The Ghosts of Tokyo: Homelessness in Japan

article image
Photo by Flickr/Jim Fischer
Tokyo is two sides of a coin. One side is tailored suits, high fashion, flashy Lamborghinis, and skyscrapers. If you look just a little deeper you can see the somber other side: the prostitutes along Dogenzaka, the homeless at Yoyogi Park, the empty beer cans and sake cups that litter the station as soon as the workday ends.

There is magic drifting in the air here on the southeast side of Yoyogi Park in Tokyo’s Shibuya ward. Ribbons of early-morning sunlight are streaming down onto the half-log benches, and chirping crickets seem to have been tricked into thinking that it is dusk, as the thick canopy of yamazakura—mountain cherry trees—let in little light.

Nearby, a man stirs from his slumber. There is a piece of cloth covering the bench on which he is lying, a newspaper beneath his head, a cap over his face, and an array of well-packed bags on the table next to him. I watch as two police officers approach him. After a short exchange the man puts on his shoes, packs up his meager belongings and walks away. All around me, on every other bench in this section of the park, there are men sleeping.

It is early autumn, and the leaves are just beginning to change color. Currently under its most conservative and military-oriented government since the Second World War, and recovering from the global financial crisis, Japan is going through a fairly tumultuous time. You would not know it, though, as her citizens carry on with their lives as usual. The trains are packed with workers every morning, trees play music from hidden speakers, and escalators speak to you in calming tones as you ascend. The single outward sign of instability is the growing number of homeless men sleeping on the footpaths and benches.

A decade ago there were over 25,000 homeless in Japan, with nearly a fifth in Tokyo alone. In just five years Tokyo’s homeless population doubled. Although recent estimates show that the figure could be decreasing, the uncertainty of Japan’s economic future and the growing geopolitical tension with China may see another sharp rise in the number of homeless in coming years.

Roughly 95 percent of Japan’s homeless are middle-aged men. Homelessness in Japan is deeply rooted in gender differences. In a country where the man is the sole provider for most families, companies expect young married men to work harder and will often hire them first.

Receive Our Weekly Newsletters

The act responsible for maintaining a minimum standard of living in Japan is the Seikatsu hogo ho. To access this system of welfare, a person must prove that they have tried to the best of their ability to improve their standard of living but remain impoverished. Additionally, as landlords in Japan are reluctant to rent to the homeless, and it is difficult for welfare officers to secure housing and housing deposits, the Seiketsu hogo ho is more likely to be paid to the already housed poor, to prevent homelessness, rather than to find housing for the homeless themselves.

At last count, state-funded shelters in all of Japan numbered around 25. Most public-housing services in Japan act as halfway houses, before the homeless are inevitably turned back out onto the street. There are some opportunities for the homeless to earn a meager living, but most are undesirable at best. For example, they have been recruited—at minimum wage—to take part in the government-funded project of cleaning up nuclear radiation in areas affected by the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

Some of the more resilient homeless are surviving, even thriving, in communities of their own. Near the west gate of Yoyogi Park, along a dirt trail that stands out as the one less travelled, is a long-term tent community. Of the 50 or so makeshift houses, most have flimsily constructed wooden roofs and cardboard floors, but all are covered in bright blue tarpaulins. These tents vary in tenure, but one boasted a swinging wooden door flanked by flowering potted plants on iron stands. An old bicycle leaned against the side of the tent, along with three or four buckets of water.

Continuing down the path, the tents get sparser until eventually there are none. But, as the tents disappear, they are replaced by unsheltered homeless men. Some have pieces of cardboard to lie upon, others are lucky enough to have lawn chairs, but most have nothing but three or four sheets of newspaper separating their sleeping bodies from the cold, hard dirt. Some of these men gather around a nearby drinking fountain to chat and wash their clothes and hair, or to fill up buckets and old plastic bottles. They seem cheerful, joking, yawning and laughing as they complete their morning ritual.

My first experience with homelessness in Japan came just after daybreak on the morning after my arrival, on my walk from Ota to Shibuya. The area was very quiet at that time. Men were walking to work, children were walking to school and the elderly were sweeping their front porches. After about ten minutes of strolling through the sleepy neighborhood, I started to notice that there were an awful lot of playgrounds—it seemed that there was one on every block—and two or three men were sleeping at every playground that I passed. Nobody paid them any attention; it was as though they were not there, as though I was the only one who could see them.


