When we picture homeless people, the images that usually come to mind aren’t exactly pleasant. While the social stigma of homelessness is brutal to say the least, the fact remains that being homeless is not something most people would choose for themselves.
If you’ve traveled around Japan’s major cities like Osaka or Tokyo enough, you’ve likely seen blue tarps in parks or under bridges, set up like the blanket forts we used to make as children. If no one ever told you what they were, you might have thought they were simply places for workers to store their tools, but they’re actually the homes–built and lived in by the country’s homeless population.
As you might have guessed, homelessness in Japan is not quite what it’s like in other countries. For example, over the six total years I’ve spent in Japan I’ve only been asked for change a grand total of…one time. Quite a bit less than when I lived in San Francisco.
On the other hand, the demographics of homeless people in Japan seem to be quite a bit different from the City by the Bay. In San Francisco, the homeless population is a varied mixture of men and women of all ages–many suffering from mental illness.
▼A homeless community in Japan
In Japan–or at least in Tokyo–however, most homeless people are middle-aged or older men. One article even suggests that many of these men were once white-collar workers or had been company owners–people we’d consider successful. For whatever reason, many of these men eventually chose a life outside the system. As one older gentlemen told a reporter for Record China, “After spending a year as a homeless person, people don’t want to go back to work. It’s because living life without an alarm clock is a blessing.”
But just because they’re not working regular jobs doesn’t mean they aren’t earning an income. In fact one 60-year-old homeless man known as Ishii, who has lived on the streets for 13 years, told a reporter from Spa!, a Japanese magazine, that he made around three million yen (roughly US$30,000) a year. Another man, who’s been homeless for 12 years, told Spa! that he was making over 100,000 yen (around $1,000) a month.
How were they able to do this without having “real” jobs? Trash collection and reselling.
For example, scavenging aluminum cans and metal from electrical plugs six days a week would garner enough metal to earn about $1,000 a month. On top of that, a smartphone found in the trash could be sold for around 7,000 yen (about $70). Thrown-away notebook computers have apparently dropped in price though–they were once worth 3,000 yen (roughly $30), but are only worth about 700 yen ($7) now that support of Windows XP has ended. Others collect magazines, books, and comics left on the morning train to sell outside train stations at night–which the police, fortunately, turn a blind eye too.
Still, some homeless people are able to live relatively comfortably. For example, one of the gentlemen interviewed by Spa! said that he spends most of his money on food and cigarettes. He avoids beef, alcohol, convenience store food, and fast food–because they’re unhealthy–preferring instead to dine on pork, chicken and vegetables. Which means he’s probably healthier than I am (except the smoking)!
Besides food and the blue tarp tents, the homeless of Tokyo can make a pretty good life for themselves with found objects. For example, old car batteries can be used to power electric appliances, rain water can be saved in tanks, and pets can be kept far more easily than in a regular apartment. After all, there’s no landlord to complain about scratched floors! Some have even rigged together power generators. One homeless man named Choumei lives in a riverbed on the border of Kanawaga and Tokyo and simply farms his own vegetables and fruit.
Of course, that’s in Tokyo. As can be expected, these aren’t necessarily the experiences of every homeless person in Japan. A 65-year-old man in Fukuoka gave a reporter forqBiz a very different story. While he too makes money collecting cans, one kilogram is worth 110 yen (about $1.10) and he can only collect about 10 kilograms a day. Some days he can’t even collect that much due to the recent appearance of trucks (allegedly operated by the yakuza) going around at night picking up cans. The city has also apparently enacted laws against collecting cans–and starting next month, violators will be fined.
And things may be about to get worse for the homeless of Tokyo as well. In an attempt to “beautify” Tokyo ahead of the arrival of the International Olympic Committee in 2013, certain parks posted signs telling homeless people to move their tarp tents–or the structures would be destroyed. Now that Tokyo’s bid has been secured, we expect that “beautification” efforts will only increase, though the exact results–and the effects on the some 2,300 homeless people in Tokyo (8,933 nationwide in 2012)–remain to be seen.
So, next time you’re cursing your alarm clock, just remember: You could be getting up at six am to collect empty beer cans instead.