[Hpn] Seeking Shelter in Japan:Homeless Problem Growing as Nation Battles Recession
Morgan W. Brown
Wed, 17 Oct 2001 09:59:27 -0400
Wednesday, October 17, 2001
Washington Post <http://www.washingtonpost.com>
[Washington, D.C., USA]
Business News section
Seeking Shelter in Japan
Homeless Problem Growing as Nation Battles Recession
By Clay Chandler
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 17, 2001; Page E01
OSAKA, Japan -- Two nights each week, 63-year-old Yoshisuke Nagamine works
his way around the groves and gardens at the base of Osaka Castle to check
up on his homeless neighbors.
Emerging from his compound of blue plastic sheets and cardboard boxes, the
burly former air-conditioner repairman wends through a village of shanties
that has grown among the pine and plum trees as the Japanese unemployment
rate has grown in recent years.
Nagamine points out the more recent arrivals. There's the fellow who came
after his seafood restaurant failed; the couple in their sixties whose
trucking company collapsed; the two brothers who juggle odd jobs; the former
office worker with the bad cough who ran out of friends who'd put him up.
When Nagamine began his nighttime rounds five years ago, the park had no
more than a few dozen full-time residents and he could look in on everyone
in about 45 minutes. But now that the community includes more than 700
shanties, his reconnaissance takes at least three hours.
"You never know," says the deputy park director, Tsutomu Morisawa, who has
spoken with hundreds of those living on the grounds. "One day you're off to
work in a white shirt and tie. The next day you find yourself out here
sleeping under a plastic sheet."
Tent settlements like the one encircling Osaka Castle are among the most
jarring manifestations of this nation's struggle to break the grip of a
decade-long economic slump. Even before the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes on
the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, residents of the world's
second-largest economy were girding for a period of painful retrenchment as
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made good on his vow to rein in government
spending and businesses pushed ahead with long-deferred restructuring plans.
Corporate profits were plunging. The nation's famed trade surplus had
receded for 14 straight months. Unemployment topped 5 percent, a postwar
Now, many analysts warn of a global slowdown that could tip Japan -- already
the weakest of the world's industrial economies -- into a deeper and more
protracted recession, which in turn could exacerbate the global downturn.
In early September, private experts surveyed by Consensus Economics Inc., a
London-based forecasting firm, said they expected the Japanese economy to
contract slightly this year, then manage a modest recovery in 2002. But the
Consensus group now predicts that, on average, Japan's economy will shrink
by at least half a percentage point this year and another half-point the
following year. Many analysts fear there will be no genuine turnaround until
"If support from the U.S. economy declines, Japan will probably experience
another downward leg of falling production, income, investment and consumer
spending," Jeffery Young, an economist at Nikko Salomon Smith Barney, warned
in a recent memo to clients.
The terrorist attacks have not only dampened consumer sentiment in Japan's
most important export market, but may also further depress demand by U.S.
businesses for the information-technology products that are a mainstay of
Those shocks are raising the anxiety level here because they will compound
other deep-rooted economic problems. Japanese consumers continue to keep a
tight grip on their wallets. The nation's exporters are struggling to fend
off low-cost producers in China. The government is still groping for
solutions to clear an estimated $1.5 trillion in bad debts from the balance
sheets of the nation's banks.
In combination, these problems have left workers more vulnerable than ever
As in past downturns, the current recession is grinding hardest on the
Japanese who toil at the margins of society -- day laborers, women, the
elderly and the unskilled. But the slump is beginning to squeeze workers at
the core of the traditional labor force.
Most of those living outside Osaka Castle are former construction workers.
But local aid groups estimate that 1 in 10 is a former office worker.
A rising wave of bankruptcies nationwide has thrust the employees of
hundreds of thousands of small and medium-size enterprises onto a bleak job
market, often with meager benefits. New graduates, even those with degrees
from first- and second-tier universities, face unprecedented challenges in
finding work. And as large firms shrink payrolls and cut costs, even
once-secure salaried office workers at blue-chip Japanese companies dread
receiving a "tap on the shoulder."
Keisuke Uehira, director of Kyoto paper-products company Daiichi Shiko, was
among the first to discover the new vulnerability of Japanese workers.
In Sapporo for business on Sept. 11, he stared in disbelief at live
television coverage of the collapsing World Trade Center towers. Two days
later, reverberations from the tragedy rocked Daiichi as bank executives
meeting in Tokyo concluded that, given the gloomier growth outlook, there
was no hope of rehabilitating MyCal Corp., a huge but troubled Kyoto
retailer that was the paper company's biggest customer. MyCal's largest
creditor refused to roll over the retailer's loans, forcing it into
Days later, Daiichi, with nearly 400 employees and $56 million in
liabilities, followed suit. About two-thirds of those workers will lose
For middle-aged workers at big companies, the ax has yet to fall. But they
are fearful. Last month, in rapid succession, a parade of giant Japanese
manufacturers, including Fujitsu Ltd., Toshiba Corp., Matsushita Electric
Industrial Corp. and Hitachi Ltd., announced sweeping staff cuts, with many
promising to eliminate 10 percent or even 20 percent of their global
Most companies said they will slash overseas jobs first, even though those
workers are less costly. The few companies that plan to shed Japanese
employees said they would make the reductions gradually through attrition
and early retirement programs.
