Posted by: thewhitesintokyo | January 3, 2010

Homelessness in Japan

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.

Near the bridge, a man resting on a bench

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.

The only evidence anyone was ever here

Paint peeling off after the fire

Ashes and burned plastic coat the cement tiles

The sole of a shoe? Who knows.

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).

Poverty and wealth, side by side

Home? Garden? What is this all about?

Taking a moment to read one of the posted signs

Curious about what this says...

Curious what this says...

Crows surrounded the small garden plots

The only sign of life I saw (cat, center)

Old discards

Another home, built into the bank under a tree

The treehouse's plot of land

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?

Notice the contradiction- wealth & prosperity vs. desperation & poverty

Subtle reminder of the homelessness around us (yellow tent, bottom right)

New York Times article about coping with homelessness in Tokyo:



  1. This is quick and dirty and it may not 100% precise. But you’re probably not looking for poetry, so here it goes:

    First sign:

    Notice regarding setting up of the “management fence”.

    The building of the “management fence” will begin on Heisei 21 (2009) -12-1, as had been announced previously.

    This parcel of land will be managed by the national ministry of traffic (name of agency?) as an area to be used for (set of kanji that look official and important, which I gather to mean “area to be used for construction of overflow preparedness” or something to that effect). If you are still farming on this parcel, please remove your sheds, tools, etc.

    After the fence is set up, please do not enter the area or dispose of trash in the area. Thank you for your understanding and cooperation.

    Heisei 21-11-24
    National Ministry of Traffic (again, name?) Keihin River Office
    Contact info

    Second sign:

    Notice to those who are using this area for farming:

    This area will be under construction to build an overflow preparedness area (again, not sure of the exact translation). Those who are currently using this area for faming without the owner’s permission must remove their fences and sheds immediately. These items are against regulation 26 of (laws governing the land near rivers).

    After Heisei 21-6-30, a fence will be built around the area owned by the national ministry of traffic (see note above). Thank you in advance for your understanding and cooperation.

    Heisei 20 (2008)-12-12
    Same contact info


    Side bar: Japanese government is known for its love of pouring concrete onto river banks to “beautify” and “stablize” the area. I’ve heard that they do that to create jobs and construction projects, but am not sure what the truth is.


      As a non-Japanese resident of Japan, these signs break my heart. I imagine that it isn’t probably very safe to build homes so close to the river, but unless the government is helping to resettle them in a place where they can continue this lifestyle, where else will they go?

      I’ll have to learn much more about all this to see how these people are being taken care of and see if there’s anything we can do to pitch in. Thanks again for your time translating that for us. We really appreciate it.


  2. This is very touching. I’m not sure what the economic state is in Japan but here in California we struggle with the few city blocks that divide the upper class and ultra poor. I am starting a business that will specifically employ the homeless. I do not know if a business similar to that will float in Japan.
    You can see a bit more here.

    I would recommend looking into micro finance and micro franchise opportunities which are especially popular with the rural farms i see in your images.

    Engage with them and see what their needs are.


    • It’s heartening to know that people like you are still fighting the good fight in the U.S. Keep up the great work Pep, and know that you have some big fans in Tokyo. Not sure what we can do to help from here, but keep us posted on the progress of your business.

      A similar venture I’m familiar with is TOMS shoes, using for-profit philanthropy to help a huge number of people in need.

      Thanks again for the comment, and best of luck to you.

    • One more thing- the most interesting thing about these “rural” farms is that they are literally a couple hundred yards away from some of the ritziest shopping areas in the Tokyo suburbs.

      Now that I know these people have all been kicked out, I’ll have to find out if there are any new opportunities for them. With the bicycle culture of Tokyo, I wonder if your project wouldn’t work perfectly here.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rachael White, Pepijn Dekker. Pepijn Dekker said: #homeless in #tokyo, #homeless and #hopeless via @tokyoterrace […]

  4. After reading about the man and his home obviously destroyed by fire, I can’t stop thinking about him and what happened. Can’t imagine how Rachael and you are feeling, seeing him actually living there and then suddenly gone. That is one very sad story.

    • It’s an unsettling feeling every single time we pass the bridge. We may try asking Japanese friends if they can help us look through the news archives to see if it was reported or not. Uffda.

  5. Your article impacts me. It makes me realize I have the Japanese on a pedestal which doesn’t leave room for them to be human and have challenges.

    I do know that the Japanese have surmounted many obstacles with a drive and ability to improve things, that is astounding.

    This town that has been revitalized over the years came to my mind.

    Sending light to you and your efforts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: