to go through a hard time. But now Japan is a rich country and people don't understand poverty."

For the homeless that means living with the constant fear of waking up to the pain of a pocket knife slicing their skin, or a lighted cigarette burning one's blanket.

"I can't defend myself when I'm sleeping," said Hideichi Horii, 42, who has lived in Shinjuku for three months. "People throw cigarettes at us everyday. My biggest fear is getting knifed while I'm asleep."

by Elicia Brown
The Japan Times, 16th Dec. 1995
Elicia Brown is a staffer at the Japan Times. Tony Guzewicz is researching the homeless under a grant from the Japan-U.S. Educational Commission Fulbright Program.