LWIF X EP6: Visible Homeless in Tokyo, Japan

Join me as I go on a walk around Shinjuku, a major government and business district in Tokyo, exploring the living conditions of the visible homeless.

Disclaimer: Everything presented is simply my observations and some anecdotes I’ve heard. This is the start of my investigation into the homeless issues that Japan faces, so take what I say as uninformed opinion, not fact. This is very early on in my research, but I wanted to share what I’ve seen so far.

What prompted me to investigate homelessness, is that the visible homeless in Tokyo seem quite different than the visible homeless I encountered in Vancouver, Canada or in San Francisco, United States. In Vancouver, you can see many homeless that suffer from mental illness, have drug and drinking addictions, and are survivors of abuse. In San Francisco, the homeless I encountered were more visible in the well-trafficked areas and were vocal in their begging. In Tokyo, the homeless seem to be quiet, respectful of others, and organized (in that they kept their belonging relatively tidy). They also didn’t appear to suffer from apparent mental issues. They seemed to have their act together enough that I figure they would be able to make use of the social safety net and not have to live on the streets. So why are they on the streets?

In the video, and even in writing this, I’m very worried about the terminology that I’ve used. The homeless are marginalized and I don’t want to marginalize them even more. So I’m struggling with coming up with the right way to phrase things, and I’m afraid I haven’t done the best of jobs. So if it’s not apparent, here’s my stance. I think we live in wealthy societies and that poorest and unfortunate should be able to live in peace and comfort, as well as given opportunities to ameliorate their situation. How this is achieved, I don’t think we quite know yet, otherwise homelessness wouldn’t be an issue.

I didn’t ask this in the video, but what kind of questions around homeless in Tokyo/Japan do you think I should investigating. And as I did ask in the video, what does the visible homeless (and the non-visible as well) look like where you’re from?

5 comments on LWIF X EP6: Visible Homeless in Tokyo, Japan

  • Max

    This is my first comment under one of your videos, although I have been silently watching them for quite a while now. So I just wanted to take the chance and tell you how much I took a liking in the respectful, honest and yet somehow easy-going way that you concern yourself with the topics you choose, before adressing this specific video. I always had the feeling that Youtube had potential, but was more of a platform for music videos and loopy entertainment for teenagers, until I found your channels. By now I consider them two true jewels on the internet – interesting topics, a wonderful way to present them and great camera work!

    Now I would like to answer the question in the text below and refer to a passage in the disclaimer. In the disclaimer you wrote:

    “I think we live in wealthy societies and that poorest and unfortunate should be able to live in peace and comfort, as well as given opportunities to ameliorate their situation. How this is achieved, I don’t think we quite know yet, otherwise homelessness wouldn’t be an issue.”

    In Germany, there is only a very small chance for you to see a homeless person, even in the bigger cities. You might see beggars, but that is something else. You can only be homeless by your own choice in Germany, as – even if you can’t afford it because you don’t have a job or you’re unable to work because of poor health or other reasons – the state organizes an apartment for you and will even use tax money to allow you to pay for your rent. It won’t be a large apartment and it may not be in a beautiful location, but it’s clean, it has warm running water, a kitchen, a bathroom and an elementary furniture, as well as electricity, internet access, a phone, a radio and a television set. You also get unemployed benefits (the term sounds strange to me, but I found it in the dictionary) – that means the state gives you enough money to buy yourself some clothes, something to eat and additional furniture, if necessary and to pay for means of transport. Here’s the catch: if you want to gain access to those benefits, you need to file for unemployment at the job center and you have to be a german citizen (it’s not sufficient to be an EU citizen!) – employees of the state will then search for a job for you, based on your education and experience. During that process you will have to go through a lot of bureaucracy, e.g. meet with your advisor at the job center regularly, fill out forms, take part in specific classes to further educate unemployed people and so on and you might find a job that you don’t like and that is paid badly. The bureaucratic process itself is almost like a fulltime job and can be quite frustrating for those, who slip into that situation, from what I’ve heard. Still, you have it warm, you have something to eat, access to water, information and fresh clothes; it seems like a fair situation to me, but that is just my superficial opinion.

    Although there are very few homeless people to be seen in Germany, there are some. Most of them exercise protest against the german social welfare system or capitalism – they would rather live on their own terms than on the terms of society or the state. Others are living on the streets because they are not german citizens and thus don’t have access to social benefits. But even for those we have emergency shelters with holding areas and bedrooms in every larger german city, where they get food, clothes and a bed for free. Plus, in winter, there are special police and medical patrols in the larger cities, who walk to the few spots where you can possibly find people sleeping outside, asking them, if they really want to spent the night outside and – if they reconsider – who organize a spot in an emergency shelter for them or – if they don’t reconsider – give them at least blankets, pillows and something warm to drink to make sure, that they don’t die out there or get sick.

    What I was just wondering about now is, doesn’t Japan have a social welfare system as well? If so, how does it work and how does it affect homeless people? In other words, are there any measures of the state to help homeless people get back on track and off the streets? I can’t wait for the follow-up(s) of this video.

    • lifewhereimfrom (author)

      Thank you very much for the kinds words. It’s really nice to read such positive comments.

      The German system sounds very progressive and I’m glad to hear there’s something in place to help the less fortunate, even those who don’t have German citizenship.

