Homeless in Tokyo


By Frank Eckardt

As the recession bites, more people are living on the streets. For 10 days I trudged across parts of Tokyo, observing and talking to the people who live on its streets. In the absence of official statistics, I wanted to see the magnitude of homelessness. What follows are notes from a grim sojourn.

September 30, 3am: A counter in my right hand, I start in front of Minami-Senju station on the Hibaya subway line, and walk south on the main road from Arkawa Ward. By the streetlights, I spot people sleeping along the way as I pass through Nihonzutsumi, Kiyokawa, Hashiba and Higahi Asakusa, all in Taito Ward.

Walking fast, it takes me about an hour to cover Sanya, the district where many day labourers live, and the adjoining neighbourhood. The counter reads 155 as the lights in small flophouse rooms begin flicking on.

A crowd of men gathers on the road where the tram used to run, all hoping to get work. They mill together, making it impossible to tell who spent the night outside. The throng stretches across the street, filling the narrow pavements on both sides. In good times, 100 to 200 recruiters would show up. Today there are only about ten.

A labour broker looks over one prospect, checking his age and physical condition, and asks, "Hey, buddy, you signed up yet?"

There are no young men in the crowd; everyone is in his forties or older. "Turned down again!", sighs one frustrated older worker.

Several homeless men standing together are exchanging information. "Two guys were sleeping on the main Asakusa shopping street. They had had a little to drink and were making some noise. Somebody dialled 110 and the police came in a hurry."

"If you sleep in Sumida Park at night, there's some bastard on a bike who steals your stuff."

"In the rooming house there's heat and a TV set. But when you have to get up early in the morning, it ain't worth Y2500 (US$24) to watch TV. I'd rather spend my money on something good to eat."

According to the Tokyo government's Johoku Welfare Centre, there are 192 rooming houses in Sanya with a combined capacity of 9000 beds. This autumn they're only half full. With less work available, fewer men can pay for rooms.

Every morning in Sanya, 10,000 labourers turn out looking for a day's wages. The public employment office in Tamahime averaged 168 openings per day from April to September, and the one in Kawahara averaged 64 over the same period. The total is half the level in fiscal 1991. The Sanya Labor office is placing 28 applicants a day, one-fourth the 1990 rate. These three facilities account for 15 percent of the jobs found by workers in Sanya. Recruiters provides the rest.

Two-thirds of the men in the street waiting for a nod from a recruiter are at least 50. The agents steer clear of the oldest ones, signing up the younger fellows who look strong enough to put in a long day. Employers tell the public placement offices that they don't want anyone over 55. Older men can't find work, have no incomes and so are forced onto the street.

October 1, 8pm: I accompany an 11-member team, dubbed citizens' patrol, from the Sanya Labour Welfare Hall. Some have medical training. One pushes a big, wheeled, cylindrical pot of hot rice gruel.

A long line quickly forms at Tamahime Park. I can't count them all. Other homeless lie asleep behind the bushes and under the eaves of buildings and shops. The patrol calls out, "Gruel! Rice gruel!" An old man, not realising the meal is free, yells back, "I ain't got no money!"

The Johoku Welfare Centre counted 310 homeless in Sanya that night, but the total number living on the streets is much larger. "On April 24 this year, we counted 483. The street population has increased since spring", said one patrol member.

Many regulars have moved closer to central Tokyo in hopes of finding work, said Kazuyuki Nakajima, a patrol regular. "Since February we've seen Sanya people in Ueno. More are turning up every week. Probably a third of the homeless there used to stay around here."

The underground passageways in Ueno Station, the huge railway terminus for trains linking the capital with northern Japan, offer shelter from the elements. Social workers say that many of the homeless look for jobs in Ueno or Asakusa, though some go as far as Kawasaki and Yokohama, south of Tokyo.

Hiroshi Akimoto has lived in Sanya for 35 years. The bottom dropped out of the day-labour market in April 1993, he said. "I only had work four days in September. Until last year, I never slept out on the street once."

Akimoto left his home town and a mountain of gambling debts in 1958. The daily wage then was Y800 (US$2.20 at the exchange rate of the time) and a bed at night cost Y250. Everything was cheaper then, and it was easier to get by, he recalled, even though in 1993 he makes Y9500 (US$90) a day when there's work. "Things are a lot tougher now", he said.

Akimoto has about 20 long-time friends in Sanya who look out for one another. If one of them has some money, everybody eats.

The Johoku Welfare Centre dates an upswing in the number of labourers seeking help from January 1992. Their needs range from medical care to housing and a safe place to keep their meagre savings. In fiscal 1991, the centre handled 2000 cases a month. In April 1994, 4000 men sought assistance, and by June the figure was 6758, more than three times the 1991 average.

Tadako Miyashita has been a counsellor at the centre for 20 years. "I'm sure more men have been living on the streets since late 1992", she said. "We used to have many emergency hospitalisations for liver damage or other alcohol-related problems. Recently, however, there's a lot of tuberculosis, and many of the people taken to hospitals are very ill."

Some of the homeless in their 60s and 70s can't keep track of the free meal services and go without eating two or three days a week, Miyashita said. Many have a ghastly pallor because the only food they get is what they can scavenge. They suffer from high blood pressure, anaemia and chronic degenerative diseases.

