Surviving on the streets

By William Wetherall

This article, written as a sidebar, appeared with
"When there's no place like home",
a photo spread on homeless men in Kawasaki, in
The Japan Times Weekly, 28(11), 12 March 1988, pages 8-9 (Cover story)

The filth that strikes the eyes alerts the nostrils. But not all bums stink, you discover as you get closer. Nor do the ones that do smell quite the same.

Alcohol and barf are not mandatory parts of the personal dirt and public grime that come from weeks or months of homeless life between a public bath-if they'll let you in-or, more likely, a welfare center shower. Skin sores are the badges of having been long on the road and short on the soap and water.

Japan's homeless come from all walks of life. In variety they compare with the better-dressed, sweeter-scented, income-rich but spending-poor workers that stuff the urban trains.

Charity-minded foreigners have been passing out laver-jacketed riceballs before the rush hour at Shinjuku station. But the last thing that most of the homeless need is morning service, however warm.

Once the hungry vagrant breaks the garbage can barrier, there is no lack of things to eat. Some veteran tramps arrange to get the leftovers from an eatery before the food is thrown out. Malnutrition results from dietary habits partial to starches, and alcohol.

Some street bums can get spending money by picking up weekly magazines and comics discarded by commuters, and selling them to brokers. But current issues quickly date, and the "wholesale" price of a used magazine which can resell for 100 yen is low for its bulk.

The more enterprising street bums trade in telephone cards that forgetful callers leave behind with unused units. The half-used cards can be sold to resellers for an average 100 yen each. They take little space, and their value does not diminish with age. Ten cards will get you a day's worth of meals or a night's worth of booze.