POVERTY IN JAPAN: HOMELESS PEOPLE, WORKING POOR AND LIVING IN CAPSULE HOTELS

POOR PEOPLE IN JAPAN

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homeless person residence
in Japan
The relative poverty rate---the proportion of the population living below 50 percent of the national median income---nearly doubled from 8.1 percent in 1994 to 13.5 percent in 2000 and increased to 14.9 percent in 2005. According to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) survey Japan was the second worst among advanced economies in 2000 in terms of relative poverty, partly because of the high number of non-regular workers. Only the United States had a higher relative poverty rate.

In Japan, "poverty" is designated as those earning less than half of the median national income. Those with less than 1.12 million yen ($14,424 USD) in disposable income are considered poor. Japan does not keep its own poverty statistics. Because the country suffered devastating poverty after World War II and achieved rapid economic growth and became an economic powerhouse then went into period of semi-stagnation there are not even any clear standards as to what poverty is.

Percentage of population under the poverty level: 12 percent. Compared to 19 percent in the United States and 8 percent in Europe. Thirty-two percent of women living alone between the ages of 20 and 64 in 2010 in Japan are in poverty. For men, it was 25 percent.

The relative poverty rate was 15.7 percent in 2007, up from 14.9 percent in 2004 and 14.6 percent in 1998. The relative poverty rate is determined by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as people living under half the medium income and is derived in Japan using Japanese government figures. Japan is the only OECD country that has seen its absolute poverty rate increase in the past two decades.

The poor got poorer under Koizumi and there were more of them. The number of Japanese earning less than $8,700 a year reached 3.6 million in 2005, up 16 percent from when Koizumi took office in 2001.

Households receiving public assistance increased from 350,000 in 1995 to 700,000 in 1999 to 800,000 in 2001 to 1.08 million in 2006. The proportion of people on welfare rose from 0.7 percent in 1995 to 1.11 percent in 2004.

The number of household with no savings rose from 10 percent in the late 1990s to 22.9 percent in 2006. the highest level since surveys on this subject were kept in 1953.

Websites and Resources

Links in this Website: JAPANESE SOCIETY Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; RICH IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SOCIAL PROBLEMS AND SUICIDES IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; ELDERLY IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; PENSIONS, NEGLECT AND PROBLEMS FOR ELDERLY JAPANESE Factsanddetails.com/Japan TAXES, WELFARE AND SOCIAL SECURITY IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan

Good Websites and Sources: 2009 Japan Times article about Rising Poverty japantimes.co.jp ; Japan’s Anti-Poverty Policies tokyofoundation.org ; Inequality and Poverty in Japan pdf file Japanese Economic Review ; Japan’s Homeless homelessness.change.org/blog ; Photos of Homeless japan-photo.de ; and Cardboard Houses and tents at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Photos of the Homeless in Osaka in the 1990s subjectivite.net ; Japan’s Working Poor Japan Direct Research

Freeters, Temporary Workers and Foreign Workers Wikipedia article on Freeters Wikipedia ; Japan Times Article on Neets japantimes.co.jp ; 2009 New York Times article on Temporary Workers nytimes.com ; NPR Story on Unemployed Temporary Workers www.npr.org ; Foreign Workers in Japan (2003) pdf file idbdocs.iadb.org ; Chinese Migrant Workers in Japan pdf file gsti.miis.edu

Who Are the Poor in Japan

The poorest of the poor in Japan include homeless who live in the cities in tents and under bridges; single parent families; elderly people with small pensions; and temporary workers who sleep in Internet cafes. There are few slums in Japan and even the ones you do find are nothing likes those in India, Brazil or even America. Still, they often have no furniture, only cushions, and no bathrooms; families must use a public bath down the street.

See Temporary Workers, Labor, Economics

More than 40 percent of those receiving welfare are elderly. A large number of young people are also poor. According to the OECD 1 in 7 Japanese kids under 17 lives in poverty. Many are children of parents who are unemployed, don’t have steady work or are temporary employees.

Aging Poverty in Japan

There is a growing number of poor seniors in Japan. Between 1995 and 2005 the number of indigent elderly increased 183 percent to around a half million people, many of whom have effectively been abandoned their children. Many people in the field say the half million figure is a gross underestimate and the real figure is around five times higher.