But shareholders -- especially foreigners, who hold an increasing stake in
Japan's leading industrial companies -- are howling for deeper cuts. Ikuo
Matsuhashi, an industry analyst at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., predicted that
within the next few months, Japan's electronics giants will announce far
more aggressive retrenchments -- this time targeting Japanese workers. With
losses mounting, "they have no choice," he said. "They're going have to make
reductions beyond the scale of what we've seen."
Two months ago, Matsushita's president, Kunio Nakamura, fueled speculation
that the Osaka manufacturer was preparing plans to force workers in their
fifties and sixties into retirement when he declared that Matsushita didn't
need "hard-headed" older employees who couldn't be trained to use computers.
Matsushita officials scrambled to reassure Japanese employees that the
company had no plans to push out senior workers. But Nakamura's remarks
gained wide media attention here because they contrasted so starkly with the
philosophy of Matsushita's founder, Konosuke Matsushita, who is revered as a
pioneer of Japan's vaunted "lifetime employment" system.
At age 49, Yoshio Anan is learning the hard way that there may be little
difference between taking early retirement and getting laid off. Until this
past February, Anan worked on the assembly line at a Nissan Motor Co.
affiliate in Kyoto. When Nissan decided two years ago to close the facility
as part of global restructuring, the plant's 1,500 employees were obliged to
choose between early retirement or jobs at a Nissan factory in Kanagawa,
nearly 300 miles away.
Anan, a 31-year Nissan veteran, was one of about 600 workers who chose to
leave the company and search for work close to home. But after eight months
of pounding the pavement, his unemployment benefits are running out and his
career options are dwindling.
"If I'm not too picky, I suppose I could probably get a job as a security
guard," he said. "But the pay would be barely half what I was making. I knew
things would be tough . . . but I never imagined the economy would be this
Meanwhile, to avoid laying off current employees, companies have drastically
scaled back their hiring of new recruits. The jobless rate for Japanese men
in their early twenties has climbed above 10 percent.
Yoshihide Sorimachi, forensic pathologist for the city of Osaka, argued that
the rising unemployment rate has taken a heavier psychological toll in Japan
than in other countries because, in this society, job status is the
preeminent measure of self-worth. In 1998, when the number of suicides in
Osaka jumped to 900, from 500 the previous year, Sorimachi noticed that a
large proportion of the suicides he examined at the city morgue were
laid-off middle-aged men.
Sorimachi noted that, in contrast to many other industrial societies,
Japan's suicide rate rises and falls almost in lock step with unemployment
statistics. "Many Japanese workers feel that if they lose their jobs, they
have lost their reason to live," he said.
Here in Kansai, the west-central region encompassing Osaka, the job picture
is particularly grim. The economy's most troubled sectors -- electronics,
light manufacturing, textiles, retailing and construction -- account for a
disproportionate share of local commerce.
In many ways, work conditions in Osaka offer a preview of what awaits the
rest of the nation if Japan's leaders fail to reverse the economy's slide.
The unemployment rate here is roughly 1.5 percentage points above the
national average. City officials estimate the number of people sleeping in
Osaka's streets, parks or other public spaces at more than 10,000 -- almost
twice the homeless population of Tokyo, despite Osaka's smaller size.
At Osaka Castle, many of the tent dwellers held jobs until just a few years
ago and cling to habits of cleanliness and order. Most pay regular visits to
the nearby sento, or public bath. Many keep bank accounts; a few own cell
The majority earn enough to survive by scouring the city streets for
aluminum cans, which can be redeemed at recycling centers for a little over
2 cents each. Old-timers say they used to be able to make as much as $30 a
day collecting cans. But now there's a lot more competition, and a
successful five-hour foray typically yields about $16.
The tent dwellers battle frost in winter, mosquitoes in summer and
loneliness all year round. Most of all, there is the nagging stigma of
failure. "My grandchildren live just across town, but they don't come see me
anymore," says an unemployed roofer who declined to give his name.
The Osaka government has begun building crude shelters around the city so
that the rising tide of displaced workers will have a place to go. Last
year, the Labor Ministry launched a number of "self-reliance centers" giving
some homeless people free room and board for six months, providing them
breathing space to search for work.
Together these two programs have helped lower the number of tents outside
Osaka Castle by about 40 percent from the summer's peak of nearly 1,200. But
Nagamine fears that if the economy remains sour, the encampment will swell
Nagamine, who has lived here since giving up his job in 1993, first came to
the park to look after an old friend who lost his job after injuring his leg
in a traffic accident. The friend took to drinking and died two years later.
But Nagamine found plenty of others who needed his help.
He emerged as the park's unofficial mayor several years ago after helping to
resolve a payment dispute between homeless day laborers and some scrap
dealers. Charitable groups trust him to run the biweekly soup kitchen.
Police rely on him to keep the peace. A recent Saturday morning found him
seeking to boost the morale of park inhabitants by organizing a baseball
"I'm not necessarily here because I like it, but what else can I do?" he
asks. "There are all these newcomers here. They don't have any experience
with being homeless. Somebody has to look out for them."
Special correspondent Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.
**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this
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those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving
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Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
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