Homelessness in Japan and Hinamatsuri

by Marco Oliveros,

Hinamatsuri is supposed to be a comedy, and it's true that the show delivers its hilarity in spades. However, for an anime about the wacky adventures of girls with psychic abilities, Hinamatsuri also delivers some excellent character drama. This series can dip into some heavy territory before resurfacing back to making us laugh without missing a beat, and one example of this is its unexpected focus on the issue of homelessness in Japan. Not since Satoshi Kon's Tokyo Godfathers has anime so directly addressed the topic of Japanese homelessness in such a pertinent and sympathetic manner.

As with homeless populations in other parts of the world, Japanese homeless have a troubled history and relationship with their society, but every culture has unique aspects that distinguish the struggle of their homeless populations from others. What Hinamatsuri does well is capture the face of homelessness in Japan in ways that help illustrate the issue to audiences around the world.

Anzu and Becoming Homeless

Hinamatsuri follows the daily lives of two girls with psychic abilities: Hina and Anzu. The former first appears in the apartment of a yakuza gangster, Yoshifumi Nitta, while the latter arrives on the streets in the path of a biker gang. They are delivered inside a metallic orb not unlike a very weird-looking egg, and they don't have much control over where they'll arrive.

Hina debuts in a well-to-do home and gets provided everything that she needs by an affluent caretaker. Anzu debuts on the streets without any money for necessities. For a while, Anzu survives day-to-day stealing food from stores and taking shelter under a bridge. Unable to catch her, the local business owners eventually enlist the aid of the local yakuza to help track Anzu down, so the yakuza pay off the homeless to find her. They spot Nitta telling Anzu to stop shoplifting and immediately suspect the worst from a yakuza gangster.

In an impulsive act of compassion for this young girl who clearly doesn't seem to know any better, the homeless Yassan explains to Anzu why stealing is wrong and offers to teach her how homeless folks like him can make an honest living. He takes her to the encampment where he resides and introduces her to the other homeless denizens. This encampment is located deep inside a region of the local park that most people rarely pass through, so the homeless can sleep relatively undisturbed.

All the homeless there are old men, so Yassan suggests bringing alcohol to ease everyone into accepting her. Anzu initially protests but eventually concedes to pitch in some money for the booze. While she's irritated that she had to give away all her remaining cash to buy drinks for everyone, her mood softens once she realizes that the quality of alcohol being passed around could only have been purchased with money from Yassan's own limited funds.

One particularly grouchy homeless man demands that Anzu entertain everyone with some singing. She breaks awkwardly into the only song that she knows, a ditty for little kids that Anzu sings out of tune, but the grouchy Shige still breaks into tears by the end, because she reminds him of his granddaughter. Equally moved, the rest of the homeless welcome her into their community and teach her their ways of living, along with helping her build her own shack.

Japanese Socioeconomics and Homelessness

Among post-industrial economies in the first world, the Japanese economy ranks as among the least plagued by wealth inequality. The Gini coefficient is a statistical measure developed to roughly demonstrate the wealth distribution of a country's citizens – with “0 “representing perfect equality and 1 representing perfect inequality. (For comparison, the Gini coefficients of Japan and the USA were 0.33 and 0.389 in 2012, respectively.) Japan has been assessed as maintaining a robust middle-class, though that praise has been somewhat tempered in the aftermath of its asset “bubble” economy crashing in the early 1990s. In 1985, Japan had a Gini coefficient of 0.304, and by 1995, that number had jumped to 0.323.

Among other indicators, one symptom of significant economic inequality in any given country is the size and growth of its homeless population. In the aftermath of their economic downturn, Japanese unemployment rose precipitously, and many Japanese citizens found themselves unable to continue paying for their homes. Among those hit especially hard by unemployment were single and elderly men, who quickly became the face of homelessness in Japan.

Homelessness in Japan skews toward single and elderly men because of senior age discrimination and gendered work expectations. Elderly workers were seen as less valuable to businesses, while single men were perceived as a greater liability because they didn't have wives and children to pressure them to work more diligently. Demand for construction in the post-bubble economy tanked, leading many workers in the industry to lose their jobs, and the construction industry was also largely male-dominated. Even as this industry gradually recovered, construction companies found themselves reluctant to hire back their aging blue-collar workers, and many of them lacked the skills or education to do much else.