The homeless are constantly shuffled from the station to the park, and from the park to the station. If they are sleeping they are woken up; if they do not move they are shouted at until they do. Their crime could be as simple as feeding birds at Yoyogi Park, an act that seems to bring such enjoyment to a few particular individuals. It is obvious that the police do not want them to be seen, especially in areas trafficked by tourists, as the homeless are largely unbothered until a foreigner sits nearby. After several attempts to get rid of the blue-tent communities, the government has seemingly accepted that aspect of the problem, but if someone is sleeping on a bench they are still asked to leave.

I did witness a single act of kindness, however. A few meters away from me on the concrete of Shibuya station an elderly man was struggling to get off the ground. He was clearly homeless and looked to be in a bad state; he was weak and his battered cane was of no use. The Yamanote Line train had just arrived, and a few hundred people passed him in just a couple of minutes. I tried to think of what I could do to help; I know just a handful of words in Japanese. As I decided to walk over and extend my hand, a girl of maybe 16 years interceded. Obviously on her way to school, with her uniform on and her bag in her hand, she was heading for the platform but veered toward the struggling man as soon as she saw him. He wearily held out his hand to her and she warmly grasped it with both of hers. She briefly spoke to him and leaned in closely to hear his reply. After a few seconds, she let go of his hand and jogged toward a vending machine, returning to him soon afterwards with a bottle of water. She gently held his hand once more, helped him to sit and returned his warm smile before running off to catch her train.

Tokyo is two sides of a coin. One side is tailored suits, high fashion, flashy Lamborghinis, and skyscrapers. If you look just a little deeper you can see the somber other side: the prostitutes along Dogenzaka, the homeless at Yoyogi Park, the empty beer cans and sake cups that litter the station as soon as the workday ends. This contrasts deeply with Tokyo’s public image in Western nations: a strong, profitable city with little social disorder.

I am standing on the cold, iron 10th-floor fire escape of a building in Shibuya at around 4 a.m. Unlike at the park, where cheerful waves of music, wildlife and leisure float around like mist, few sounds can be heard in the still air tonight: a taxi passing, the cool night breeze, a car’s horn, the sporadic cracking of hammers on construction sites a block over, and a man coughing on the streets below, huddled in the doorway of a closed shop, smoking his cigarette. It must be a difficult existence down there on the concrete. Just two days ago a typhoon beat down, washing every inch of bitumen and steel with ice-cold water. The winds were ferocious, throwing thousands of bicycles on their sides at apartment complexes, creating hundreds of inside-out umbrellas and dozens of downed branches—and killing 41 people.

There are a surprising number of pedestrians at this late hour. There is a young businessman speed-walking to the station, briefcase in hand, and there is a middle-aged gentleman in a black suit laughing with a girl in a bright dress as they walk arm-in-arm under an umbrella open against nonexistent rain. I saw her here earlier in the night offering massages to passers-by. A black suit passes, and another, and another—nobody looks at the man on the ground.

Red lights run up the border of the nine-floors-high neon sign at my arm. “Karaoke” flashes in blue at its sides, and there is an image of a moon-round cartoon face singing into a microphone in blue and red. The man in the doorway is sleeping upright, his back pressed against the hard door. Incandescent blue and red lights flash onto the side of his face as he rests. He had gone by the time I walked by the next morning, just after sunrise. I went out for air again that night, but he must have found somewhere else to sleep. I hope it was somewhere warmer.

Tired construction workers are alone and silent as they build bigger and better by the cold night. Businessmen are the first to wake in the new day, briskly making their way through the almost empty city. The rest on the streets below are a few lingering drunks or brightly dressed teens with the occasional loud remark. And the forgotten men of Tokyo’s streets—the scavengers, the hungry, the freezing survivors—wade through as well. Long since forgotten by their school clubs and ex-colleagues, forgotten by the bank tellers and convenience-store clerks from another life, forgotten by their government, forgotten by Japan’s fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters, all fast asleep in their beds, they are the endlessly smiling, ever-struggling ghosts of Tokyo city.

Jacob Lynagh is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist who follows political and social issues in the Pacific and Middle East regions. Reprinted from Arena (June/July 2014), a bimonthly Australian magazine of left-leaning political, social, and cultural commentary.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.