Does Japan Have Homeless People? — Hidden In Plain Sight

by Charlie Horner
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Whether it’s your first visit or your fiftieth, you’ll undoubtedly take note of the differences between Japan and your own home country, whether they be positive or negative. Something that many people notice is the lack of homeless people and panhandlers in Japan’s major cities.

Does this mean that Japan has solved the issue of homelessness? Unfortunately not – homelessness is a problem in Japan just as it is in every other country. True the problem in Japan is less pronounced, since their rate of homelessness is lower than almost every other country in the world, but that doesn’t mean that homelessness does not exist. Homeless people in Japan have a very different attitude to their own situation than many others in the world, and it’s unlikely you’ll be approached by them during your visit. What makes a Japanese person’s experience of homelessness different to others’ around the world?

We’re going to discuss where the rumors of Japan having no homeless people come from, what it’s like to be a homeless person in Japan, and why you’re unlikely to see them as a tourist.

Yes, there are homeless people in Japan

Despite rumors and tourist tales suggesting the exact opposite, Japan does indeed have a community of homeless people, particularly in the major cities. It’s small, but it’s there. In 2018, it was reported that Japan had 4977 homeless people, a mere 0.004% of the population.

Currently, Japan has the lowest number of homeless people per 100’000 than any other country barring Jordan and Liechtenstein, who both have zero homeless people (although different countries use different definitions of homelessness, so it’s difficult to compare figures of different countries. For this article, we’re going to assume the figures shared by each country’s government are correct, and that homelessness by its definition is not having a home of your own to stay in).

Japan’s figures are impressive when you consider that in 2001 their government reported that there were around 25’000 people were homeless in Japan, showing they’ve made significant efforts to bring those figures down. Unlike many other nations, Japan’s homeless population is not a particularly diverse group, with 93% being male, and the average age being 57 years old.

Despite the figure being so low compared to the population, many would still expect to see homeless people around Tokyo as they ask for money or food, but it’s a rare sight to see. And of course, out of sight, out of mind, which is why many people assume that they don’t exist at all.

Why don’t you see homeless people in Japan?

The answer to that question can probably be attributed to two things: Japan’s attitude towards living in a society, and the individual pride and ethos of Japanese people. First, societal living. I’ve mentioned it before in other articles so for more info check out this article, but Japanese people place high value on “the community” as opposed to “the individual”.

When in public especially, Japanese people believe that all actions should put the good of the collective first, as opposed to the good of the individual. It’s one of the reasons why Japanese trains are so peaceful, why the city’s streets are mostly free of litter, and why children don’t misbehave on their way home from school. It’s not that surprising, then, that even people who live on the streets feel an innate desire to keep them clean, and crime free.

Homeless people in Japan are conscientious

It goes even further than just keeping things clean – homeless people in Japan’s cities actually clear and move their makeshift homes on a nightly basis. In Tokyo, for example, there’s an entire homeless community that at one point lived in a cardboard village, in makeshift “box tents” that they set up at night between Shinjuku station and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.

The cardboard homes were and are complex, but easy enough to take apart every night and put to one side, which is what the homeless community do, so as not to be a burden to commuters. In the early 90s, there were huge clashes between government authorities and this cardboard community. It still stands today, if a little smaller. The Japanese commuters are unfazed by this, but to somebody who’s grown up in a country where homelessness is a much more prominent issue, I’m amazed.

Homelessness is such a huge problem in my country that it impacts everyone in many different ways, with litter, crime, and addiction being some of the most visible. I’m not saying that homeless people should be hidden away so we can forget about the problem, and clearly there are systematic inequalities that must be addressed to tackle homelessness in a meaningful way. But, the conscientiousness of Japan’s homeless community certainly is something to be admired. Even when their circumstances are tough, they’re conscious of their impact on the city and its inhabitants. There’s more than one reason for this.

Pride plays a part

As I mentioned earlier, the vast majority of homeless people in Japan are men in their 40s and 50s, and pride plays a part in how they conduct themselves. These men are often outcasts from society, which is both difficult and easy to become in Japan. Being a very conformist society, anyone who struggles to fit into a particular mold for their gender and “class” is considered to be something of an outcast. There isn’t much movement between social groups, so it’s easy to slip out of society quickly if you don’t have one of your own.

In a society where so much value is placed on self-reliance, being homeless comes with a really specific type of stigma, and homeless people tend to feel ashamed of their circumstances, hiding away from everyone. They stay under bridges, or in parks at night, and some try their best to “look normal” so they can blend in with others through the day.

There was an assumption among the majority of Japanese people for a long time that the homeless community was just unwilling to work, but many state that they simply struggled to get back into the system once hardships had forced them out. With the burden of a bad reputation and the Japanese ideal of self-reliance on their shoulders, Japan’s homeless refuse to be a burden on other people, which is why you’ll rarely see them begging or panhandling.

Why don’t homeless people in Japan ask for money?

I’ve touched on the reasons a little, but it’s worth discussing this because it’s so notable to tourists when they visit Japan. In decades past, it would almost be impossible to see somebody begging or even just asking for money from passers-by because they would rarely ask for handouts (for the reasons mentioned above). It was theorized by some that this was in opposition to the generous Japanese gift-giving nature and that Japanese people are primed for generous giving.