Housing complexes for the poor are often filled with elderly people. Almost half of all welfare beneficiaries are 65 or older. By contrast in the United States one in 10 are. Some receive nothing because they homeless and the government requires them to have a fixed address to get assistance. Others are too embarrassed or ashamed to apply for it.

The elderly have been hurt by welfare cuts. Some get by on rice and noodles, keep the heat off even in mid winter to save energy costs. and have given up going to weddings and funeral because they can’t bear the shame of not being able to offer a present. See Welfare,

Increasing Number of People Below the Poverty Line in Japan

Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, “After years of economic stagnation and widening income disparities, this once proudly egalitarian nation is belatedly waking up to the fact that it has a large and growing number of poor people. The Labor Ministry’s disclosure in October 2009 that almost one in six Japanese, or 20 million people, lived in poverty in 2007 stunned the nation and ignited a debate over possible remedies that has raged ever since.” [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, April 21, 2010]

“Many Japanese, who cling to the popular myth that their nation is uniformly middle class, were further shocked to see that Japan’s poverty rate, at 15.7 percent, was close to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s figure of 17.1 percent in the United States, whose glaring social inequalities have long been viewed with scorn and pity here.” [Ibid]

“But perhaps just as surprising was the government’s admission that it had been keeping poverty statistics secretly since 1998 while denying there was a problem, despite occasional anecdotal evidence to the contrary. “That ended when a new government came to power in 2009---with a pledge to force Japan’s legendarily secretive bureaucrats to be more open, particularly about social problems, government officials and poverty experts said.” “The government knew about the poverty problem, but was hiding it,” Makoto Yuasa, head of the nonprofit Antipoverty Network, told the New York Times. “It was afraid to face reality.” [Ibid]

“Following an internationally recognized formula, the ministry set the poverty line at about $22,000 a year for a family of four, half of Japan’s median household income,” fackler wrote. “Researchers estimate that Japan’s poverty rate has doubled since the nation’s real estate and stock markets collapsed in the early 1990s, ushering in two decades of income stagnation and even decline. The ministry’s announcement helped expose a problem that social workers say is easily overlooked in relatively homogenous Japan, which does not have the high crime rates, urban decay and stark racial divisions of the United States. Experts and social workers say Japan’s poor can be deceptively hard to spot because they try hard to keep up the appearance of middle class comfort.” [Ibid]

“When the country enjoyed rapid economic growth, standards of living improved across the board and class differences were obscured,” Prof. Hiroshi Ishida of the University of Tokyo told the New York Times, “With a stagnating economy, class is more visible again.” The government has poured money into bolstering Japan’s social welfare system, promising cash payments to households with children and abolishing tuition fees at public high schools.

Working Poor in Japan

Describing a member of Japan’s working poor Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, “Satomi Sato, a 51-year-old widow, knew she had it tough, raising a teenage daughter on the less than $17,000 a year she earned from two jobs. Still, she was surprised last autumn when the government announced for the first time an official poverty line---and she was below it. “I don’t want to use the word poverty, but I’m definitely poor,” Sato, who works mornings making boxed lunches and afternoons delivering newspapers, told the New York Times. “Poverty is still a very unfamiliar word in Japan.” [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, April 21, 2010]

“Few impoverished Japanese seem willing to admit their plight for fear of being stigmatized,” Fackler wrote. “While just over half of Japan’s single mothers, like Ms. Sato, are poor---roughly in line with the ratio in the United States---she and her daughter, Mayu, 17, take pains to hide their neediness. They outwardly smile, she said, but “cry on the inside” when friends or relatives talk about vacations, a luxury they cannot afford.” [Ibid]

“Saying we’re poor would draw attention, so I’d rather hide it,” said Ms. Sato, who lives in a blocklike public housing project in this small city surrounded by flat, treeless farmland reminiscent of the American Midwest. She said she had little money even before her husband, a construction machine operator, died of lung cancer three years ago.” Fackler wrote.”She said her family’s difficulties began in the late 1990s, when the economic slide worsened here on the northern island of Hokkaido, as it did in much of rural Japan.” [Ibid]

