Background and context
Foreigners believe that Japan has no urban slums, but modern capitalism depends ultimately on the exploitation of the poor that lives and works in awful conditions.
Four years ago, a Japanese government survey discovered that Japan had 25,296 homeless people, living in city parks, along riverbanks, near train stations, in internet cafés, and on other public land. Of this group, more than 40% lived in parks. Osaka’s prefecture has the largest homeless population in Japan —7,700 by official figures, and more than 15,000 unofficially. Since the 1990s, there has been a great shift towards park-dwelling, when the economic crisis saw unemployment rapidly increase. Recession and unemployment are the single greatest causes of homelessness.
When socially vulnerable, unsheltered people collectivize and create safe communities in public parks, it represents a factor of protection for their physical and mental health and a great capacity to organize their survival skills and civil resistance. But the authorities violently evict park residents, remove and destroy their personal belongings to “cleanse” parks of the homeless and ensure “nice public spaces,” forcing park dwellers to try to survive on the streets. As symbolized by the words of the Governor “[Because of the homeless] young girls are no longer able to do gymnastic training or any exercises in the parks in the afternoons;” poor people are victims of physical violence but also of prejudices and deep social exclusion.
Furthermore, a citizen without a registered address is denied many other rights, including the right to vote, receive national health insurance, and obtain a driver’s license or passport. Day laborers chronically out of work cannot receive unemployment benefits; nor can they apply for welfare assistance, which requires recipients to maintain a permanent address. Social welfare administrations are not providing Japanese citizens even the minimal level of subsistence as guaranteed in the country’s constitution. Once one becomes homeless, not having an address makes it nearly impossible to find work, and, thus, to ensure his livelihood.
Networks and Alliances: a specific perspective
Since the 1990s, as the Asian economy went downhill and led to the rapid increase
in street-sleepers, some 30 organisations have formed a national network to help people on the street formulate their grievances and become more self-reliant.
For activists, the homeless should not be treated as in need of protection, but, instead, are encouraged to build healthy social relationships inside their own communities and fight against social exclusion. At the same time, they learn to struggle in an organised way for their right to a decent existence and against human rights violations. They struggle for the right to decent shelter but also for the right to not be evicted.
Since 1998, Yoji Yamauchi has been homeless. His shelter is a blue, removable, lightweight, tarpaulin tent in a park in the industrial city of Osaka.
He has begun a singular struggle against the gross violation of Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which Japan is a signatory (essentially, the universal right to housing), in alliance with homeless people’s associations. Together, they fight the authorities against forced eviction and to be recognized as homeless with the right to the city by having an official address in the street.
In June, 2001, sponsored by the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, Yamauchi was part of a homeless group delegation that visited Hong Kong to evaluate the life conditions of local homeless and exchange experiences.
Then, in March, 2004, the Kita Ward (Tokyo north; a local entity directly controlled by the municipal government) refused to register the park as his address.
In April, 2005, an international solidarity campaign by “Koen-no-Kai” (The Park Collective) sent postcards to Yamauchi’s “illegal” postal address in the Ogimachi Park. The campaign was supported by Habitat International Coalition (HIC) as a lobbying tactic in order to validate it before the authorities.
Determined to fulfill his human right to housing, he filed a lawsuit with the Osaka District Court and won the case in January, 2007, as the district court backed his claim ruling a person’s residence is the place where that person lives, regardless of whether one has the right to live at the location.
The city appealed against the original ruling, arguing that a tent is not a permanent structure and sent the case to Osaka High Court that then overturned it in 2007. It declared that it was illegal to use a park for his address, arguing that the tent, being removable, does not meet the standards of a residence by “conventional wisdom” and that the approval of the previous verdict would encourage other people to move into the park.
Yamauchi and his lawyer then appealed to the Supreme Court. Finally, in October, 2008, after a year and a half of silence, the Supreme Court dismissed the case. It finished without true resolution.
Similar to other “developed” capitalist societies, Japan has its share of urban slums, where the marginalized groups congregate in search of work and a decent place to live. In a modern capitalist country— model of production and organization — unsheltered people are not even authorized to sleep in a removable tent in the street and are systematically victims of evictions.
The right to the city includes the full benefits for all citizens to enjoy the use of the public spaces and provides them access to income, opportunities, land and housing, water and sanitation, education and health care. The World Charter for the Right to the City lists some of its principles as: full exercise of citizenship; democratic management of the city; social function of the city and of urban property; equality and no discrimination; special protection of groups and persons in vulnerable situations; social commitment of the private sector; promotion of the solidarity economy; and progressive taxation policies. But none of these aspects of the right to the city have been recognized or respected in the case presented here.
Since 2005, Habitat International Coalition has supported various calls to help Japanese homeless and to prevent forced evictions. In the various initiatives advocating for the right to the city, the most persistent actor is Yoji Yamauchi, who has shown a long–term commitment to the struggle as well as the skills to inspire solidarity from groups all over the world.
The Postcards campaign launched in 2005 was pragmatic, simple and had a good impact. Its success depended on the participation of people, raising international awareness about the pathetic conditions of Japan homeless in 2005 to2006. It eventually contributed to win Yamauchi’s case with the Osaka District Court in early 2007 and gave him hope and energy to keep on fighting to break out of this vicious circle.
Asian Economic News. “Japanese, Korean homeless show solidarity with H.K”. Kyodo News International, Inc. June 11, 2001.
Frei, Matt. “Japan homeless living in internet cafes”. [Video]. BBC News. March 21, 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/7953609.stm.
Habitat International Coalition. “World Charter for the Right to the City”. 1995. http://hic-net.org/document.php?pid=2422.
Housing by People in Asia. “Homeless in Japan – Homeless update”. Newsletter of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, no. 13. June 2001.
Koen-no-Kai Petition Board. “Possible Tokyo Ordinance Threatens Homeless”.
Nanba, Kazunari. “Petition to stop the forced eviction of the homeless”. Asian Coalition for Housing Rights. February 8, 2001. http://www.achr.net/new_page_6.
San’ya Day Laborers’ Welfare Center. “Program: CO Theory and Practice – Organizing Japan’s Urban-Industrial Underclass”. Leaders and Organizers of Community Organization in Asia. December 8, 2005.
The Japan Times. “Reversal: Park not address of homeless”. January 24, 2007. http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/nn20070124a2.html.
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