[Hpn] Japan's Homeless Left Out Of Economic Recovery
William Charles Tinker
Thu, 6 Oct 2005 04:41:20 -0400
Japan's homeless left out of economic recovery
06 Oct 2005
By George Nishiyama
TOKYO, Oct 6 (Reuters) - Kanji Takahashi lives in the heart of Tokyo, next
to a cluster of government ministries and just a short walk from the posh
Ginza shopping district.
But the 62-year-old's home is a makeshift tent of blue vinyl sheets and
scrap wood, built in a park. Takahashi, and around 100 other homeless park
dwellers, are living proof that Japan's once-egalitarian society is showing
"If you're over 60, there's no work," said Takahashi, a former construction
worker who has been unemployed for nearly 10 years, as he set up his tent
and prepared for another evening outdoors in one of the world's wealthiest
According to the Welfare Ministry, housed in a building overlooking the
park, there were some 25,000 homeless in Japan in Feb. 2003, when it last
conducted a survey, but support groups say the actual figure is about twice
In Tokyo alone, about 6,700 live in parks and along riverbanks, many
scraping a living from collecting cans and cardboard boxes, a reminder that
even in the world's second biggest economy, many are falling through the
While the Japanese economy has been steadily recovering in recent years and
the unemployment rate has declined from the peak of 5.4 percent reached in
2002, the homeless have not benefitted from the improvement, experts say.
"There has not been a sharp increase or a sharp decrease in the number of
homeless. We continue to see a slight rise," said Shoji Sano, co-founder of
Big Issue Japan, which publishes the Japanese edition of the street
newspaper, first conceived in Britain as a way to help the homeless rebuild
The homeless sell the paper for 200 yen ($1.75) and pocket 110 yen for
The bulk of Japan's homeless are former day labourers at construction sites
who lost their jobs after Japan's asset-inflated "bubble economy" burst in
the early 1990s.
Left to fend for themselves for a decade, they failed to keep up with
changes in society, like the spread of computers, and with many now in their
50s -- the national average is 56 -- there are few employment opportunities.
"If you're in your 50s or 60s, openings are limited to cleaning jobs or
security guards," said Masayuki Komata, who is in charge of an "independence
support centre" for the homeless run by the Tokyo metropolitan government.
There are five such facilities in the capital providing shelter and
job-finding assistance. At Komata's centre, a tidy two-storey building
located inconspicuously under an elevated expressway, over 84 percent of
those who arrive do find jobs.
But even Komata admits that the centres, which can only accommodate a total
of around 370 people, do not have the capacity to cope with the thousands of
homeless in the city.
Experts say recent calls for the government to cut spending to tackle a
mountain of public debt -- the worst level among industrialised nations --
may hit society's most vulnerable, including the homeless.
Small government was the buzz word in last month's general election. Prime
Minister Junichiro Koizumi's ruling party, which advocated the privatisation
of the postal system as part of efforts to slim down the public sector, won
a landslide victory.
"There will be a conflict soon between rising welfare costs and the need for
a small government," said Tom Gill, a social anthropologist at Meiji Gakuin
University near Tokyo.
"I am concerned about what will happen. There is a possibility that it may
lead to an increase of the homeless."
Opposition parties have criticised Koizumi's policy, saying it will only
benefit the rich and widen the gap between the haves and the have nots.
"It will create a society where there will be one Horie to a hundred
homeless," said Naoto Kan, a former leader of the opposition Democratic
Party, referring to Takafumi Horie, the CEO of Internet firm Livedoor Co.
and an icon to a new breed of young IT billionaires.
According to a February study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation
and Development, Japan's poverty rate -- the percentage of households with
an income less than half the national average -- stands at 15.3 percent,
nearly double the figure from 10 years ago and the world's fifth highest.
CRUMBS FROM RICH MAN'S TABLE
Experts say the government's homeless policy has improved drastically in the
decade or so since the issue surfaced, citing a 2002 law aimed at helping
the homeless return to society.
But they also say more needs to be done.
Hiroyuki Fukuhara, a professor of labour economics at Osaka City University,
said the government needs to find ways to prevent those without jobs from
ending up on the streets, such as providing them with vocational training as
some European countries are doing.
"It is only providing measures to support the homeless, and even that is not
enough," Fukuhara said.
But while the homeless camping out in parks have become a familiar sight,
there are hardly any beggars in Japan as most are able to live off the
wealth of the rest of the country.
Takahashi says he has no source of income and doesn't bother to seek cash by
collecting cans, for example.
"I just go to Ginza and scavenge for leftovers," he said.