“Even with two jobs, she says she cannot afford to see a doctor or buy medicine to treat a growing host of health complaints, including sore joints and dizziness.” Fackler wrote. “When her daughter needed $700 to buy school uniforms on entering high school last year, a common requirement here, she saved for it by cutting back to two meals a day. Poverty experts call Ms. Sato’s case typical. They say more than 80 percent of those living in poverty in Japan are part of the so-called working poor, holding low-wage, temporary jobs with no security and few benefits. They usually have enough money to eat, but not to take part in normal activities, like eating out with friends or seeing a movie.” [Ibid]

“Poverty in a prosperous society usually does not mean living in rags on a dirt floor,” Masami Iwata, a social welfare professor at Japan Women’s University in Tokyo, told the New York Times. “These are people with cellphones and cars, but they are cut off from the rest of society.” Years of deregulation of the labor market and competition with low-wage China have brought a proliferation of such low-paying jobs in Japan, economists say. Compounding matters is the fact that these jobs are largely uncovered by an outdated social safety net, created decades ago as a last resort in an era when most men could expect lifetime jobs. See Temporary Jobs Under Labor in the Economics section. [Ibid]

Fackler wrote that Sato “remains outwardly upbeat, if resigned. She said her biggest challenge was having no one to talk to. While she said she was sure that many other families faced a similar plight in this small city, their refusal to admit their poverty made it impossible to find them.” “In bed at night, I think: “How did I fall so far? How did I get so isolated?” Ms. Sato said. “But usually, I try not to think about it.” [Ibid]

Poverty and Children in Japan

Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, “Gaining wide attention here are statistics showing that one in seven children lives in poverty, one reason the new government has pledged to offer monthly payments of $270 per child and to cut the cost of high school education. Still, social workers say they fear that the poor will not be able to pay for cram schools and other expenses to enable their children to compete in Japan’s high-pressure education system, consigning them to a permanent cycle of low-wage work. [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, April 21, 2010]

“We are at risk of creating a chronic underclass,” said Toshihiko Kudo, a board member of Ashinaga, a nonprofit group based in Tokyo that helps poor children and orphans. Ms. Sato expressed similar fears for her daughter, Mayu. Mayu wants to go to a vocational school to become a voice actress for animation, but Ms. Sato said she could not afford the $10,000 annual tuition.

Japanese Welfare Mother

A 39-year-old single mother raising five children in Kanagawa Prefecture began receiving welfare in April 2011, a Yomiuri Shimbun article reported. She later told her 17-year-old eldest daughter, a third-year high school student, quietly adding, "Don't tell your friends." Her daughter was surprised, saying casually: "What's wrong with receiving welfare? I was told at school people are entitled to it." The woman felt it was not good for her daughter to take welfare for granted. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, November 20, 2011]

The woman got married after dropping out of high school and divorced at 23. She managed to raise three children while working part-time at a bakery and as a promotional event attendant. She became pregnant with twins in April last year but did not marry their father. She could no longer work due to severe morning sickness. As she lost confidence in her ability to raise the children on her own, she decided to change her strictly self-reliant way of life.

Her monthly income was about 230,000 yen, but her welfare benefits are about 280,000 yen a month. The woman said: "I often thought I should have applied for welfare earlier. Honestly speaking, I've lost my desire to work." At the same time, however, she strongly feels she does not want her children to become like her.

It is not uncommon for people to receive welfare if their parents did. According to a veteran caseworker in Tokyo, there was a family in which three consecutive generations received welfare. There was also a case of a 47-year-old woman in Sapporo who was born into a family receiving welfare and started working immediately after finishing middle school as her family could not afford to pay for her to go to high school. She began receiving welfare at age 25 as she had financial difficulties due to divorce and other factors. She said she tried to find work, but many companies turned her down, citing her lack of education. "I don't want to receive welfare, but I can't seem to get out of it," she said.

