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Homelessness in Japan
Cardboard Village and the Shogun's Law

by Tamae Ishiwatari

Discussion of homelessness in Japan as a violation of the traditional Shogun principle which gives top priority to the common good, including those caught up in the 'Catch 22' syndrome of social service rules and regulations. 

Adequate housing for all is one of Maitreya's top priorities.
On paper, it is also one of humanity's priorities.  "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health & well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care, and necessary social services ..."
These words, from Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, were written 50 years ago. Yet, as we approach the end of the 20th century, at least one out of five members of the human family do not have a proper home to live in. Tamae Ishiwatari, Share International correspondent in Japan, analyses homelessness in her country.

Tokyo, Japan
Not to put too fine a gloss on it ó the homeless in Japan are seen as a nuisance. Local authorities deal with ëthe problem' by trying to evacuate the homeless under the pretext of ëenvironmental beautification programmes'. The various wards in the city of Tokyo pass all sorts of complex regulations wrapped up in ëuser-unfriendly' bureaucracy to make it difficult for the homeless to claim any benefits they might be owed.

A magazine article illustrates the point. It begins: "Japanese common sense is the world's nonsense". The article criticized the non-guilty verdict of a law case against some supporters of the homeless who had been accused of obstructing official law-enforcement. In a nutshell the journalist bemoaned this ësoft approach', berated the judge for his feeble attitude towards this public nuisance ó the street-people. He sniped at what he saw as a traditional and popular concept which champions the underdog ó 'the weak are always right'. This was the nonsense. Instead, we should be enforcing the law of the Shogun ó showing no mercy to such an unpleasant sight ó a sight which violated public good. This article appeared in a major national weekly. The metropolitan government, as if encouraged by the tone of the article, went to the appeal court in an effort to overturn the judge's findings. Freedom of the press, one might say, but, unfortunately, there is distressing evidence that this Shogun-devotee journalist is not alone.

It is probably fair to say that, viewed from abroad and possibly within our country too, the general consensus of opinion is that in a rich industrialized country like Japan, which has at least until recently enjoyed the fruits of a highly successful economy, the social welfare system is also bound to be generous and fair. The truth is that what little information there is points to a very different situation.

Choosing to be homeless?

Japan's capital, Tokyo, has a population of nearly 8 million in its inner city, divided into 23 administrative districts. Official figures put the number of homeless (street dwellers) in the city at just around 3,700 (February 1998) whereas 'Shinjuku Renrakukai', a homeless support group, claims the true figure is closer to 5,000 (rapidly increasing). cardb299.jpg (15836 bytes)











The homeless in Tokyo tend to cluster in a few main areas: for instance, one of Tokyo's busiest areas near the central station in the Shinjuku ward; 2 million commuters come in and out of this area everyday. On one side of the station there are the ultra-modern new Metropolitan Government Buildings and other impressive high rise offices and luxury hotels.

The contrast could not be greater. On the renovated west side of the station, a cardboard village had spread out around the underground station and also along the underground passage leading to the Metropolitan Government buildings. A symbol of power and authority, wealth and modernity confronted and challenged by the downright effrontery of the homeless.

The Governor's response: "They have their own philosophy and opinion. (That's why they choose to be homeless.)" More destructive were the Government's attempts to evict the homeless 'because the environment there needed beautification'. A siege developed; anything to move the homeless on, out of its sight, seemed to be government policy. It sunk 1,300 million yen into building two parallel walk-belts to take up space and placed various art pieces worth 40 million yen along the road. Just two examples of the unofficial policy of harassment and pettiness levelled at the residents of cardboard village. Other such acts of harassment included a 5pm curfew and limited winter shelter.

Who owns public space?

In 1996 the homeless people of Shinjuku's cardboard town were forcibly evicted; private guards and the police were employed. Some supporters were arrested. But the question remains: who owns public space? And what should be given priority: human lives or local regulations?

And on the subject of lives ó in Shinjuku alone 40-50 homeless people die each year in roadside accidents. According to Ms Miyashita (a former medical consultant at Tokyo's only Emergency Aid Centre, EAC) who researched the street deaths within a 500-metre radius around the EAC in 1987, the number of deaths was 211 and in 1988 it was 109.

The homeless prefer to freeze outside rather than be frozen by officialdom's coldness

The numbers of those in need of basic sustenance (bread and milk) are a good indicator of the slowdown of the Japanese economy: whereas the number of emergency meals served at the centre in 1988 was 4,507, in 1995 it soared to 55,035. A strange quirk of Japanese social service is that the number who receive social welfare has remained almost the same throughout the decade. Why?cardc299.jpg (17693 bytes)

The following is an example of the Catch-22 syndrome. You need a fixed address to qualify to apply for welfare help. So, if you want financial help to find fixed accommodation you need a permanent address. Those who are eligible receive 78,000 yen a month and lodging to the value of 1,900 yen a night. But the question remains: Why do people in these desperate situations not claim state help? Would you? The welfare benefits are given in an attitude of condescending, patronizing charity. The laws, regulations, the pre-conditions required, the bureaucracy and the smug arrogance of officials all combine to act as a powerful deterrent. One could say that they prefer to freeze outside rather than be frozen by officialdom's coldness. It is not unknown for hospital and ambulance staff to neglect the medical needs of the homeless, causing needless deaths.

After years of battling, finally a small breakthrough came for the homeless and representatives of Shinjuku Renrakukai in 1997: the Tokyo Government acknowledged their existence and invited them to the negotiating table. They had finally won a voice ó a voice that will go on demanding to be heard.

A sad footnote must be that while all attention was on Tokyo for the Winter Olympics of 1998 no-one noticed that fire swept through the cardboard village ó destroying all the dwellings so laboriously put together. Among the victims of the fire was a couple who had married in the village. In the aftermath of the disaster the government seized its moment and the remaining box-houses were finally removed. Some of the residents were taken to a winter shelter, others moved into nearby parks. In Tokyo, as well as elsewhere in Japan, the best that many can hope for is warmer weather. For the moment then, it looked as if the law of the Shogun has prevailed. But now that they have won themselves a small voice, the homeless are determined that it will remain a persistent voice ó negotiating, urging change and demanding their basic human rights.

From the January/February 1999 issue of Share International.

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005