Tokyo's homeless

By William Wetherall

Parts of this article appeared as
"Going home to the streets: Anonymous homeless forgotten side of Japan's society" in
The Japan Times Weekly, Vol. 28, No. 11, 12 March 1988, page 5 (Cover story)


Unclaimed bodies
Homeless women
Mental illness
Individual will


Homelessness is a small but visible social malaise in Japan, especially in big cities like Tokyo. Nationwide census figures show that about 100,000 people, some of them probably Koreans and Chinese, have no fixed address.

This pales beside the estimated 300,000 to 3,000,000 homeless in the United States. But both vagrant populations share traits like unemployment, alcoholism, mental illness, and hopelessness.

Not all vagrants in Japan have all or even one of these problems. A few simply prefer the streets to a more settled existence. Some are just drifting between jobs in the shifting construction industry. Most, though, are homeless because a run of hard luck has become virtually irreversible in a society that is hard on its losers.


Japan has about one-million day laborers, and roughly 50,000 of them inhabit skidrows in major cities.

The Airin (Kamagasaki) district of Nishinari ward in Osaka city is Japan's largest skidrow with about 20,000 resident and migrant day laborers.

Tokyo's San'ya district, with an estimated population of 8,040 day laborers and vagrants as of December 1986, is the second largest but perhaps the most notorious skidrow in Japan.

Two other famous day-laborer areas are Yokohama's Kotobuki-cho and Nagoya's Sasajima.

Many other big cities have a flophouse street with a hiring hall and a welfare center nearby, and a charity house or two among the food and drink places which cater to the local share of the country's tens of thousands of chronically unemployed and homeless.


Vagrancy and begging are violations of the Minor Offenses Act, but vagrants in Japan rarely beg and are seldom arrested. Police in some cities periodically round up local hobos and derelicts for having no fixed address or for sleeping in public. Tokyo police usually ignore even station bums so long as they bother no one.

Tokyo's train stations and public parks shelter a few thousand vagrants who have dropped out of places like San'ya and survive off the garbage that flows from the plush entertainment districts. Some vagrants are given shelter by a Christian mission, but most sleep where they can outside.

A few homeless people freeze to death or die from exposure every winter. Unlike poor people who live alone, the homeless rarely starve to death. Street bums, like day laborers, suffer from diet imbalances, but they have more hygiene problems.

Not all city parks welcome tramps. The benches in Ueno, Hibiya, and Yotsuya are built for sleeping. But those in the plaza at the entrance to Yoyogi park, near NHK, are divided into three parts by two structurally meaningless braces. Lovers are sure that the braces are there to keep them apart, while park bums insist that they are meant to prevent them from lying down. Park bums are more likely to be bullied, beaten up, even killed by young punks out for sick kicks, than to themselves disturb kids at play or picnickers, or snoop on lovers. When the homeless do resort to crime, their victims are usually other homeless.


Shinjuku ward alone has several hundred homeless people--at least 760 in the 1985 census, up from 685 in 1980. Two welfare offices, at Haramachi and Takadanobaba, deal with vagrants and day laborers. The latter handles most of the traffic since it is the most accessible from the Shinjuku station area.

Instant noodles are available around the clock to anyone who walks in the door. The basement has shower and laundry facilities, there are counseling booths on the ground floor, and general offices upstairs.

During the fiscal year from April 1986-March 1987, the two offices dispatched 805 ambulances to pick up a sick or injured vagrant. In 206 of these cases, the vagrant was admitted to a hospital for treatment.

Each month the offices handled an average of 151 vagrants who came for counseling only (76 percent) or to receive or apply for some other service. Ten percent (188) of the 1,815 vagrants seen throughout the year (16 per month) were hospitalized--165 (88 percent) in general medical wards, 13 (7 percent) as mental patients, and 10 (5 percent) for tuberculosis.

299 Shinjuku vagrants were given necessities like tooth brushes, 850 were given food, and 10 were sent to a designated local doctor who had agreed to examine them. This clinic is now closed because it is being remodeled; others refuse filthy vagrants.

873 vagrants, over two a night, were accommodated at a nearby Salvation Army facility for homeless people.

Haramachi gave 752 vagrants bus tickets to enable them to travel to job sites; Takadanobaba sometimes gives petty cash for train fares.

296 Shinjuku vagrants qualified for some kind of public assistance out of about ten times as many applicants in fiscal 1986. Some do not qualify because they are able to work. Most are unwilling to be put under the control of a welfare office, which would require that they settle down, stop drinking, and accept work. A few are caught trying to duplicate benefits they receive elsewhere under another name.

Unclaimed bodies

Shinjuku case loads have been increasing. Fiscal year 1987 has also seen more suicides, most of them by hanging, according to a Takadanoba social worker.

When homeless people are found dead, as many as ten a year from suicide alone in the Shinjuku area, their bodies are rarely claimed, even when their families are known. Legal notices are placed in city bulletins. Personal belongings of any value are sold to help pay for the costs of cremation. The relics are placed in temples that care for the disowned, forgotten, and anonymous.

Homeless women

Female vagrants, though rare, exist. When seen, they do not appear as badly off as most male vagrants. Shinjuku counselors see five or six a month. They vary from prostitutes unable to care for their children, to escapees from juvenile or mental facilities.

Homeless women run in age from their teens to their seventies. They are usually not beyond the age or condition for menial work. Women in economic straits may find (or accept) such work more readily than men. Unskilled, minimum-wage jobs are available to older women healthy enough to clean toilets in pachinko parlors and love hotels.

Mental illness

Japan has been locking up more mentally ill people, and keeping them locked away longer, at a time when most industrialized countries have been discarding such "medieval" approaches to social control. Between 1955 and 1980, the number of hospitalized mental patients per 10,000 general population in the United States dropped five-fold from 34.4 to 7.0, while Japan's rate rose five-fold from 5.5 to 26.7.

In the U.S., many discharged mentally ill have ended up on the streets because no one would care for them. The same could happen in Japan, since the new Mental Health Law makes it more difficult to confine or otherwise treat mentally-ill people against their will.

Most mentally-ill homeless do not constitute a danger to others. But their symptoms, when overt, frighten or upset a "general public" that would rather not see such signs of human failure.

Japanese mass media portrays the homeless on U.S. streets much as it depicts racial and ethnic minorities and liberated women, as though to ask: Do we want such "problems" in Japan?

The collective answer seems to be no. But wishful thinking has not made the homeless crawl away and hide.

Individual will

Unemployed migrant workers, cooks, musicians, ex-cons, debtors on the run--all kinds of people end up on Japan's streets. Many uses aliases, with the result that there true identities are often not known even to welfare officials.

Social workers are able to rehabilitate less than ten percent of the homeless who receive their help. Even with guidance, most homeless have trouble settling down to "sheltered" lives. The main difficulty is alcohol dependency, but other emotional problems keep many homeless people from holding even menial jobs.

"What most homeless need is a place to live and work," said a social worker at Shinjuku Ward's Takadanoba Welfare Office: "Help in the form of food is not that necessary. Just giving them money doesn't do any good. A lot depends on the individual's will."