Whenever I introduce the topic of homelessness in Tokyo, I am frequently asked two questions. The first is, "Are there really homeless people in Japan?" The second, which inevitably follows once I answer the first in the affirmative, is, "How did you become involved with them?"
I begin with these questions because, even more than their answers, they reveal a lot about the popular perception and context of homelessness in Japan. The questions, and the tone of curiosity with which they are asked, demonstrate two sorts of common sense that many of us have about Japan. First, they demonstrate the widespread assumption that all people in Japan are middle class. Second, they demonstrate the assumption that homeless people are culturally, socially, and in many other ways simply different from mainstream society. I am sometimes asked if the homeless in Japan are even Japanese at all. "Aren't they all foreigners?" No, they are not. Since many of us think of Japan as an orderly society, we have a hard time imagining homeless people in Japan. And because many of us think of homeless people as inherently disorderly, we have a hard time imagining them as Japanese. Opening a discussion of the homeless in Japan, then, necessitates that we think critically both about what we assume we know about Japan and about what we assume we know about the behaviors and identities of those who live in the so-called margins of society.
The first national government survey of Japan's homeless people was conducted in 2003 and lists 25,296 homeless persons living in Japan, with 5,927 homeless living in Tokyo's 23 wards. The majority of homeless people in Japan are men over fifty years of age, with an average age of about fifty-six, who have been living in tents, train stations, parks, riversides, and on the streets for an average of forty-nine months. Women reportedly make up only three percent of the national homeless population; however, some activist groups estimate even higher percentages of up to ten percent. Some activists have also pointed out that the national survey, by identifying homelessness as a male problem and by counting only those living on the streets as homeless, insures that both women and the total number are undercounted. Because homeless people are mobile and sometimes hidden in temporary dormitories, on friends' futons or in cheap motels, it is clear that official counts cannot be exact. Still, even as they may disagree widely on the total number, both government and advocate polls report that the number of homeless people in Japan has been steadily increasing since the early 1990s. Many of the recently homeless in Tokyo fell out of an informal day-labor system that flourished in postwar Japan. This was a system in which men would assemble on the street in day-labor neighborhoods in the early morning, and job brokers from construction companies and other industries would come down the line and hire them for a day's worth of manual labor. The men who gathered in these neighborhoods were often those who, in their youth, were lured from the countryside by the vast job opportunities in the city. These were also the men who built the city's high-rises where salarymen work. But in the 1990s, many laborers found themselves jobless. This was due to the economic decline, the shift to a service economy, an influx of young foreign workers, and their own advancing age. Still other men became homeless due to failed loans or corporate restructuring.
The history of homeless women in Tokyo is much less well documented; however, in my own research I found that most women came to the streets from broken marriages and prolonged states of poverty and/or illness. Since there is little work opportunity for those without a fixed address, and since most landlords demand that six months' rent be paid in advance in order to rent an apartment, once one becomes homeless, there are very few possibilities either for gaining steady employment or obtaining a permanent residence.