In public areas like train stations, the initial government response to the homeless setting up encampments was: (1) to send police and private security to drive them out, and (2) to erect hostile architecture to discourage them from returning. Tokyo Governor Shunichi Suzuki described the homeless as being homeless by choice, and he justified his campaign to remove them as an act of environment beautification. If the government kept the homeless out of public sight, then perhaps the problem would remain out of public mind.

Initial government responses also strove to use bureaucratic technicalities to deny the homeless welfare benefits that they were constitutionally entitled to receive. The Japanese Constitution guarantees citizens the right to a minimum standard of living by the government. If Japanese citizens fall below the poverty level, the government is theoretically required to provide welfare supplements to them until they are able to make income past the poverty threshold. The government has previously gotten away with denying welfare to the homeless by making their aid conditional on whether the citizen has a job, a phone, or a home.

Hinamatsuri, Anzu, and Homeless Dignity

Anzu's life in the encampment remains tough, even with a roof over her head and the support of Yassan and the other homeless men. She works diligently all day gathering cans and figuring out other ways to make money. When Hina finds herself homeless as well after being kicked out by Nitta for destroying his apartment again, Anzu attempts to take her in and help her out like the other homeless, only to kick her out after dealing with her spoiled behavior. Anzu later encounters Nitta, and in a striking assertion, she declares that Hina doesn't deserve to be homeless.

Hinamatsuri turns the tables on those prejudices that dehumanize the homeless in Japan. Not merely content at depicting homeless as people to be empathized with and understood instead of loathed and ignored, the show also criticizes the condescending attitudes that patronize the homeless. This scene is framed as lighthearted, but it's saying something pretty potent: Anzu is declaring her own worth, and the inherent dignity of the homeless and their struggle.

Regardless of Anzu's convictions, Yassan and the other homeless men understand that homelessness is not a condition to envy. Selling discarded recyclables and relying on charity is a living that is hard and uncertain. Contrary to the beliefs of people like like Governor Suzuki, homelessness for many single and elderly Japanese men is not a choice. Homelessness is easier to escape from if you're a young and able-bodied minor. The government in the show is in the process of dispersing their encampment, and Yassan and the other homeless arrange plans for a family to adopt Anzu into their home.

Japan and Empathy for the Homeless

Continued lobbying for the rights of the homeless by advocacy organizations post-bubble economy have made a difference in improving and humanizing the government's response. Post-1990s support groups have also filled in the void of support left by government's hostility and indifference by providing the homeless with hot meals and other necessities.

In the anime, the local community organizes soup kitchens for the homeless, and they later protest on the homeless' behalf to prevent the government from breaking up the encampment. A defiant Anzu exhorts her adopted homeless family to resist, but Yassan and the other homeless men have already made their decision to separate and move on.

In an attempt to make the separation easier, they ask Anzu to forget them. Having internalized some of society's prejudices toward them, they tell her that remembering them will only drag her potential down and walk away. They have arranged for the owners of a local restaurant to take her in, and she resigns herself to living under a sturdy and civilized roof. Walking downstairs from her new bedroom, Anzu asks if she can help her new parents with running their business.

Outside, Shige and Yassan meet each other at another soup kitchen event and discuss Anzu. Yassan remarks sadly about the unlikeliness that Anzu will ever forget them. Shige replies that the thought of Anzu remembering and crying for them makes him want to continue living on.

Her foster father asks if anyone taught it to her. Still dejected by the separation, she explains that she internalized those lessons from Yassan and the other homeless men. Her foster father attempts to comfort her, explaining that she will never be truly separated from them as long as they all remember each other. At this thought, Anzu breaks into a wide smile.

Hinamatsuri captures the face of homelessness in Japan. It captures the humanity of elderly and single Japanese men as people who are more than capable of kindness and hard work. It captures the cruelty and callousness of how Japanese society treats its homeless, and the compassion of civic groups supporting and advocating for them. In Anzu, it rages at the hypocritical associations of laziness and worthlessness that society imposes on the homeless. Hinamatsuri has some anger to it, but it also asks us to empathize.


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