Poverty Handed Down from Parents to Children

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “It has been slightly more than 60 years since the welfare system was established. It is a serious problem when welfare extends from parents to their children. Prof. Ryu Michinaka at Kansai University of International Studies observed the welfare system for about 30 years as an official of the Osaka prefectural and other local governments. During his stint at the Sakai municipal government, Michinaka analyzed the city's data on welfare recipient households in 2006. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, November 20, 2011]

Analysis showed 25 percent of 390 recipient households to be second-generation recipients. According to his 2008 and 2010 surveys of 318 single mothers who received welfare, about 30 percent of them grew up in recipient families. And more than 50 percent of them finished their education at middle school or dropped out of high school, indicating a strong correlation between welfare beneficiaries and education. "poverty chains from parents to children are solidifying," Michinaka said. "If the situation doesn't change, it will be impossible to stem an increase in the number of welfare recipients."

A high-ranking official of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry also stressed the importance of children's education in breaking the poverty chain. Efforts to increase learning opportunities for children of welfare recipients have been increasing. According to the government, 87 percent of recipient families' middle school children advanced to high school in fiscal 2007. The percentage was far lower than the national average of 98 percent, but all 13 middle school students who received the government-funded lessons last fiscal year entered high school.

Since fiscal 2008, Yokohama's Hodogaya Ward government has provided free tutoring for middle school students from welfare recipient families. One female student, 16, said: "I was unable to follow classroom lessons since I was a first-year middle school student, but I had no one to ask questions to and I couldn't afford private tutoring. It's nice I could get into high school thanks to the tutoring."

In fiscal 2009, the welfare ministry started providing subsidies for free tutoring organized by local governments. In response, in fiscal 2010, the Saitama prefectural government launched a free tutoring program for children of welfare recipients. As a result, 98 percent of the 160 students who received tutoring that year entered high school, compared with 87 percent previously recorded by students from recipient families.

But there is a challenge, too. In the free programs of both Yokohama's Hodogaya Ward and Saitama Prefecture, attendees only accounted for about 20 percent to 30 percent of recipient families' children. The low numbers could reflect the parents' attitude toward the education of their children. An official from the Hodogaya Ward office said: "Parents' interest in their children's education is low in many cases among welfare recipient families. So it's important to encourage the parents, too."

Capsule Hotel Poverty in Japan

Reporting from Shinjuku in Tokyo, Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times, “For Atsushi Nakanishi, jobless since Christmas, home is a cubicle barely bigger than a coffin---one of dozens of berths stacked two units high in one of central Tokyo’s decrepit “capsule hotels.” “It’s just a place to crawl into and sleep,” he told the New York Times, rolling his neck and stroking his black suit---one of just two he owns after discarding the rest of his wardrobe for lack of space. “You get used to it.” [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, January 1, 2010]

When Capsule Hotel Shinjuku 510 opened in the early 1990s, Tabuchi wrote, “Japan was just beginning to pull back from its bubble economy, and the hotel’s tiny plastic cubicles offered a night’s refuge to salarymen who had missed the last train home. Now, Hotel Shinjuku 510's capsules, no larger than 6 1/2 feet long by 5 feet wide, and not tall enough to stand up in, have become an affordable option for some people with nowhere else to go.” [Ibid]

“Our main clients used to be salarymen who were out drinking and missed the last train,” Tetsuya Akasako, head manager at the hotel, told the New York Times. But in that 2000s the hotel started to notice that guests were staying weeks, then months, he said. This year, it introduced a reduced rent for dwellers of a month or longer; now, about 100 of the hotel’s 300 capsules are rented out by the month. After requests from its long-term dwellers, the hotel received special government permission to let them register their capsules as their official abode; that made it easier to land job interviews. [Ibid]

Nakanishi has condensed his possessions to two suitcases, which he stores in lockers at the capsule hotel. Despite his predicament he considers himself relatively lucky. After working odd jobs on an Isuzu assembly line, at pachinko parlors and as a security guard, Mr. Nakanishi, 40, moved into the capsule hotel in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district in April to save on rent while he worked night shifts at a delivery company. Mr. Nakanishi, who studied economics at a regional university, dreams of becoming a lawyer and pores over legal manuals during the day. [Ibid]

