Tokyo, Japan, Feb. 8 (UPI) — Nestled between the national art museum and the city zoo, it’s not easy to spot the dozen or so blue tents fairly well-hidden among shady trees and bushes.
But it’s obvious that the men sitting on the benches of Tokyo’s Ueno Park have no job or no home, as they sit staring blankly, often with big bags filled with all their belongings sitting at their feet.
According to government estimates, there are about 30,000 homeless people across Japan, and Ueno is home to one of the biggest community of the downtrodden, with about 500 people calling it home.
While pitching tents and starting makeshift fires are technically banned in the public park, the authorities turn a blind eye when it comes to the homeless, who are surprisingly orderly, neat, and even hard-working.
“They really don’t cause much trouble … and of course, we have to think about where they’d go if we forced them out from here,” said one park security guard making his daily rounds by bicycle.
The blue plastic favored by most park residents to pitch their tents is from picnickers who have discarded their sheets after a leisurely afternoon of dining al fresco. Leftover food from day-trippers is also a sought-after prize among the homeless, while staking out a good location for their tents is a much-needed skill. Topping the list of desirable real estate are those spots covered by trees and bushes to protect them not only from peering eyes, but also to provide some shelter from bad weather. Also key is whether or not the location is near a public toilet with running water that is a must for washing up and keeping clean.
But during the day, most of the tents are vacated as most homeless, who are mostly male, go out and try to earn some money, be it by picking up tin cans for change or collecting old books and magazines to sell to used book shops. From time to time, intimidating-looking men with obvious connections to the Japanese mob, or Yakuza, show up as they look for temporary laborers willing to do some odd job for a cheap price, and the park residents compete for those positions.
Meanwhile, evangelical Christian groups organize food distribution to the homeless of Ueno on a regular basis, but the catch is that for them to qualify for a hot meal, they must first listen to several hours of sermons, even if most of the homeless aren’t Christians themselves.
“We don’t want charity. We want to work … but it’s not easy to find a job,” sighed one man who said he had been living in Ueno for the past four months.
And that desire to work is finally beginning to be heard by the Japanese government.
Granted, the authorities in Tokyo in particular had been far more efficient in evicting the homeless than trying to help them. Four years ago, for instance, Tokyo’s bustling Shinjuku station had a massive campaign to get rid of all the homeless people living in the corridors of the station by constructing makeshift houses out of empty cardboard boxes. The sight of row upon row of homeless men sleeping in the boxes had become something of a fixture to Shinjuku’s social scene, but those residents were booted out almost overnight.
At the time, there had been criticism from some non-governmental organizations about dealing with the issue more humanely, but most Shinjuku commuters were relieved that the homeless were finally gone. In fact, to this day, it’s rare to see a solitary homeless person sleeping rough off the side of a busy street, given the heavy policy crackdown. Homeless people instead seek safety as well as comfort in their numbers, as they tend to live in groups in a park, where the authorities are prepared to leave them alone provided they don’t cause any trouble.
At the same time, there is greater understanding recently among both lawmakers and voters that being out of sight doesn’t mean the homeless have disappeared altogether.
There are now eight state-funded centers across Japan specifically geared to help homeless people back on their feet, and not simply provide them with food and shelter. But while there are four so-called independence-supporting centers in Tokyo alone, critics argue that the government could do more.
The centers provide not just three meals a day and a clean bed, but they also help residents look for a job by providing counseling and having a notice board of available jobs in the lobbies. By having a permanent address, the homeless job-seekers are able to overcome some of the barriers to gaining employment, namely by having a permanent address to write on their resumes, having a phone number where potential employers could reach them, and also being able to keep immaculately clean for job interviews.
One problem, however, is that residents can only be there for four months as a rule, during which time they are expected to save enough money to move into subsidized housing. Most, however, find it difficult to find a solid job during that time.
Meanwhile, some residents choose to get out of the center on their own free will even before their time is up, given that they can no longer bear living 10 to a room in five bunk beds, with a strictly regimented daily routine to boot.
Also, it is clear that the majority of homeless people in Japan were workers who have lost their jobs and eventually found themselves out on the streets alone, rather than being crippled with drug or drinking problems. So not only are the majority of homeless male, often abandoned by their families, but they are also often in their late forties or older, and unable to find a new job due to their age when they are laid off.
As a result, while the many charitable and public-sector initiatives may be well-meaning and even provide temporary relief, the key to keeping down the number of those out on the streets will be to change Japan’s employment situation, which not only continues to discriminate against older workers, but also remains fairly rigid in its employment practices. Greater flexibility in the workplace could well be the most effective way of combating homelessness in Japan.
Homelessness has many faces: alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, unaffordable housing, layoffs, war and natural disaster. In a year-long “World Homelessness” series, UPI looks at this tragic problem in a different city each month. “Seeking work, not aid,” by correspondent Shihoko Goto in Tokyo, is Part 3.