[Hpn] NYTimes.com Article: For Japan’s New Homeless, There’s Disdain and Danger
Wed, 17 Dec 2003 07:11:28 -0500 (EST)
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For Japan’s New Homeless, There’s Disdain and Danger
December 17, 2003
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
KAWASAKI, Japan - The memory of how three youths pounced on
him one night with sticks and fists twisted Masahiko
Sugai's face with pain. The homeless people living with him
here, clustered under a bridge linking this city with
Tokyo, avoided the topic.
But the bruises around his eyes, visible for days after the
beating, testified to a new kind of crime: attacks by young
men and boys on middle-aged men who have become homeless
after losing their jobs and who, in the cold logic of
Japan's post-bubble-economy years, are useless.
"We're most afraid of boys," Mr. Sugai, 51, said one
afternoon in early September as cars and trucks rumbled
overhead on the Rokugo Bridge. "They're the most
A month later, in an unrelated case, 10 boys were arrested
here for randomly assaulting three sleeping homeless men.
The boys - the youngest was 10, the oldest 16 - told the
police that they were "killing time," "getting rid of
stress" and "disposing of society's trash." They came from
normal homes and earned normal grades at school.
"They didn't stand out at all," said Kengo Honda, 54,
deputy chief at the police station that investigated the
case. "They didn't realize they had done something bad
until we brought them to the station and questioned them."
Mr. Honda, trying to explain the matter, spoke of the
"shameful tendency in Japan to target the weak."
The police do not keep track of such crimes, and most
victims, like Mr. Sugai, do not report them. But Mitsuyuki
Maniwa, a professor specializing in juvenile crime at Otani
University in Kyoto, said such attacks had increased in the
last five years and had become more violent.
"Those who have no role in society are now considered
trash, just like stray cats or dogs, to be disposed of,"
Mr. Maniwa said.
More than 1,000 homeless people are believed to be living
here in Kawasaki, an industrial city that has fallen on
hard times. Many live in cardboard boxes near the main
In Fujimi Park, they have erected scores of wooden shacks,
neatly spaced, with locks and, sometimes, ornamented
windows and doors. As a sign of the suburban life many had
led, some have transformed tiny patches of land into
gardens. Many keep dogs and have bicycles. Others sit in
lawn chairs in front of their shacks, reading novels.
Away from the city center, past a red-light street where
foreign Asian women sit behind Amsterdam-style glass
windows, about 300 homeless people live near the Tama
River, dividing this city from Tokyo. Some have pitched
tents on the bank; others have built shacks in bushy areas,
a stone's throw from the public golf and tennis courts.
Still others have found their way under the bridge.
"This is Japan here," Isamu Ishikawa said, by way of
introduction, in September. "This is the Japan where people
who want to work can't find work."
Mr. Ishikawa, 51, and Mr. Sugai, the man who was assaulted,
had shared a corner under the bridge for three months with,
variously, several cats, a dog and a rabbit. A young couple
- Makoto Watanabe, 33, who said he became homeless after
his parents fled in the night, and Maki Ito, 28, who loved
him desperately and so followed him here under the bridge -
pitched a tent. Tadashi Sakuma, a 62-year-old grandfather,
homeless for several years, had built two shacks nearby but
came here for the company.
The five usually sit around a low table on a platform
covered with a straw mat. In the afternoons, after they
have spent the morning picking up aluminum cans or
collecting lunches from the city, they relax over shochu, a
cheap Japanese alcohol.
Around lunchtime in late September, Mr. Ishikawa was frying
liver and onions over a gas stove. He had worked for five
years in a restaurant, starting as a dishwasher and rising
to sashimi chef. He had gone to college on a baseball
scholarship, but a shoulder injury forced him to drop out.
He had married and had two children, and had worked at
several companies, but a problem nagged him. "I messed up
because of this," he said, tapping a glass of shochu.
In recent years, he gravitated to Tokyo, where he worked as
a day laborer and first met Mr. Sugai. "But in Japan it's
hard to find any work if you are over 50," he said.
He had left his family and moved into a place where he had
gone three years without paying his landlord. "He was a
really good guy," he said. "He never even came to demand
the rent. And every morning, he'd say, `Good morning!' The
guilt was too much for me."
So one night in June, Mr. Ishikawa fled, taking only his
bicycle. He rode five hours to Kawasaki, his hometown,
where he went to see his wife and children, but did not
tell them he had become homeless.
"My wife even gave me the key to the house and told me to
come whenever I wanted to," he said. "But I can't go, since
I've ended up here and don't have a job. I don't have a
face to show."
"Then shave off your beard!" Mr. Sakuma, seemingly asleep,
blurted out to general laughter.
Under the bridge, Mr. Ishikawa found comfort in his
friendship with Mr. Sugai. "Sugai told me, `Here, when you
want to cry, cry.' When I was with my family, I had to be
strong. I never hit anyone. But I would yell at my wife. I
was hard on her, but I loved her. That's why she handed me
the key. But after I came here, I felt free. So that day I
leaned against the wall of the bridge and held my futon,
and cried and cried."
It was dusk already, and the traffic out of Tokyo over the
bridge was getting heavier. Mr. Sugai, who had been asleep
inside his tent, crawled out, his hair wildly uncombed.
"Why is everyone up so early this morning?" he said.
Weeks passed. Mr. Sugai found a gray mutt, but fell into a
funk when he had to return it. He and Mr. Ishikawa decided
to stop drinking. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was
One recent morning, Mr. Sugai and Mr. Ishikawa returned
from selling $16.53 worth of aluminum cans at the
scrapyard. A news junkie who follows world events on the
radio, Mr. Sugai goes to the public library these days to
read books on Japan's feudal Edo era. "I think things were
easier back then," Mr. Sugai said. "During the bubble
economy, the Japanese suddenly became rich and went crazy.
It changed the Japanese."
Mr. Sugai worked at resort hotels for most of his life, and
just five years ago oversaw 50 workers at a hotel in
Karuizawa, the traditional getaway for the Japanese upper
crust in the mountains west of Tokyo. But like many hotels
built during the bubble economy, this one went bankrupt.
Because of his age, he was unable to find another job and
began working as a day laborer at construction jobs.
"My strength declined when I turned 50, and I couldn't
carry heavy things anymore," he said. One hot day two
summers ago, he collapsed on a construction job. "I decided
to take it easy for a while and then eventually I came here
under the bridge a year ago," he said.
In that time, boys had attacked him three times. In early
September, he had gone out one night to a grocery store, a
little drunk, when three boys called out, "Old man, come
" `This is bad,' I remembered thinking," he said. "They go
after the weak. In Japan, there is a tendency to go after
The sun never shone under the bridge, and with the approach
of winter, Mr. Sugai shivered in a sweatshirt. He went to
pet his rabbit.
Next to the nearby tennis court, a young woman and man
dressed in white were playing badminton. They did not seem
to see the people under the bridge.
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