Kakusa Shakai

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ホームレス © Stewart Weir 2002

Over 90% of Japanese people are considered middle class. With an estimated 5,000 people homeless and living in the parks of Tokyo tourists are more than a little surprised to see a problem that the local’s often ignore and the international press rarely talk about. Homelessness is endemic through the first, second and third world’s its as simple as that. Japanese courts have defended homeless rights on several occasions with courts ruling that homeless tents on public land can’t be arbitrarily dismantled by police. Police must follow the same due process as an eviction from a regular rental apartment.

The vast majority of Japanese homeless are men over the age of 40 in part because there’s a fair amount of age discrimination in Japan’s labour market. As in other countries, some Japanese homeless have mental health or alcohol problems. A homeless man sifting rubbish bins near Tokyo’s Ueno Park, “there was all the thrown away fast food a man could eat. Sashimi and tuna heads too. Now,” he sighs, “it’s nothing but garbage.”

That’s only to be expected with food prices rising and ecological awareness growing, fast food outlets and convenience stores are throwing away less, shrinking a key food source for the homeless. In addition to the homeless there are a considerable number of Japanese teenagers who are living on the edge, sleeping in internet cafes and working temporary or part-time jobs.  It’s in the culture to feel ashamed in front of their families, and prefer to live on their own rather than depending on their relatives’ money.

The true number of homeless in Tokyo alone is impossible to say, but there are a lot. Not as many as some cities, of course, but probably more than many people would imagine. “Kakusa shakai”, the widening gap between rich and poor is as apparent among the homeless as among those with fixed addresses. In short, relatively speaking there are rich homeless and poor homeless.

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