Living in Capsule Hotel Poverty

“The rent is surprisingly high for such a small space: 59,000 yen a month, or about $640, for an upper bunk.” Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times. “But with no upfront deposit or extra utility charges, and basic amenities like fresh linens and free use of a communal bath and sauna, the cost is far less than renting an apartment in Tokyo, Mr. Nakanishi says. Still, it is a bleak world where deep sleep is rare. The capsules do not have doors, only screens that pull down. Every bump of the shoulder on the plastic walls, every muffled cough, echoes loudly through the rows.” [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, January 1, 2010]

“Each capsule is furnished only with a light, a small TV with earphones, coat hooks, a thin blanket and a hard pillow of rice husks. Most possessions, from shirts to shaving cream, must be kept in lockers. There is a common room with old couches, a dining area and rows of sinks. Cigarette smoke is everywhere, as are security cameras. But the hotel staff does its best to put guests at ease: “Welcome home,” employees say at the entrance.” [Ibid]

At 2 a.m. on one recent December night, two young women watched the American television show “24" on a TV inside the sauna. One said she had traveled to Tokyo from her native Gunma, north of the city, to look for work. She intended to be a hostess at one of the capital’s cabaret clubs, where women engage in conversation with men for a fee. The woman, 20, said she was hoping to land a job with a club that would put her up in an apartment. She declined to give her name because she did not want her family to know her whereabouts. “It’s tough to live like this, but it won’t be for too long,” she said. “At least there are more jobs here than in Gunma.”

Naoto Iwaya, 46, is on the verge of joining the hopeless. A former tuna fisherman, he has been living at another capsule hotel in Tokyo since August. He most recently worked on a landfill at the city’s Haneda Airport, but that job ended last month. “I have looked and looked, but there are no jobs. Now my savings are almost gone,” Mr. Iwaya said, after checking into an emergency shelter in Tokyo. He will be allowed to stay until Monday. After that, he said, “I don’t know where I can go.”

Internet Café Refugees in Japan

According to a survey in 2007 by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, 5,400 people in Japan regularly spend the night in Internet or manga cafes. Half have unstable incomes from temporary dispatch jobs and have difficulty finding stable employment with a permanent addresses. The survey found that 26.5 percent of “café refugees” were in their 20s while 23.1 percent were in their 50s. Men accounted for 82.6 percent of the refugees. The average income of those in Tokyo was ¥107,000 and ¥83,000 for those in Osaka.

The survey revealed that about 60,900 people stay overnight at Internet and manga cafes. Of these 21,400 stayed at such facilities four or more nights a week with the 5,400 mentioned above qualifying as full-fledged Internet café refugees. Most of the others were office workers who missed the last train home and needed a place to crash.

People began spending the night in Internet cafes in the early 2000s. Some Internet cafes charge customer about ¥200 an hour. Others have a flat fee of ¥980, including free coffee and soft drinks. The customers that show up are typically slightly grubby men with small rucksacks.

A typical refugee in his 20s sleeps in a cubical in an Internet café that is the size of one tatami mat---about 1.6 square meters. Only thin boards and a curtain separate one cubicle from the next. When sleeping the chair is moved out of the cubicle some the occupant can sleeps with his feet under the desk and computer. Rents for a very small apartment in Tokyo are around $500 a month but often require payment of big deposit up front.

People also stay at all-night karaokes and 24-hour DVD theaters. Many like the DVD theaters because people can stay there for ¥1,500 a night and get a small room---with a sofa, a large television and a DVD player---rather than a cubicle. Still these facilities tend be very cramped. The corridors between the rooms are so narrow that it s difficult to walk past someone even if both people turn sideways.

Examples of Internet Café Refugees

One man who worked as video production assistant but lost his job and his apartment told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “I stayed in the café because I could spend a night for just ¥1,000. But I always felt like I was just one step away from living on the street. I would never go back to those days. There is nothing more important than living a healthy life.”

The man worked at nights and was paid on a daily basis. He said, “During that time, my mind was occupied with figuring out how to make it through every day. I couldn’t go to the hospital when It get sick because It didn’t have health insurance.”

