Bradly Rozairo OMI – When I was studying the Japanese language in Nagoya many years ago, I used to read the magazine “Hiragana Times” which helped me learn the language. Once when I was asked to give a presentation in the class, I chose an article from that magazine titled ‘Homeless in Japan’. This title shocked me because coming from a third world country like Sri Lanka, I imagined Japan quite differently. But that article not only highlighted the poor in Japan but also changed my image of this country.
Homelessness in Japan
Homelessness was largely unknown in Japan until the economic bubble burst in the early 1990s, and unemployment began to rise. The collapse of the economic bubble cast thousands out onto the streets. The majority of the homeless were day laborers or construction workers whose industry was hit hard by Japan’s economic troubles. Since then homelessness has become a major issue of public discussion in Japan and is viewed as a new social problem facing Japanese society.
The society in Japan traditionally places a strong importance on self-reliance. If you fail to maintain economic self-reliance and become homeless, it carries a powerful stigma, and you have to live with it for the rest of your life. This can be one of the reasons why many homeless people do not like to show themselves in public places. They feel ashamed of their situation and hide. Today men over 30, both single and married have become non-owners of property. During the day, they are not seen very much, but late in the evening, they gather in parks, subways, riversides and under expressways. Homeless people are never accepted by society. Due to endless bureaucratic obstacles, it is hard for those on the streets to obtain benefits. Therefore, they rely on NPOs and faith-based volunteer groups for help and support.
What causes homelessness?
Homelessness in Japan increased sharply due to the rise in Unemployment. To the eyes of the public, homeless may look like lazy people, but they are not. They would like to work, but finding a job is not very easy. After the deep recession in 2008, hundreds of thousands of people are facing unemployment and poverty. People who lost their jobs or are without a proper income for their daily living struggle for their survival. Also, the cost of living and rent in the urban areas of Japan is quite high and many are forced into homelessness.
Today in Japan, the “Working Poor” is considered a social problem that leads to homelessness. Some people experiencing homelessness may have a job, but it might be low paying, leaving them unable to afford basic things they need like housing and food. Nowadays Internet and Manga cafes have become homes to these people known as the ‘working poor’ – meaning they work fulltime but still fall below the income levels that make them eligible for Public Assistance for the Poor (生活保護).
Sickness and poor health (physical and mental) condition that has not been treated in the past, makes the homeless vulnerable as they advance in age. For them getting through the cold winter is a big problem and some die in the cold weather.
Family problems can be another cause of homelessness. We all want to be close to our family and go to someone especially when life gets tough. But lack of trustworthy relationships within a family creates problems like divorce or abuse and forces people out of their homes. Sometimes by listening to a few homeless people you learn that they have families they could live with, but they choose not to do so out of shame. These are some causes of homelessness, but there could be others.
Getting to know the society and people
After my language studies, I was assigned to different parishes in Japan. Parish ministry as such is good, and I enjoy working with people in our churches. But according to my experience, it is more an inward-looking ministry. It makes you concentrate mostly on what is happening within a parish structure. If this continues for a long time you can become ignorant of what is happening out in society. Therefore, one day I thought it might be good to take some time away from parish activities and visit a certain facility (a public space) in Itami City, run by the City Hall. I found this a good place to learn about some social issues in Japanese society and also meet people who come here for personal studies and to share their concerns with regard to life and society. One of the things I enjoyed most was the sharing we had twice a month on certain social issues. Many young people are faced with problems like bullying (いじめ), social withdrawal (引きこもり) and suicide, openly shared their experiences. Listening to them made me feel that I was being exposed to the dark side of Japanese society which I did not know. Through my frequent visits, I got to know the person in charge of this facility, who invited me to give a talk on Sri Lanka. I was very happy to speak about my country at a ‘study circle’ and shared information with my friends.
My interest to learn about society led me to Kobe City where I found a Catholic Church and a Catholic Social Action Centre run by the Archdiocese of Osaka. But I must tell you that I never thought that I would live there in the future! In 2014 the pastoral assignment I received brought me to Kobe. I was happy to take residence right next to the Catholic Social Action Centre, where I could see the poor and especially the homeless every day. This gave me an opportunity to get to know the poor and learn about poverty in Japan. Living in Kobe, what I noticed was, that people come to church every day for Mass and then return home, whereas the Catholic Social Action Centre was always open, and you could always see people coming in and going out. This Centre, with the help of some volunteers from different churches in the deanery of Kobe, organizes a feeding program for the homeless three times a week. It also provides materials like clothes, blankets, medical treatment, haircuts, showers and laundry facilities. Every Wednesday in the evening, a group of volunteers come together to visit the homeless. During this visit, they distribute hot soup, rice balls and some portable body warmers. The Centre not only takes care of the homeless but also provides assistance to foreigners and people with alcoholic problems, and support to those with physical and mental disabilities.
I think the environment in which you live, makes a big difference in life. Looking back at my life in Kobe I must say that I was very much enriched by the experience I had with different people especially with the unwanted of society. Since my involvement in the pastoral ministry was more team-oriented, I had two priests with whom I could share the work. This gave me time and energy to go out and to meet the poor with their many faces. Every morning after mass, greeting a few homeless in the vicinity brought me joy and meaning to my prayer life. My involvement in the feeding program as a volunteer and the night visits to see the homeless gave me an opportunity to see where and how they live and relate to them. I could feel that I was becoming conscious of the fact that I belong to a Religious Congregation whose “principal service in the Church is to proclaim Christ and his Kingdom to the most abandoned” (C 5) by connecting oneself with the poor and those that are forced to live on the fringes of society.
For the outside world, Japan may look like a country with a lot of material wealth, and that is true. But one cannot deny the fact that as a country Japan has hidden poverty which is not very much shown to the outside world. In this article, my attempt was to learn about the society and its people. This has helped me in my own little way to highlight just one face of the poor. But there are many other hidden faces that experience a lot of pain, suffering, fear and loneliness. They need care and attention. Japanese society and the government may try to satisfy them by providing material goods and support centers, but more is necessary. Helping the poor with their basic needs is a must, but they also need recognition, acceptance and someone to listen to.
Related PowerPoint: Winter Tent in Kobe brings Hope to the Poor
NB: Official Japanese government data shows the number of homeless people to be at 4,977, but non-profits state the actual number could be twice or three times as much (Japan Times, 2018).