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Living in a Tent Down by the River; What It’s Like for the Homeless in Japan


Today I was strolling through Ueno Park when I came came across 200 or so people waiting patiently in a long line that stretched around the edge of a lake. At first I thought they were waiting in line for some sort of free theater show and I almost joined them, but then I noticed that with few exceptions, they were all middle-aged or elderly men.

Some sort of Buddhist festival? I wondered. Were they waiting to enter a shrine?

I sat across from them on a rock wall overlooking a lake overgrown with weeds and pretended to take pictures of the ducks while I studied them.

The majority of the men were clean-shaven with neatly-styled hair cuts. Their clothes were obviously of the 100 yen shop variety but they were clean and looked new or well-kept. All of the men were dressed for the cold weather; in down jackets, wool hats and scarves. In short, nothing about their appearances gave any sort of hint as to something out of the ordinary.

But then I noticed them. The tell-tale shopping bags filled with cans and plastic bottles. The shoes with the holes in them. And standing in amongst the well-groomed men was the odd scraggly hair, matted beard fellow.

They were homeless.

A few minutes later, four volunteers showed up, bringing with them several coolers and two bags of clothing. Yes, only two! As I watched, one by one, the men wordlessly took a small plastic bag of food and one piece of clothing until (five minutes later), all of the food and clothing had been distributed. Most of them left empty handed.

Afterwards, I went home and google-searched ‘homeless in Japan’ and have spent the last couple of hours uncovering some pretty fascinating information on what’s become a growing problem here.

It’s interesting because most of the homeless (90 percent) in Japan aren’t homeless due to alcoholism, a drug-addiction or a mental illness. Most of them are just “normal people” who were laid off from their jobs (usually from construction companies or factories) and due to their age (mid 50’s) they are too young to collect their retirement pension but too old to get re-hired (Age discriminating is a legal and very common practice here).

When I first moved to Japan, frankly I was surprised to find that the homeless existed at all. I knew that at one time (in the 1980s, for example, when the unemployment rate was almost zero) a homeless person was a rare thing. But even with the unemployment rate now at 5 percent, I guess I still figured that the ‘group-orientated’ culture of Japan would ensure that the unemployed were better taken care of; that there would be institutions/shelters/government assistance available to prevent people from having to live on the streets. Plus, with everything in the news about the salary man who kills himself after learning he’s been demoted, I guess I just figured that the fear of shame and humiliation would deter anyone from a life destitution.

But apparently, I was incredibly wrong.

There are 25,000 homeless people in Japan… and only four emergency shelters.

Surprisingly though, and despite this fact, a homeless person is a rare sight in Tokyo. You never see them begging for change on a street corner or sleeping in a subway. In fact, unless you knew where to look, you’d never see one at all.


The homeless live in shacks and make-shift tents in parks and along side the river. If you go down to the Sumida river in Tokyo, you can see entire mini villages of people living by the river.

It almost looks like they’re camping out.

And in some ways, they are.

According to this article from the Wall Street Journal, the homeless communities (or “Tent Cities”) are like self-sufficient, blue-tarped towns.

The residents of the tent city in Nishinari Park in Osaka, for example, grow their own vegetables, raise chickens, pitch in money for a shared gas stove and even have a community barber, chairman and a black and white television that they run from a car battery. They even have their own mailbox, where the postal service delivers the residents their mail each week!

The article describes how the government has tried to fix the problem, by building an in door shelter directly next to the the “Tent City”, but the majority of the 300 residents refuse to move. It’s not because they enjoy being homeless or because they are ‘lazy’, but it’s because they’d have to sign a contract agreeing that they’ll never live in the Tent City again. With the unstable economy and lack of jobs, people aren’t willing to take the risk. What if they aren’t able to find a job and the shelter makes them leave? Where will they go then?

About a month ago, I was riding the subway when a homeless woman threw up all over the floor in front of me. It was messy. Some of it splattered on the shoes of the man sitting next to her. Oddly enough though, not one person showed any sign of having noticed. Even the man who’s shoe’s were now covered in little chunks of vomit, just sat there staring straight ahead.

Were they just being polite? Or was this an example of Japan’s ability to turn a blind eye an unpleasant situation?

For more info…read this article from the Boston Globe, “Clothed, Clean and Homeless in Japan”
or this one from the Christian Science Monitor, Japan’s Homeless Face Ageism

Some sad photos from BBC News

Note: I know that compared with the US (and the majority of the World, for that matter) the amount of homeless people here might seem trivial. But I think it’s sad when you consider the fact that the problem will probably only get worse. As I sit here in the comfort of my tiny, (but warm and cozy!) apartment I can’t help but feel for the hundred or so people sleeping in the park a few blocks away. I wish there was something I could do…does anyone know of a good volunteer organization here?

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3 thoughts on “Living in a Tent Down by the River; What It’s Like for the Homeless in Japan

  1. The homeless condition in Japan ain’t nothing compared to refugee camps I’d seen in Kosava, and I can only imagine how it must be in war torn Africa.

    Good write up by the way. The best way to volunteer is to just do it independently and be consistent. I know a few church run programs, but in my view too much time is wasted strategizing for naught.

  2. True, true. The homeless condition is worse pretty much everywhere else…But it’s interesting in that that the reasons behind it (ageism, ‘over-working’ of a few indiviuals instead of dividing the work in order to create more part-time positions, etc.), are quite different than in other nations. It’s a unique dilemma.

  3. In Himeji the city’s homeless population had set up shop outside of Himeji Castle within the confines of the Castle Gates. Like the homeless in Tokyo, they too appeared to be well-kempt and didn’t bother anyone. I think it’s sad that the Japanese Gvt. doesn’t do more the help them out.
    It’s interesting that no one on the train had any sort of reaction when the woman threw up. My Japanese tutor was telling me that she read in one of the Japanese newspapers that in a shinkansen a woman was raped by a business man while other passengers looked on and no one tried to help her or to stop it. The story was reported because the womna complained after she got off the train. I feel that Japanese people tend to look the other way when a bad situation is occuring in order to not embarress the offender, no matter what he or she is doing. It’s sad..but a definite part of their culture.

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