On Being Homeless in Japan

I mistook her for a hump of discarded flannel until I saw her face, the unmistakable color of braised meat. She’s sleeping, sprawled across a cardboard box in front of a taxi stand. Her head rests on a plastic shopping bag filled with crumpled newspapers.

Her feet are on the mat, in stockings. Two blue slippers are on the sidewalk. The Japanese take this bit of hygiene seriously – shoes bring the filth of the outdoor world into clean domestic spaces, introduce mites to the tatami, kick rocks into the bathtub.

The homeless woman doesn’t let her shoes step on the tattered piece of discarded cardboard that she calls her home, tatami room and futon.

She’s usually there until the sun goes down. She’s got a bottle of green tea from a vending machine. She doesn’t ask for change.

Some people, whose lives carry on in parks and subway stations, will approach foreigners for a Western-style handshake. They reek of old booze, but don’t ask for change. Maybe they ask for cigarettes.

Mostly they want to show off their English. They’re educated, and have learned a foreign language. They will display their mastery of the basic formalities while coming at you with extended hands. “Nice to meet you.” “Good evening.” The tragically old fashioned, “How do you do?”

You’ll bow and say “konnichiwa” and escape to your ten or fifteen minutes of guilt, though that number diminishes, in time, until you don’t even say “konnichiwa.” You just walk.

In a country as rich and as socially protective as Japan, homelessness is baffling. But the number of homeless is growing. A recent government survey placed the number at 24,000; 5,000 in Tokyo alone and a stunning 10,000 in Osaka.

It is not common to see homeless people camped out in public spaces – often, they’ll have literal tents and barbecues set up in small communities, nestled in major parks, far from the main thoroughfares. After all, this is a shame culture, a culture of creating and returning obligations. The homeless don’t seek to create obligations.

In Tokyo, I watched men sleep in train stations to stay warm and to save face; they can be mistaken for tired travelers until you see them every day, all day; until they ask you for a cigarette. It gives them away: Their clothes smell like months of stale nicotine.

So does the woman by the taxi stand. When she wakes up, she struggles to light another.

A train station employee approaches her, bows slightly and hands over a box of rolling papers. She accepts. The station agent smiles. He is younger than she is, so he bows before he walks away.

Respect for elders is embedded into Japanese culture, but businesses have different priorities: Younger workers work harder to support families. Older men, unmarried men, and women in general, face giant hurdles to finding work. It’s not just 60-year-old carpenters being pushed aside by teenagers. For many companies, 35-year-old men are simply too old for new jobs.

In this system, after all, loyalty is key. A worker who has left work at 35 shows a lack of loyalty and will start at the bottom of the corporate ladder at any job they find. Anyone else carries the stigma of being fired in a country whose companies exhaust their profits to avoid firing any of their employees. Not all companies are this scrupulous; but not every employee who screws up belongs on the street.

She’s smoking when another man approaches her home in front of the taxi stand. He shakes the chain to get her attention, then squats next to her and gestures to himself. They’ve talked before, maybe.

She starts talking, looking away, and the old man seems to listen, but loses interest. It’s the face of a man trapped in a conversation that doesn’t make sense. As an English teacher in Japan, I know this face. The man walks a few feet away, stops. He looks at her, then walks back.

He shakes her tea bottle. He gestures to the vending machines, making an offer, perhaps.

She begins to shout at him. He stands up – not from being yelled at by a homeless woman, but because he’s suddenly aware that people see him being yelled at by a homeless woman. He wanders away, not looking back, stopping to look in the distance, feigning a lack of concern to convince observers that she’s not screaming at him.

Minutes after the man is inside the station, she’s still shouting.

Yoshie Omura, a nurse with Doctors Without Borders, says one homeless man broke into tears when she simply said hello. “Because they are alienated from society for a long time, they don’t expect to be spoken to,” she says. – CSM

When she stops shouting, she shakes her head. She looks at the box of rolling papers, takes one out, and rolls a cigarette.

Later, when I’m washing my hands inside the train station men’s room, a businessman throws up into the sink. It happens instantly. My hands are under water, and then next to me is that deep splashing sound that can only come from within us. I pretend I don’t notice, so I can dry my hands.

Leaving, I pass the woman with the cardboard futon, feeding stale bread to pigeons.

Further Reading:
BBC News photographs of a homeless tent village in Osaka, which has the highest concentration of homeless people in Japan.

An article on the growing popularity of Internet cafes as “homeless apartments,” because they rent private overnight suites – with showers – for $25.00 a night, compared to $2500 a month rent in Tokyo.

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4 Responses to On Being Homeless in Japan

  1. I think the number of homeless people in Tokyo surpassed the number in Osaka this year. But like you said, the number is growing. I remember when I worked at Lawson, there was a park near by where a couple of homeless men made tents in the corner and sometimes they would come in to buy things. Sometimes they would take things without paying. But our store manager, whenever he noticed them taking something, he would just pay out of his pocket. And the homeless men never took anything more than 200yen.

  2. Archana says:

    I am surprised there isn’t some kind of homeless shelter in Japanese cities – they are a community culture, always looking after each other (or maybe just looking after the foreigners).
    Would Japanese people be too proud to use the shelters?

  3. Shelters are expensive. It’s more cost effient to house someone in an apartment for market rent, then it is to have a shelter.

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