But astonishingly this is not the case. A recent article in the Japan Times stated that “in Japanese society, there isn’t a culture of compassion for homeless people. Now and again you will see some homeless people begging, but they won’t get any money”. Many people are surprised by this, but really it’s in line with the Japanese culture of being a burden to no one, and the belief that homelessness is shameful. In fact, the shame associated with being homeless means that some people don’t even choose to accept the help that’s offered.

Does the Japanese government help homeless people?

The short answer is yes, the Japanese government does have systems in place to help homeless people. Those systems have been effective in reducing the homeless population by more than have in the past decade, which is more than can be said for many other governmental programs. But, there’s a stipulation within these Japanese social programs that deters many from applying.

To apply for welfare and be successful in Japan, the government first checks to see if you have any other means of support, including family. If you do, they’ll contact your family members to look after you, which will obviously alert them to the fact that you’re homeless. Many Japanese homeless are embarrassed by their living status and do not want their families to find out about it, much less be a burden to them. To save themselves the “shame”, they simply don’t apply. (Please let me make it clear that that’s a societal and familial shame, and not the feelings of this writer).

If they do manage to overcome this obstacle and are eligible for welfare, they are often placed into shared housing facilities which come with their own set of problems. Living within a society is often what these people find difficult in the first place, so suddenly being thrust into a place where they have to conform to those norms again can be incredibly difficult. Day-to-day living in Japan is very regimented and people who struggled to comply in the first place are likely to face difficulty again after some time being homeless.

Many homeless people circumvent these difficulties entirely by utilizing a popular Japanese type of store to stay warm, which has led many to wonder about the next question.

What are the cyber-homeless?

Cyber-homeless (saibaa houmuresu), also known as net café refugees (netto kafe nanmin), are people who are homeless, and either unemployed or working in low-paying jobs and don’t make enough money to rent an apartment – these people spend their nights in 24-hour cyber cafés. In these establishments, people are able to pay around $10-20 for the night for a small cubicle equipped with a computer, internet, and access to manga (which is why they’re also known as manga cafes). Those who do have low-paying jobs get dressed in the mornings and head to work in the hope that nobody will be any the wiser.

This is another aspect of homelessness that isn’t really addressed in the figures provided by the Japanese government. Many of these “cyber-homeless” wouldn’t like to class themselves as homeless, and most likely won’t be counted as such when government officials survey the homeless in the mornings. But, technically they are of course without permanent residence, unable to afford their own apartments. Since they are able to feed and clothe themselves, they are largely ignored by most of society. And of course, any who wish to improve their circumstances through welfare options would have the same “embarrassing” challenges mentioned above.

Figures suggest there could be around 4000 people living like this in Japan. While these saibaa houmuresu are certainly better off than those not able to hold down a job for varying reasons, inevitably sleeping on the streets, it’s still a growing concern for many charitable and caring people in Japan.

Why Are Many Homeless People in Japan over 50 and male?

The distribution of wealth in Japan is much more even than in other countries, with almost 90% of the country considered middle class (compared to 50% in the United States, and 59% in the United Kingdom), which is a contributing factor to low levels of homelessness in comparison with other countries. But as with any country, societal structure and expectations factor into the level and type of poverty experienced by the population.

In Japan it’s expected that the man be the breadwinner of the family, and despite the fact that more women have entered the workplace than ever before worldwide, Japan still holds this traditional family structure close to their hearts, particularly in larger companies. In fact, there’s still an underlying belief that a man with a wife and child(ren) is a much more desirable hire than a man without because he will feel more pressure and drive to provide for his family.

This means that single men over the age of 35 have real difficulty finding stable employment in Japan. Single women are much more likely to have familial support, whereas men are expected to care for themselves and not depend on anyone else. This creates a real culture of shame for men who have struggled to fit into what most would consider a very rigid social box and makes it very difficult for them to ask for help.

An end to homelessness isn’t the end of the problem

For those that are able to utilize the welfare of familial help to escape the cycle of homelessness, there are still problems that are widely ignored in Japanese society. One such problem is the loneliness of having no support network. As I mentioned before, there’s not much social flexibility in Japan. Many who do manage to get their own place face severe isolation and loneliness, especially if people around them know they have been homeless because it’s assumed they have some kind of anti-social problem that led to their homelessness in the first place.

Some charities aim to address this problem head on, and provide support to people who are no longer homeless.

Are there homeless charities in Japan?

The prevailing belief that people should be able to take care of themselves could lead you to assume that there’s nobody caring for these vulnerable individuals, but there are several charities and generous individuals that provide food and necessary items to those living on the streets.

One such group is known as Tokyo Spring Homeless Patrol, and they receive donations of tinned food, clothes, and other supplies, and then distribute them to the homeless people living in Tokyo. From what I can gather they really are an altruistic group of people hoping to help people in need, so if you’re in Tokyo and would like to help, check out their Facebook page. Another charity that supports the homeless community even after they’ve found more stable accommodation is Sanyukai Nonprofit organization. They offer a free clinic, an outreach program, and a social center. Find out more about them here.

Regardless of the causes of homelessness, there’s no doubt that it’s an issue that should speak to all of us. Hopefully, this article will move you to do what you can while in Japan or even in your home country, regardless of how much or little that might be. While we are NOT advocating that you approach or seek out homeless people in Japan, who may be experiencing issues with mental health, or may just feel ashamed to be sought out, it’s definitely worth getting in touch with some of the organisations above to see what you can do.

Do you know of any charities working with homeless people in Japan? Let us know in the comments!

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