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Life sans dignity


Part of a community that rebuilt the nation after World War II, Japan's homeless face a sad plight. Though the Government is trying to redeem the situation, the worsening economy may increase unemployment and hence the number of homeless.

Homeless at a park in Tokyo.

IT was a bitterly cold night on the outskirts of Tokyo. Four hundred men had queued up to pick their bowl of hot soup and some bread. Some also collected old clothes, and about 10 got blankets.

This is a ritual that the Food Bank organises for the rising number of Japan's homeless, who, despite living in one of the world's richest countries, sleep on scraps of cardboard, searching for shelter at night and sunshine during the day to keep warm, and rummaging in dustbins in the hope of finding that morsel which will pacify their rumbling stomach.

Some manage to put up blue tarpaulin tents in parks or along river banks, only to be chased away by the police. But the authorities usually look the other way when they see a patch of blue.

With virtually no address, social welfare or links to Japan's frighteningly frustrating homogeneous social structure, the homeless are painful reminders of an economy gone wrong. Called Nojuku — people sleeping in the open air — they are usually part of the fabled salary men whose loyalty to their company, hard work, military precision and discipline pushed the nation from being one of the world's poorest at the end of the war to being one of the wealthiest in the 1980s.

With the State economy in decline for over a decade, many salary men were shown the door, because their firms found that they could hire young blood at relatively low wages. Many establishments had to pull down their shutters.

Sadly, most of the homeless are able-bodied men, highly skilled and capable of working for years. While some lost their jobs through the corporate restructuring, others found themselves on the streets when the day labour market shrunk in the face of a depressed construction industry.

Charles E. McJilton, a co-representative of the Food Bank, points to a Tokyo area to emphasise how it once used to be hustling with day workers. Today, it is desolate with most of those men slipping into a pathetic homeless existence, having completely lost hope of finding a job.

With Japan's unemployment at a record post-war high of 5.5 per cent — for men it is 5.8 per cent and for women it is around 4.9 per cent — the number of homeless has doubled in the past five years. The Government says there are 24,000 such people, concentrated in Osaka, Tokyo and Nagoya, in that order. Osaka has the largest number of them; the city also has the dubious distinction of being Japan's crime capital.

McJilton feels that there could be many more homeless than just 24,000. Apart from such whitewashing of statistics, what he finds unpardonable is the administration's failure to address a problem that it knew was coming. It has certainly not provided the pension benefits to deal with this.

When the economic bubble burst in the early 1990s, the first to be hit was the construction business, and with it hundreds of labourers. Many of them had helped build, literally brick by brick, cities and towns. They laid the foundations to rebuild a great country flattened in the war half a century ago. Ironically, they are the ones with no roof over their head.

Their plight appears all the more tragic, because most of these men may be single but have children or close relatives. In most cases, sons and daughters avoid their fathers primarily because of the additional financial implication involved in taking care of an unemployed man.

But in a society like Japan's where the social stigma that accompanies unemployment is so deep-rooted, homeless men are ashamed of getting back into the mainstream of life. They would prefer to remain incognito rather than re-forge their relationships.

The homeless are invariably men. Women are still not expected to earn a living, and they usually find shelter in exchange for keeping a home. It can be the home of even their children. But men are expected to bring in money and when they fail to do so, they are treated as social outcasts.

A few voluntary associations have been fighting for the rights of the homeless and their need for dignity. An elderly man, once a corporate president but now a homeless citizen, laments his state: "We have been stripped of our shelter and a decent life, and condemned to live on the streets as the wretched of the earth."

The Government plans to build shelters for these people. But a worsening economy could push the number of unemployed up, and hence the number of homeless, and the administration may find it tough to accommodate everyone.

The only reasonable solution to this problem appears to be in educating the people to have greater empathy for those who might have fallen by the wayside.

An unusual camaraderie already exists among the homeless. They take care of one another. They help each other find work. They look after their neighbour's belongings. If only such empathy were to be shown by the larger community, Japan's homeless may not feel as unhappy and unwanted as they do now.

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