What Is The Homeless Situation Like In Japan?

by Justin Sevakis,

Jake asks:

I had recently re-watched Satoshi Kon's Tokyo Godfathers and it has me curious about homelessness in Japan. I realize homelessness is a problem that every country has, but I find it they way anime depicts homelessness very interestingly. Most times anime usually depicts it as a make shift shantytowns at the edge of town or a section of a public park. Also if a homeless person interacts with a main cast member like in Samurai Flamenco, they are just an ordinary person who happened to fall on hard times or have bad luck and not associated with mental illness or some form of abuse. How dose Japan treat and deal with there homeless population?Is the makeup of their homeless population different from what I typically see here in the USA?

Like pretty much every industrialized country, Japan does indeed have a homeless problem. An old estimate from 2001 put the homelessness rate at about 25,000 people nationally, with 5,000 of them in Tokyo alone. Homelessness there peaked following the world financial crisis in 2009, but seems to be on the decline in recent years.

Japan's homeless are almost entirely middle aged men. (Since Japanese society is a little bit more patriarchal than most Western countries, families tend to take in more of the women.) They can usually be found in parks and in less busy public corridors, often erecting make-shift tent cities where they congregate. Like most other countries, many homeless people suffer from substance addiction or other mental illness, and lack the ability to get or receive the help they need.

The biggest difference between Japan and Western cities is, unsurprisingly, in the politeness with which homeless people both behave and are treated by people. Most of the time they're left alone and simply ignored -- police don't even ask them to move from park benches unless there's a foreigner around. (Japanese society habitually tends to try and put on a show of perfection whenever outsiders are looking.) Conversely, the homeless don't panhandle or hassle passers-by. They try to keep to their own spaces and keep their heads down. Many wander around by day, and by night take over public park spaces. Collecting refuse, feeding Stray Cats, and building a small community of their own, these groups of homeless people become communities in and of themselves. Occasionally in busy areas you might see a quiet interaction between a middle-class person and someone who's had a rough time. Hopefully what you'll witness is a random act of kindness.

Since Japan has a reputation for mistreating its underclass, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that the Japanese homeless population has been treated relatively well by the legal system: a court found that homeless people must go through a proper eviction proceeding in order to be removed from a public space, and can't be simply kicked out. But addressing the problem directly, as always, is challenging: while Japan does have a welfare system known as Seikatsu hogo ho, it's difficult for officers to secure space for homeless residents. The government does operate roughly 25 shelters, but these are seen as temporary places to rehabilitate, not a long-term residence.

In addition to traditional homelessness, Japan does have a unique subset of younger transients who work low-wage part-time jobs, and then spend the ¥1,000 to ¥2,000 a night that it takes to spend the night in an internet or manga café, where there's WiFi or a PC to use, video games, plenty to read, a shower and a cozy small room to sleep in. Some people move from café to café like this every night for weeks, months or even years. The blocks of coin lockers that dot the city become the storage space for their few physical possessions.

Homelessness is an issue that never seems to go away, and ebbs and flows with the state of the economy. This is true everywhere in the world. There are always people trying to help fix the problem and come up with new ideas, but it's hard to say if any society can ever fully address the needs of those least able to help themselves. Which doesn't mean we shouldn't try, of course.

Thank you for reading Answerman!

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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