One 52-year-old man interviewed by the Times of London said he earned about ¥9,000 a day as an unskilled construction worker. He lost his factory job when he was in his 20s and has never been able to get a good job since. For the 20 days or so a month he can find work he can stay at a company dormitory. The other nights he stays in a manga café. Of the café he said, “I hate it here, it’s so uncomfortable. But its cheap and the drinks are free, so it the best place for me. The best I can earn is ¥180,000 a month, and by the time I’ve paid for this place, food and cigarettes, there isn’t enough for an apartment.”

The government is currently setting up a program to provide Internet café “refugees” with job-training programs. The plan calls for those affected to be given loans of ¥150,000 for living costs under the condition they participate in a vocational training program. Those with an annual income of less than ¥1.5 million don’t have to pay pack the loans.

See Fires, Under Energy, Infrastructure... Under Education, Health...

Homeless People in Japan

As of 2009 the government said about 15,800 people lived on the streets in Japan, but aid groups said the figure is much higher, with at least 10,000 in Tokyo alone. Those numbers do not count the city’s “hidden” homeless, like those who live in capsule hotels. There is also a floating population that sleeps overnight in the country’s many 24-hour Internet cafes and saunas. The Japanese government counted 16,000 homeless people living in parks on riverbanks and other locations nationwide in January 2008, down 2,500 from the same time in 2007. About 90 percent of them are male. They are found in every prefecture with the highest numbers on Osaka (4,333) and Tokyo (3,796).

In April 2012, Jiji Press reported: “The number of homeless people in the country was 9,576 as of January, dropping below 10,000 for the first time since records began in 2003, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said in a report. The number dropped by 1,314, or 12.1 percent, from the previous year. The decline was a result of government-supported programs to operate self-support centers and temporary residences for homeless people, a ministry official said. The number of homeless men stood at 8,933, while the figure for women was 304. The remaining 339 were classified as sex unknown. [Source: Jiji Press, April 15, 2012]

Many think that the true number of homeless is between 25,000 to 50,000. In Osaka many used to live in tents set up in the park around Osaka Castle. In the Tokyo area, many live in a neighborhood called Saya and in Kawasaki, an industrial town that has fallen on hard times. In Japan the homeless are known as those who “sleep rough.”

The ranks of the homeless include a branch manager at a travel agency whose job was eliminated when his company merged with another; a factory worker who lost all his money after guaranteeing a loan for a friend who went bankrupt; and a former executive at a printing company that went bankrupt.

Most homeless people are single men over 50 who are down on their luck and have no contact with their families or relatives. A survey of one group of homeless people in Tokyo found that their average age was 56 and 35.2 percent were 60 or older.

Wild-eyed homeless in grubby clothes, muttering to themselves, are a rarity. You don't find the large number of mentally ill on the streets of Japanese cities that you find in United States cities. The homeless in Japan are typically reasonably neat, just a little worn around the edges,

Homeless People Life in Japan

Japanese homeless people live under bridges, in flophouse dormitories, or in train stations. The majority live in tents in parks. These tents are usually made of blue tarpaulins and the area around them is tidy and clean. Some tents have battery-powered televisions, stereos and even air conditioning. Many homeless have cell phones which they use to find work and bicycles, which they use to get from place to place and collect recyclable materials.

In Tokyo, shed-size wooden homes built by homeless have caught the attention of architects and art critics. Often collapsed so they can be moved quickly, the house sometimes have elaborate triangular roofs and framing to keep it erect. Some have tatami floors, solar-powered electricity and gardens with bonsai shrubs and carefully-trimmed camellias. Kyohei Sakaguchi, a Japanese architect who wrote a book bout homeless houses told AP, “These homes embody simplicity, functionality and are at one with their environment.” They “are precious works of art. They deserve to be recognized.”

Many homeless people are heavy drinkers. Sochu is the liquor of choice. Some of the more down-and-out ones live in boxes of newspapers in Tokyo subway stations and eat discarded bento meals. Police generally leave homeless people alone. The biggest problem that homeless people have is getting through the cold winters. Some have pets such as dogs, cats or rabbits. Many have families they could live them but choose not out of shame.

