Japan homeless sleep in wealth's shadow FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Sat, 18 Apr 1998 13:02:11 -0700 (PDT)

FWD  IPS-Inter Press Service - Verity Inc. Swedish.


  By Magda Kowalczuk

TOKYO, Mar 24 (IPS) - They do not appear in Japan's almanacs or government
statistics, but their
ranks are growing day by day in one of the world's richest countries.

They are Japan's thousands of homeless people, many of whom live in tents
and cardboard shacks under bridges, inside parks or railway stations in
country whose GDP per capita exceeds 20,000 dollars.

Tokyo and other cities like Nagoya, Hiroshima and Osaka may be symbols of
Japan's affluence, but their streets are also home to the largest groups of
homeless people in the country.

An August 1996 survey by the metropolitan government says there are 3,000
homeless persons in Tokyo, 40 per cent of them in their fifties and a good
number of them ill. But the Salvation Army puts the figure at between 5,000
to 10,000.

The figure is a small fraction of the homeless population in the Europe or
the United States, where 100,000 people live in the streets or in shelters
in New York City alone. But Japanese officials are afraid that the homeless
problem will spread in their country as well.

''Homeless people used to hide in the passageways, but now they are
straight on the streets and are more visible to the public,'' said Tony
Guzewicz, an American sociologist at Sophia University who is studying
Japan's homeless.

He says the problem may not necessarily be worse today, but is certainly
more visible. ''But it is a fact that each year, there are more and more
deaths among the homeless in the summer because of the heat and in the
winter because of cold and lack of sufficient food,'' Guzewicz explained.

Shelter, food and clothing are only part of the homeless' problems.
Marginalised in a society that puts a premium on work and sees it as
contribution to the larger community, they have at times become targets for

Sometimes they get little sympathy from fellow citizens, and owners of
businesses often want local governments to drive them out because they are
bad for business.

''People do not want to come to out shops as they are afraid of the dirty
homeless sleeping outside,'' said a member of a newly- formed association
of local businesses around Shinjuku.

''The prejudice against the homeless is similar to that against illegal
foreign workers,'' an activist for the homeless said. ''It's a shame for
the Japanese people and government.''

There were hardly any homeless in Japan's cities from the fifties to the
eighties, when the country was undergoing the economic miracle that
propelled it to First World status in the year following the Pacific War.

But the ranks of the homelss began growing in the early nineties, as
fallout from Japan's bubble economy pushed up the numbers of jobless

Most of those affected were men in their fifties or older, but down-and-out
salarymen, women and persons over 70 years old can now be seen in the
streets too. Japan's homeless were hit hard when small construction firms
went under with the collapse of real estate prices some five years ago.

Likewise, the unemployment rate has been climbing slowly in recent years.
It reached a postwar record of 3.4 percent in December 1995, low by world
standards but already high going by Japan's experience.

''For years Japan has prided itself on the small number of its homeless,''
said Chie Onishi, psychologist at the Aoyama University. But social
tensions are starting to show, and are not always resolved well.

Many Japanese saw the gravity of the problem in January last year, when
angry homeless people clashed with Tokyo police trying to evict them from a
cardboard shantytown near the town hall.

Said Onishi: ''That showed that what had been considered as only an
American or European problem exists also in Japan.''

In February 1994, Tokyo officials evicted homeless people from the city's
biggest railway station in Shinjuku. It houses the largest group of Tokyo
homeless, who sleep atop beds made of carton boxes or in sleeping bags
along streets and passageways.

The Tokyo government has since decided to build permanent centres for the
homeless. Since 1994, it has offered to provide jobs for street dwellers,
especially during winter. But only four of 1,195 residents of the homeless
shelters actually got a job through the programme last year.

Experts also hit Tokyo's 1995 decision to spend 10.6 million dollars to
build moving walkways in cardboard shantytowns.

''That money could have been spent in a wiser way,'' said Kazuo Nakata, a
Tokyo architect. ''They could have been spent to build a permanent shelter
for the homeless, instead of letting those people die on the streets of the
most wealthy city of the world.''

For its part, Japan's labour ministry is reluctant to help homeless day
labourers find jobs because that would go against its efforts to do away
with small construction firms.

Still, the homeless try to land a job. Every morning they wait for calls
from small private companies. They usually accept any job, including those
popular among illegal workers and immigrants - chipping rocks, putting up
scaffolding and digging ditches.

They get paid from 6,000 to 14,000 yen (49 to 114 U.S. dollars) a day, and
may spend the money on alcohol, cigarettes, entertainment and even on
prostitutes. But most are often too ill or too old to work, ending up with
odd jobs for a few days or scrounging for leftover food from trash cans or

Kaneo Oikawa, secretary general of the Shinjuku-Renraku-Kai, the
association of Tokyo homeless and their supporters, says ''there is no
improvement in the situation''.

Campaigners for the homeless say the Tokyo metropolitan government and the
public do not seem to be concerned enough, with some saying homelessness
does not exist in Japan.

Homelessness is not widely recognised and discussed in the country. There
are almost no written material or television broadcasts on their plight and
the average Japanese may have no knowledge about the existence or scale of
the problem.

And though they survive on the fringes of society, Japan's homeless
nevertheless try to live by the normal routines of the average citizen's
life, and stay away from crime and violence commonly found in other rich

''Tokyo's homeless are careful about their cleanliness, keeping their
hands, hair and clothing as clean as possible,'' Guzewicz pointed out.
''Most homeless clean up after themselves. There is also an absence of drug
abuse and physical violence.''

He said: ''Despite all the odds, they still seem to follow strict society



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