Friday, November 1, 2013

Homeless in Japan

A new article in the Japan Times (McDonald's store pulls, apologizes for homeless sign | The Japan Times) has me thinking about the homeless here.  Like all industrialized countries, Japan has an income disparity.  Most people are middle class, I guess.  But a number of people-- and they seem to be largely invisible at the moment, at least to my limited perception-- have little or no income beyond what they can beg or borrow, and no homes other than a cardboard pallet in a train station or a flimsy cardboard bunker or lean-to in some back alley in the city.

Just outside Shibuya Station in Tokyo, under the train tracks near the famous Shibuya Scramble and the Hachiko Exit you can find a row of paper shanties like melancholy children's play forts, some covered over with blue plastic tarp and some open to the sky.  They're in a narrow concrete lane fenced in and a little sheltered by the raised tracks and the surrounding buildings just a minute or two from the famous 109 building, that silver cylinder packed with kids buying the latest fashions, not far from H&M and all kinds of fabulous boutiques.  But they might as well be on another planet in terms of income and viability.  When I walked that path the boxes lay uninhabited, but piled with possessions like tea pots and manga.  I went down some steps and found more boxes where people actually live.

I'd been wondering where the homeless were.  On our first trip to Japan, as I hit Tokyo solo via shinkansen, there were blue tarp shanty towns under the river bridges in Kawasaki and other neighborhoods I don't know the names of-- not exactly a welcoming sight, but pretty easy to put out of your mind when you're drunk in the electric frenzy of Kabuki-cho later at night.  When I went to Mitaka Park to visit the Ghibli Museum, there were a few men in layered clothes sleeping in the chilly October sun next to the fences around some tennis courts.

Even in Hamamatsu, there were regular faces you'd see if you lived here.  One bald guy, his head a brown, tanned dome, sitting on his bucket near Zaza City.  The woman in glasses who looked incongruously like the stereotype of a librarian but would engage others in angry shouting matches outside our school.  The friendly old man with bad teeth who would sit next to you, strike up a conversation, then ask for money in broken English.  And the old man who rushed around punching the air and muttering to himself; he always wore a hooded parka and bundled himself up in so many winter clothes in all kinds of weather he looked like an astronaut who had narrowly survived a fiery crash-landing.

Now that I'm out in the suburbs, I don't encounter so many homeless people.  Or any at all.  That's what I mean by "invisible," although they're probably invisible in other ways as well to most people.  Finding that encampment so close to the Shibuya Scramble came as a surprise and brought a bit of reality to my touristy experience.  Even now it's strange to consider these multiple worlds.  I sit here in my office as parents arrive for a big meeting about upcoming class trips. Somewhere else there's that guy sitting on his bucket, or others wandering around Shinjuku Station, displaced for the day by all the hustle and bustle and people who have places to be in a hurry.

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