Many more people are on the streets, and the struggle for a survival is harsher, she said. Even the garbage has been picked over: the elderly or sickly miss out.

The great majority are partially disabled World War II veterans who have slipped through the pension and disability allowance system. "Men who fought in the jungles of South-East Asia or were prisoners of war are now camped out on the street", said Miyashita.

October 8, evening: I join a meals on wheels team in Ueno. In Ueno Park, a carpenter, who looks about 40, says he was born and raised in Tokyo and has been reduced to sleeping on a park bench because of the recession. He makes wooden forms for poured concrete, but the real estate market is so depressed that developers have cancelled or postponed construction of new apartment buildings.

He looks for work during the day and beds down in the park at night. "If you live out here too long, you start to lose your marbles", he said.

I counted 225 homeless people in Ueno that night, but I'm sure there were scores of the others huddled here and there.

My next foray was to Shinjuku, the entertainment and shopping district. The splendid Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office complex, completed in 1991 at a cost of billions of dollars, soars 48 stories into the sky. At nearby Shinjuku Station, the subterranean corridors are a refuge for many unlucky souls. Here is my tally as the night wore on:

10pm: Eleven people at the station's south exit and in the underground passageway to the Toei Shinjuku line.

11pm: Thirty-four people at the east exit, inside the station and along the passageways.

Midnight: Twenty-five people on the street in Kabuki-cho, the bar area.

1am: Two hundred and seventy-nine people in the underground passageways near the west exit: 134 on the side leading to the Keio Plaza Hotel and 145 toward the Sumitomo Building. This part of the station is warmer and better ventilated than the east.

1:30am: The last train leaves, and railway employees close the shutters that seal the building. The west exit area is quiet, deserted except for sleeping forms in cardboard boxes.

3am: Rows of cardboard "huts" line the ground under the elevated crossing across from Chuo Park. Most of the residents are sleeping. A young man wearing work boots and apparently better off than the rest is using his vinyl bag as a pillow. One old man listens to a radio; another reads a newspaper. An elderly woman munches a pre-dawn snack.

8:30am: City employees and officers from the Shinjuku police station start breaking up the cardboard and throwing it into a waiting sanitation truck.

"Hey, stop that!", a man protests.

"I told you before you can't leave your stuff here!", says a policeman. The clean-up crew members mean business. Officially, their job is called "removing discarded material from the street". In fact, they're driving the homeless away.

9:30am: All the boxes are gone. Near one column of the overpass are some rice balls and bread bought from a convenience store. A crew member hesitates, uncertain whether to throw them into the truck. Carrying their few belongings, the homeless walk off and disappear in the crowd.

By afternoon, cardboard shelters are going up again in several spots. Some have sides braced by pieces of wood.

Ichiro Ono sports a navy-blue blazer. He has lived at the west exit of Shinjuku Station for eight years. He gets work about twice a week for Y7000 (US$65) a day and lives in a cardboard box. Using bedding makes it too hard to move around, he says.

How can he stay healthy on foraged food?

"Everybody knows the danger. In the summer, we're careful about stuff that rots easily. We share a lot of different eats." Ono pals around with several other guys. At 6pm the three assigned to gather food that night set out for a place they had spotted earlier.

Evening: Rain is pouring down,, and the homeless leave Chuo Park and skyscraper doorways for the station. By midnight, the space at the west exit of the station is filled with 460 people.

Tadako Miyashita has counselled up to 30,000 day labourers in Sanya over the last two decades. She is sure there are familiar faces in other places her clientele end up, like Kamagasaki in Osaka or Sasashima in Nagoya. But she has used Shinjuku Station's west exit many times en route to the metropolitan government buildings and has seen only one person from Sanya. The Shinjuku homeless seem to be a different tribe from those in the slums of Sanya and Kamagasaki.

Once limited to a few stations on the Yamanote line that circles the core of Tokyo, homeless people are now living on the streets all around the capital and in some suburban stations. Constant harassment by city officials and the police, often at the instigation of merchants who want the unsightly "bums" driven away from their doorsteps, has dispersed them.

Signs on the shop-filled street near the Sensoji temple in Asakusa warn that anyone who sleeps there will be removed. In Sumida Park, signs put up by Taito Ward, the police, and local shop owners prohibit sleeping or drinking alcohol there.

Every 45 days or so, ward officials and the police round up the homeless in Ueno Park, destroy their shelters and possessions, and make them move on. Park residents call it "Operation Scorched Earth".

Historian Tessei Matsuzawa of Tokyo Women's Christian University leads an academic association that studies the institution of forced labour. "Police removal of the homeless may be a worldwide trend, but the Japanese have a particularly strong aversion to 'filthy people'", Matsuzawa says. When street people aren't allowed to stay in one place, they become vagrants, cut off from help or employment.

The Sanya citizens' patrol says there are in excess of 800 homeless people in Taito Ward alone. Conservative estimates of the people living on the street in metropolitan Tokyo put the total at 1500, a 150% increase over last winter.

According to the Tokyo Welfare Bureau, the number of people with no known address found dead on the street or in a park — including suicides — has increased in the past three years from 103 to 218. These figures do not include people who die after being taken to hospital.

Social workers estimate that including this category would raise the total of homeless fatalities to over 500 a year.