      Japan does have a social welfare system, but I don’t quite know the ins and outs of how it pertains to the homeless. And yes, in the follow-up videos I’ll explore it. All the best!

  • Lê Ngọc Thùy Linh

    Awww, you are so kind baby girl. My angle, my everything <3 <3 <3

  • Alicia

    Hi! I am a recently graduated college student from Florida. I don’t know tons on this topic, but I felt the urge to comment after my own experiences seemed so different.

    I’m in a small town in central Florida that has a very poor section of town where people live in poverty. My family is middle class, but we don’t live too far from neighborhoods with obvious poverty. We have some homeless or unemployed people who stand beside the main highway through town holding signs saying things like, “Hungry, can’t work, God Bless,” asking people for money. Many of them are middle aged men and women, very thin, often very burned or sun tanned from standing out all day in the heat. Many have visible physical disabilities– badly healed broken legs, amputees. But this is nothing compared to the larger, more wealthy city where I went to college.

    Sarasota is on the coast of Florida not far from Tampa and is where many wealthy people, especially wealthy British people retire, or have a summer condo. It is also a vacation spot with the beach voted #1 in Florida, if not the US. There is often a very broad difference in income between the richer and poorer residents of Sarasota, and it’s very notable that there is a racial difference– those with the money tend to be white, and the poorer neighborhoods tend to have more black, latino, and other immigrant populations, though of course there are some exceptions to this general divide. There are of course poor white citizens, and middle or upper class people of color. However, it is a notable trend.

    Sarasota has a huge homeless population. There are many homeless people who are mentally or physically disabled, are older, veterans, or even simply cannot find a job, seeing how bad the economy is in the US right now. There are no jobs, or the jobs do not pay well enough to have a place to live, especially in a city like Sarasota which has subpar public transportation. If the job doesn’t pay enough, then you can’t have a car, then you can’t get to the job in the first place; or, you can’t afford a place to stay, or basic commodities like deodorant, healthy food, medicine. It is really disheartening to see the difference between the wealthy or middle class, with the city made to fit their needs (where things are located, no focus on public transport because they all have cars, etc.) It’s a big tourist place for its beaches, and it had a lovely downtown and main street. People pass by the homeless often on the main road where they are holding signs like I described before, and I’ve seen homeless people gathering in the evening around the sidewalk near gas stations to eat snack foods they were able to buy with the money they were given during the day.

    The thing is, people have become very unsympathetic to homeless people there. People drive past them and don’t give anything, which is a person’s right to choose, but also not smiling or acknowledging the person who is panhandling. They purposefully do not look. Business owners in Sarasota even got together to make it so it’s illegal to give food to the homeless in Sarasota. There was a movement where the city was paying for homeless people to get bus tickets to different cities– because they wanted them gone! It supposedly was unsightly to have homeless people near small business fronts that wanted to attract customers and tourists. The people I have seen giving the most to homeless people in Sarasota are college students and other people who are not super rich. Often, people who are doing well financially don’t want to give money because they are sure it will go to alcohol, or drugs. Others feel these people obviously aren’t trying hard enough to get jobs, or are lazy.

    I am not a US citizen, I am Canadian, but I grew up in Florida. The US, with it’s very intense individualism and feeling of needing to earn what you eat, does not do much for its homeless. Stigmatization of mental illness and disability, lack of supports of the mentally ill and disabled who cannot work, queer teenagers being kicked out of their houses by parents, lack of jobs leading to homelessness… It is shameful to see a country with so much that does so little for certain sections of the population, all because they “did not earn it”. I am always amazed by what I read about other countries, like the comment above by the gentleman from Germany. I feel it is a person’s human right to have a place to live safely, access to basic commodities, and access to health care– not something that people don’t deserve when they haven’t ‘earned’ it. So I feel like a country should provide these things to its citizens. I hope the US will do this one day. Many of my friends have been homeless at some point in their life, or were homeless recently as college graduates, so it’s something I am thinking about more now.

    I was struck, in your video, by the conditions of the homeless in Japan. I have come to expect that homeless people cannot even have cardboard and tarp lean-to’s, that the police will come and chase them away like in the US’s big cities. And I was surprised that you noted they did not often beg or pan handle. As an anthropology student, I think the cultural difference between American culture and Japanese culture became visible to me, in some way, in seeing the spaces and belongings compiled so neatly in your video, and the way they were situated in the public spaces, as well as the lack of panhandlers.

    The differences has given me a lot of questions. How does Japan treat the homeless, or at least those you see in Tokyo? Do the police chase them off? Do store or shop owners chase them away from their stores if they settle nearby? Do people ignore them, not even looking, or do they interact, even just smile and acknowledge? Have you ever seen anyone giving money to food to the homeless? What is the public feeling about giving money to people who are begging or panhandling? What resources are there in Japan or Tokyo for homeless or unemployed people? Are the supports for the mentally ill, mentally disabled, and physically disabled adequate, or are many homeless people homeless because of these things?

    These are probably a lot of questions, but I really look forward to your future videos.

    • lifewhereimfrom (author)

      Thanks for describing what Florida and some its cities are like. Those are all great questions you posed, and ones I intend to find answers to in the mini-doc I’m making. If all goes well, I’ll have something this year.

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