Most homeless people earn money by working as day laborers. In Osaka and Tokyo there are places where they gather in the morning to find out what jobs are available that day. The jobs often pay reasonably well. Few Japanese homeless people panhandle for money. Some collect thrown-out food at bakeries, or restaurants. One 75-year-old homeless woman in Osaka wrote a book of poetry that sold over 100,000 copies. One of her poems goes: “Tired, tired./ My pillow is wet/-not with tears:/ with rain.”

Homeless living along rivers are vulnerable to floods and typhoons. In a typhoon in September 2007 a number of them had to be rescued. Some homeless are forced to pack up their tent homes and move from parks during cherry blossom season but are allowed to return when it is over.

Some homeless like the freedom that their status give them. One homeless man told National Geographic, “In Japan it’s always been one rule after another. But here I can be my own man.”

Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, “Masami Yokoyama, 60...lost his lifetime job a decade ago as he struggled with depression after a divorce. He held a series of increasingly low-paying jobs until three years ago, when he ended up homeless on Tokyo’s streets. Still, city welfare officials rejected his application three times because he was still an able-bodied male.” “Once you slip in Japan, there is no one to catch your fall,” said Mr. Yokoyama, who finally got limited government aid and found part-time work as a night watchman. [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, April 21, 2010]

On how Japanese homeless interact with others, Sawa Kurotani wrote in The Daily Yomiuri: “In the streets, underground walkways and parks in Tokyo and Yokohama, I used to walk by small dark heaps of cardboard, plastic and rags, with people buried underneath, seemingly impervious to what went on around them. It always struck me how well-dressed people busily walked right by them, without ever glancing at the still figures lying by the wall. It was as though an unseen barrier separated them and made them invisible to one another. If silent disengagement is the code that governs the interaction (or lack thereof) between mainstream and homeless people in Japan, the homeless people I have encountered here in the United States are more talkative and do not hesitate to engage mainstream folks.” [Source: Sawa Kurotani, Daily Yomiuri, June 7, 2011]

Reasons for Homelessness in Japan

Surveys have indicated the reasons for homelessness include: 1) lack of employment (27 percent); 2) lay offs due to restructuring (13 percent); 3) lay offs due to due to age (10 percent); 4) job loss due to injury (7 percent); 5) failure iin changing jobs (9 percent); 6) personal problems (7 percent); 7) job loss due to employer’s bankruptcy (5 percent); 7) other reason (22 percent).

A study in Osaka in 1998, found that 40 percent of the homeless there were temporary or part time workers, half of whom worked in the construction industry. A third were former workers in manufacturing or services. A fifth were white collar workers who were dismissed or worked of companies that went bankrupt. Some even had even attended university.

Many homeless work. One of the main reason they are homeless is that housing expenses are high and a large deposit has to be paid up front for an apartment. The homeless have been hurt by reforms in the public sector, which have caused a decrease in the number of construction jobs available to them.

Many homeless are people that have been forgotten or have fallen through the cracks. Companies have a less paternalistic view towards their workers than they used and families are less able to take in relatives that have fallen on hard times because they are so busy,

Over Half of Young Homeless Ex-'Freeters

In December 2012, Jiji Press reported: “More than half of homeless people under the age 35 were nonregular employees at their previous jobs, a survey by a welfare ministry panel of experts showed. According to the survey, which covered about 1,400 homeless people, 42 percent of all respondents said they were previously regular workers. [Source: Jiji Press, December 24, 2012]

In the age group under 35, the figure fell to 23.5 percent, but former nonregular employees, including temporary and part-time workers, accounted for 52.9 percent, the highest proportion in any age group, exceeding 46.4 percent in the 35-44 age bracket. Of all respondents, 45.9 percent previously worked in the construction and mining sector, the highest figure. Among respondents aged under 35, the service industry was top, at 41.2 percent, with the construction and mining sector at only 5.9 percent. [Ibid]

Protests by Homeless People in Japan

In the late 1990s hundreds of policemen were called in to cart away kicking, egg-throwing and screaming residents of a row of shacks know as "Cardboard Village" under an underpass in central Tokyo. The homeless people had set up a barricade of plywood and concrete blocks to prevent police from taking them away to a shelter. As one was being carried off, "We not going to a concentration camp! We're staying right here."

