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The plight of Japan's homeless

Homelessness hit Japan hard during the recession of the early 1990s - and it's on the rise again now. Critics say the government needs to do more.

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Japan is one of the world's richest and most industrialised nations. Yet below the gleaming high rise buildings and state-of-the-art luxury hotels lives a community that's been bypassed by the vast opportunities of wealth: the homeless.

 

In a culture that prides itself on honour and Confucian values, the authorities are struggling to deal with the needs of the desperate. In Tokyo alone, some 2,600 people are now officially listed as homeless - although charities say the number is more likely to be two to three times that figure.

Yosuke Tanaka sleeps on the street. Every night he builds a shelter from cardboard, at the foot of one of the buildings in Shinjuku. He takes it apart and stows it away again every morning to avoid being expelled by the security guards at his building. But they are not his only fear: there are also attacks by young people.

Tokyo’s government offers emergency beds during the two coldest weeks of the year. On Dec. 24, 68 people came to register but only 25 beds were available. The selection method might be surprising: it is by drawing lots.

There are also centres which provide 800 beds for a one to five month stay, and a few emergency beds. But that is for the whole of Tokyo.

Due to the lack of beds, some homeless people have pitched their tents in a public park in downtown Tokyo. Their blue tents have become one of the symbols of Japan’s homeless population. After the economic crisis of the late 90s, Tokyo’s parks were packed with hundreds of them.

Nowadays, the tents have become scarce. The capital’s residents pressured the local authorities to clear the tents from public areas. In 2004, Tokyo’s government started a reinsertion policy. The idea was to provide the tents’ occupants with an apartment for two years, for only 20 euros a month.

But they were not necessarily tempted by the offer. Nishi-san, one homesless man, told France 24: "The fact that one can only stay in those apartments for two years would only make life harder for me when I had to go back out on the streets because I would not get permission to rebuild my blue tent."

The goal of the policy is actually to get people off the street for good. With a stable address, former homeless people have a better chance of finding a job and saving money: 1,800 people have benefited from the programme.

 

The official figure of 2,600 is almost half the number in 2004. The local authorities claim it is a success but community organisations say the figure isn't accurate and more than 2,000 haven't been included in the official statistics. Their number will no doubt increase dramatically, as the ongoing economic crisis is already pushing more people onto the streets.

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