Growing up, my family often stressed the importance of reaching out to our homeless neighbors in Colorado. We spent many holidays serving meals at local shelters and I was impressed at a young age with an understanding of the presence and pain of homelessness and poverty in the Denver area. This only developed further as I began traveling, first to a remote village in Palugsha, Ecuador, then to Native American reservations in Arizona and South Dakota, and later to Alaskan Native towns, Mississippi residential areas hit by Katrina, migrant farm communities in rural Iowa, Argentine city slums, an orphanage in Thailand, and now the gargantuan metropolis of Tokyo.
In most American countries (North and South), homelessness is constant and much more visible than it is in other parts of the world. People reside in portable cardboard boxes in busy city parks or streets, may be nestled up in a variety of collected blankets, and probably have all their worldly possessions placed carefully within reach. Adults ask you to share your spare change, children play songs with broken harmonicas for a generous tip, and our schools, churches and food banks collect and distribute necessities to those in need.
In Tokyo, homelessness is, more often than not, invisible. From my (very limited) perspective, the cultural context here renders many jobless people also homeless and hopeless. Many low-paying jobs come with housing, so if you lose your job, you also lose your home. You may remember that, to even get a contract to rent an apartment last year, we had to put down a down payment of nearly $10,000 for a modest 500 square foot apartment. Unless an individual has family support, this high upfront cost is prohibitive for most people of lower socioeconomic status.
I remember reading a tragic story (possibly in the book Japanland) about a man who, because he had lost his decent-paying job, kept on pretending he was still employed for months to avoid dishonor and scorn for his family. He slept in his beautiful, tailored suit on a secluded park bench at night, made repairs and patches to it with a small sewing kit, continued getting his hair cut regularly, and to most onlookers walking with him on the street during the day, he probably appeared to be a well put-together and employed businessman. Once his savings ran out, the man died. This doesn’t make any sense to those unfamiliar with Japanese culture, but it certainly rings plausible to me after spending a year and a half in Japan.
Here are two short must-reads about recent developments with the homeless population in Tokyo:
Since moving to our new home in Kawasaki, on the other side of a river from Tokyo, homelessness has become much more visible to us. Up until a month ago, Rachael and I regularly biked past a man who had created an astonishing home setup under a nearby bridge. A clean shaven and quiet man in his 40s or 50s, he usually dressed in flannel shirts and jeans with square glasses and always kept his eyes lowered or focused on the task at hand. By collecting discarded camping equipment from wealthy partying youth by the riverside, he had used multiple charcoal grills, tarps, boxes, and eventually a rickety tent to create a decent home for himself that MacGuyver would have been proud of. We would often wonder aloud what he was cooking for dinner, who his late-night chatting visitors might be (drunken revelers or estranged relatives?), and what he was up to when we couldn’t see him during the day.
Right before Thanksgiving, I passed him on my commute to school. Everything appeared as it always had, but on my ride home that afternoon, the only remnants of his home setup were black ashes and scorched cement surfaces. Rachael and I haven’t been able to shed the unsettling feeling that something terrible must have happened to this man. Even if he survived, he had been collecting and storing up for the cold winter ahead and would have absolutely nothing left to survive on. The darker possibility would be that he, like other depressed individuals in Tokyo, set himself and his home on fire in a final act of desperation. We bike past this location many times a day and, although the local fire department cleaned up the ashes and melted remains of old materials, still take note of the burn marks on the cement wall adjoining his former home as a reminder that not everybody has it as good as we do.
Recently, in our new neighborhood, we discovered something incredible that we don’t quite understand yet: a subsistence-farming homeless neighborhood next to the Tamagawa river. We often exercise along the river path, but have always traveled eastbound toward our school and former neighborhood. Last weekend, we decided to try heading west for our run together. After about 4km, we began to see strange fenced-off areas with vegetable patches and crude huts erected seemingly as homes. We didn’t see a single person walking around, but the leafy greens sprouting up everywhere certainly give the impression that many people use those spaces at least to provide for their basic food needs, if not for their homes as well. There are government-posted signs in front of each plot of land, but we of course can’t read anything here so it remains a mystery to us. Here are some photos of the area. (UPDATE: Please see the first comment posted below for a translation. Sadly, the reason that a cat was the only living thing near these gardens was that all the farming residents of this area were recently kicked out by the government).
I can definitely say that I feel conflicted by the poverty and homelessness around us on a daily basis. How can we, as young people enjoying such a charmed life, stand by idly and watch all this happen without lifting a finger? However, without being able to communicate, understand local laws and regulations, and feeling saddled by our own education debt and financial responsibilities, it is also difficult to know exactly what to do to help. Buying a meal for someone in Denver was something my brother Blake and I did frequently, but here, even helping a busy mother pick up her dropped purse prompts a shameful apology and multiple bows. Altruism, as I know it, just doesn’t have the same role in this culture. What can be done in our neighborhood here?
Our church has a vibrant daily and monthly ministry providing food for hundreds of our “Homeless Neighbors,” which in one particular location last year, was shut down by the government because passing out food so irritated the residents of the community fortunate to have a home and food on their table.
What is our role in all this? Can we help? Should we? How?
New York Times article about coping with homelessness in Tokyo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/02/business/global/02capsule.html?em