Who are Tokyo’s homeless and what can we learn from them?

My first visit to Japan was on a business trip. I spent Monday to Friday working long hours and seeing little else besides the inside of my hotel room and the office. But I arranged to stay over the weekend so I could have a chance to explore Tokyo. 

When Saturday finally rolled around, I hooked up with a good Japanese friend of mine named Yoshi. After visiting the Asakusa shrine we went in search of some drinkable coffee and ended up wandering along the Sumida River, talking about life as we kept half an eye out for a decent café. The riverside in Tokyo is devoid of commercial attractions. There are no restaurants or bars, just a few parks and the occasional government-sponsored piece of street art. The Sumida doesn’t seem to be a place where the millennials congregate, or at least not during the day. However there was a general hub of activity which animated the area that particular Saturday. There were a lot of middle aged men engaged in solitary pursuits. Relaxing by the water’s edge. Reading a newspaper. Playing cards. Listening to music. Tinkering about the home… It wasn’t entirely obvious to me that this disorganised assembly of men with uneven and scruffy hairstyles had something in common. Not until I noticed the makeshift shelters lining the walkway.  

Tokyo's Homeless
The makeshift homes of Tokyo’s homeless line the Sumida River

A middle aged man with a softly-lined face sprouting black and grey hairs like an old hairbrush was seated on one of the public benches. He sat with one leg sharply angled over his knee to support a notebook in which he was sketching a landscape. I paused to admire his work before meekly offering him a 1000 Yen note. He looked me at me with contempt before returning to his drawing.

I was taken aback by the homeless man’s reaction to what I thought was a kind gesture. However Yoshi hurried me along and explained that the practice of giving alms to the needy does not exist in Japan. Asking for money is considered shameful and he admitted that if he happened to forget his wallet at home, he would prefer to starve rather than ask a colleague for money to buy lunch. 

Makeshift shelter doesn’t do justice to describing the homeless community along the Sumida. I’ve never seen poverty look so dignified. As Yoshi and I continued on our walk, I grew less interested in his chatter and more fascinated by these homeless habitats that were masterfully constructed from small tents, scraps of cardboard and wooden planks covered with tarpaulin. Some were more prolific than others, augmented with homely accessories such as doormats, rubbish bins and cleaning utensils. The meticulous care was taken in their maintenance and appearance, which made them seem more like homes than homeless shanties.  

Tokyo's homeless
The toolbox and tennis racket indicate a hobbyist lives here

I slowed my pace to furtively inspect one of the larger units. It was approximately three metres in length and wrapped in blue plastic held firm by thick rope and built against a concrete wall. It benefited from the natural shelter afforded by the overpass. A bicycle was parked outside and a pair of newish black sneakers with white soles were placed neatly by the cardboard welcome mat. Someone was at home.  

Tokyo's homeless
A bicycle is parked outside indicating someone is at home

The next house was less than a minute’s walk further along the path. Also protected by thick plastic, the front wall was decorated by wooden slat blinds. Several tall, transparent umbrellas hung neatly in a row from the top edge. A small broom was placed by the side door and several wet, dripping t-shirts dangled from a plastic clothesline that was neatly tied to the edge of the staircase. 

Tokyo's homeless
Decorative wooden slats on one of the shelters
Tokyo's homeless
Clothes drying on a washing line

My snooping soon turned to curiosity and interrogation. I spun round and demanded an explanation. Who were these homeless men and why were they living there? Why were their homes so fastidious? Yoshi waved his hand in a bid to dismiss the conversation but I insisted. Eventually he volunteered that the inhabitants were actually highly educated individuals who had chosen that way of life. Former CEOs and Managing Directors who had lost their fortunes during the Lehman crash, or recent graduates from the University of Tokyo who refused to participate in Japan’s hierarchical working culture, known for long hours and pointless bureaucracy. My first response was admiration. If this lifestyle was a choice then I had to admire them for it. How many times did I secretly question the long hours I worked, and for what… money? That explained why the artist had refused my donation. And why there seemed to be a shared obsession with cleanliness amongst the community. Every makeshift home we passed had a broom and dustpan by the entrance, or in one case there was even a hoover. Sneakers and boots were stacked outside along the concrete walls, presumably following the local custom of not traipsing dirt and germs into the home. Overused bottles of bleach and other disinfectants jutted out amongst the belongings stored in trolleys and hanging off eaves. If I was homeless, I’m not sure I would spend my pennies on Mr Sheen. To me, it seemed like a weird limbo of only half giving up. On the one hand, it was a demonstrative relinquishing of all the soullessness (as well as financial fruits) of climbing the corporate ladder. But on the other hand, they had refused to give up certain standards of living. A small part of me was almost jealous at this ultimate freedom from social norms. 

Tokyo's homeless
Residents and visitors politely keep their umbrellas and shoes outside

However judging by most of the homes we passed, most residents seemed to be engaged in some sort of work. There were numerous plastic bags filled with crushed cans and empty bottles. Probably linked to the big demand (and reward) for bottle collection in Japan, which gets sold on to manufacturers in China. There were also a lot of high-vis vests and uniforms on display, suggesting construction work or cleaning jobs. 

Tokyo's homeless
Some of Tokyo’s homeless earn a living from bottle collection

Japan’s homeless problem started in the early 1990s. This was when the economic bubble burst, leading to a significant contraction of the construction industry. Workers were made redundant and as land values skyrocketed, the availability of cheap lodgings became scarce. Many individuals from rural or working-class backgrounds, or with significant financial and gambling debts, found themselves forced to live on the streets. The homeless of Japan look a lot different to homeless communities in the US and Europe. They have become displaced due to a combination of pride and economic factors, rather than drug addiction or mental illness. 

On subsequent trips to Japan I discovered more about the Japanese psyche. People carry a deep-seated sense of pride. Pride in being self-sufficient, strong, smart, capable… considerate. Or in other words, there is a ferocious desire to keep up with appearances in Japan. Once I visited a café in Osaka and ordered a coffee. It arrived tasting like warm milk with little semblance of caffeine. I wanted to politely complain and ask for a stronger coffee however my Japanese companion was mortified and implored me to keep quiet and just drink my milky coffee. Complaining wouldn’t be considerate. And thus starts a vicious cycle. A person in need is too proud to speak out and society is too proud to admit it has a problem. The fantasy of the ex-CEO living along the Sumida is what the beaten down Tokyoites tell themselves. Because help does exist in Japan, which is precisely the reason why there are almost no female homeless!

I don’t know who the homeless of the Sumida River are but I admire their sense of pride and their innovation. I also hope I am never too proud to ask for help if I need it. 

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