Homelessness in Japan

by Stefan Chiarantano, Jan 28, 2006 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

I have come across homeless people in my travels in Japan. I have seen the tent communities in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park. The homeless make their homes using sheets of blue plastic, cardboard and bits and pieces of other materials. They are neat and tidy. The communities are very orderly too.

Recognizing the characteristic blue plastic, shimmering in the sunlight, they had made their homes along the concrete shores of the Sumida River in Tokyo.

In Maebashi, there were some homeless people living along the Hirosi River near a public toilet facility. At Ueno Station in Tokyo, the homeless had set up makeshift housing near the station. At Shinjuku Station one evening, I came upon a small group of men huddling on the steps leading out to the east exit holding pieces of cardboard. No doubt they planned to use it as a floor covering to mitigate the effects of the hard, cold concrete floors of the subway station.

At Takasaki station, some homeless people were living just outside the station. I came upon a dignified looking middle-aged woman sitting in a very large cardboard box. When I saw her head sticking out of the box, my heart skipped a beat. I would see her most times outside the east exit on my way to teach a night class near the station. Perhaps, she wouldn't accept my money and against my better judgment, I offered her some. Gesturing with my hand, she accepted it.

In Shinjuku, there were homeless people living along the main strip in stairways of boarded up buildings located close to my neighbourhood. Whenever, I'd come face-to-face with someone, I offered them some money, which they accepted.

Now, I'm in Hamamatsu. I'm staying around the corner from the Shin Hamamatsu Station. When I leave very early in the morning to catch the red line to take me to work, I see many homeless people sitting on the benches with their belongings. One early morning, I see an elderly man rummage through a garbage bin. They weren't just living at Shin Hamamatsu station but also at Dai Ichi Dori Station. None of the homeless people I saw were ever panhandling.

Canada has homeless people. The streets and parks of downtown Toronto, where I am from, are full of homeless people. Homeless people are found throughout the land.

I have been told that the homeless in Japan are on the streets because of shame and their own accord. They have lost their jobs. They have lost their social positions. They are on the streets because they are too ashamed to admit to their families their changed circumstances. How tragic! Honor and shame values continue to exercise a pivotal role in Japanese life despite its Westernization even though these values have been pushed to the background in the West.

Why is it that the individual must bear the brunt of a society's mishaps and economic failures? No one deserves to be on the streets.

It can happen to anyone. It can happen to you, to a family member or to a dear friend. Marital breakup, domestic violence, child abuse, mental illness, job loss can all contribute to someone falling through the cracks and ending up on the streets.

As someone who has worked with the homeless in Toronto in my career as a social worker, I have seen how government policies can contribute to this problem. The Harris government when it was in power in Ontario in the 90s was directly to blame for the dramatic increase in homeless people in the province. He chopped away at social services and implemented policies that made individuals ineligible for assistance.

Any society that fails to take care of its most vulnerable citizens cannot be called a just society. There are no excuses for homelessness. This problem isn't going to go away. For it to diminish, the root causes of homelessness need to be stamped out.

Many homeless panhandle as a means of generating much needed money. In Japan, I have hardly ever been solicited for money. It happened to me just the one time in Hamamatsu.

In Toronto, homeless people beg and do so in an aggressive and sometimes belligerent manner. They come up to you and get in your face. I have seen this happen on a regular basis. It's offensive but I think it's the only way they think they can get someone's attention. Sometimes, I've seen panhandlers get nasty and turn ugly with passersby who have ignored them. They scream out profanities, wave their hands and throw themselves about.

Some panhandlers on the other hand I've noticed employ a less offensive approach. They try to make eye contact with a passerby hoping to get his or her attention and by doing so; they can size them up for a donation. Eye contact is crucial. They know it. Eye contact forces recognition of the other. They use it to call attention to their plight - "please help me!" Some panhandlers are savvy and can usually figure out whom to hit on for a cash donation: they many even have a sixth sense.

I remember the time when I was in a Madrid café having breakfast with an acquaintance from the hostel, a blind man came in and approached us for money. I offered to buy him breakfast, which he declined. He told me that the patron (the owner) would refuse to serve him and preferred a cash donation instead. On my walks through Madrid, I came upon many panhandlers. Many were Romanian gypsy women begging on church steps. The Madrid subways were always full of homeless people sleeping on cardboard boxes.

On my way to the station to catch the red line to take me to work, a homeless man that makes the station his home wished me good-luck, 'Gambatte'. How kind of him to do so! I was so glad when I ran into him on the street before I was to leave Hamamatsu because I wanted to give him a little money. He was so grateful and was totally taken by surprise! On my way to the JR station, a homeless man asked me for money by making the Japanese gesture for money, which is the Okay gesture, but done horizontally. 'Here you are.' I said.

Homelessness is a global issue. Responsibility lies not only with government but also with the general public to mitigate its effects. Let's show compassion!

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