In February 2007, Osaka city government ordered all of the homeless out of Nagai Park near Osaka castle. Government workers forcibly remove the last 13 tents. During the fracas 150 homeless and their supporters fought about 200 city employees and 300 security guards and riot police.

Attacks on Homeless People in Japan

One of the greatest fears that the homeless have is not lack of money or cold weather but attacks by youths. After 10 boys aged 10 to 16 was arrested for attacking three homeless men they were asked why did it. They said “killing time,” “getting rid of stress,” and “getting rid of society’s trash.” The boys were from normal homes and had normal grades in school.

In August 2008, eight youths aged 14 to 16 were arrested for assaulting and robbing a mentally disabled man. The group was reportedly involved in several incidents targeting disabled people.

In August 2007, five teenagers were arrested on charges of attempted murdered after they set fire to a man while he slept in a park in Kita Ward, Tokyo. The man suffered serious burns and was hospitalized. The boys describe their actions as “sweeping away rubbish.” The boys poured lighter fluid on the man---a 52-year-old sanitary worker who had run away from home and was sleeping on a park bench---and set him ablaze. The man doused the fire by jumping into a park fountain.

In March 2006, four teenagers in Himeji in Hyogo Prefecture were arrested in connection with killing a 60-year-old homeless man in October 2005 by throwing a Molotov cocktail on the man as he slept in a box under a bridge. Before the incident the youth threw bottles and rocks at other homeless men in the area. One youth who was a third year high school student when the crime was committed was sentenced five to eight years in prison.

In July 2004, a 20-year-old man and 19-year-old youth were arrested for kicking to death a homeless man in a park in Sumida ward in Tokyo. The 19-year-old said, “I got carried away after drinking alcohol. I didn’t mean to kill him, but I kicked the man’s head.”

In August 2002, three young men in their late teens beat to death two homeless men---one 54 and the other 60---who were sleeping in front of a gymnasium in Chuo Ward, Chiba. In 2005, the three were given sentences of 12 to 14 years un prison.

In January 2002, three 14-year-old boys were arrested in the beating death of a 54-year-old homeless man in Tokyo. The boys dragged the man from a public rest room where he was sleeping to a vacant lot where they beat him. The boys said they beat the man because he had scolded the boys in a library for making too much noise. In 2005, the three were given sentences of 12 to 14 years un prison. A few years earlier a homeless man was killed in Osaka after being tossed from a bridge into a river.

In October 2010, 14-year-old boy was arrested for badly injuring a hearing-impaired homeless man by pouring scalding water on him.

Five Teenagers Fatally Assault on Homeless Man in 2012

In November 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Five teenagers were rearrested Thursday on suspicion of assaulting five homeless men in Osaka in October, killing one and injuring four, police said. According to the Osaka prefectural police, the five boys, all aged 16 or 17, who had already been arrested on suspicion of robbery resulting in injury, admitted their involvement in the assault cases that occurred around JR Osaka Station. Among the five boys, all of whom are from Osaka, two are unemployed while the others include a restaurant staffer, a steel girder worker and a high school student. They were all classmates at the same middle school, the police said. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, November 24, 2012]

The boys reportedly admitted their involvement in a series of assaults against five homeless men, killing Kuniharu Tomimatsu, 67, and causing minor and serious injuries to the other four men. Four of the boys, not including the steel girder worker, allegedly hit and kicked Tomimatsu, who was sleeping underneath the elevated railway tracks in Kita Ward, Osaka, at around 3:35 a.m. on Oct. 13. The following day, four of the boys, not including the high school student, again assaulted Tomimatsu at around 3 a.m. at the same place, causing him to die from traumatic subarachnoid hematoma (bleeding in the brain), according to the police. [Ibid]

The boys recorded video footage of Tomimatsu on a smartphone while he was being assaulted and screaming, the police said. One of the boys was quoted by the police as saying: "I thought it would be exhilarating to hit the man. Anything was fine with me as long as I could enjoy it.” The steel girder worker was rearrested on suspicion of killing Tomimatsu, the high school student was rearrested on suspicion of inflicting injuries and the other three were rearrested on both charges, the police said. [Ibid]

Image Sources: Ray Kinnane

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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