Homeless in Japan and still earning a decent salary

By Preston Phro

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.

And while most homeless people probably haven’t “chosen” their life, they’re not all necessarily suffering either. Some homeless men in Japan have a yearly “salary” that is downright respectable.

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.

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 a year. Another man, who’s been homeless for 12 years, told Spa! that he was making over 100,000 yen 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 100,000 yen a month. On top of that, a smartphone found in the trash could be sold for around 7,000 yen. Thrown-away notebook computers have apparently dropped in price though–they were once worth 3,000 yen, but are only worth about 700 yen 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.

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 for qBiz a very different story. While he too makes money collecting cans, one kilogram is worth 110 yen 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 6 a.m. to collect empty beer cans instead.

Sources: Spa!, qBiz, Record China, Shogakukan, Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, Naver Matome

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- Homeless man puts himself up for auction online, receives 600 bids in a matter of minutes -- “You’re taking peeping photos, aren’t you?” Smartphone extortion scam hits hard in Shinjuku -- Genka Bar, where your drinks never cost more than what they’re worth!

© RocketNews24

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The article writer left out the refreshing experience of spending the freezing Japanese winter living in an unheated tent with the real possibility of developing some fatal affliction.........

5 ( +5 / -0 )

In the shopping arcade in the area I used to live in, there were four regular homeless people. Two elderly men seemed to be quite at peace with their lot. However, the two women were mentally ill and quite often distressed. This article misses out the latter group, who fall through any safety net because of the poor mental health provision in Japan.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Ya, no....I don't think I would want to trade my comfortable lifestyle for theirs. I am sure most of them would rather not be in that situation but have had to come to terms with it because of the difficulties of getting out of the situation. Also, I cannot imagine how stressful it must be to constantly be scavaging in hopes to have enough money for a meal, dealing with the extreme temperatures and generally worrying about people who may decide to take away their house or beat them up.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Actually, some people do choose to be homeless for a wide variety of reasons. This does not make life on the streets any easier.

With only about 7,500 homeless in Japan, why is there this fascination with this small group of individuals? There are 19 million people in Japan who live below the poverty line (defined as having a disposable income of less than ¥100,000 per month). Would love to see a story about those people rather than the same, "Hey, did you know they have homeless in Japan?"

2 ( +4 / -2 )

these freeloaders live on the public land for free and pay no income tax. i hope river floods and cleans the lot of them out.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

My wife and I became friends with a former GSDF member who had taken up residence in our local park - by choice, as he had a decent pension. He enjoyed looking after the kids and doing everything his own way. My wife occasionally cooked him meals and he'd sometimes use our bath.

Then, on December morning: Dead. Heart attack. As sakuraia said, being homeless takes a great toll on one's body - even if homelessness is intentional.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

This is a very disturbing article as clearly the writer doesn't have a clue about the topic at hand. There are many homeless women but they aren't living in parks because of safety concerns. To sugest that things aren't that bad for these folks is disgusting. Perhaps the writer would like to live in Tokyo or Osaka in the winter, rainy season or typhoon season?

Charles, if you think homelessness isn't an issue and is anywhere close to the numbers you have given, I suggest you open your eyes. I agree with you about looking at those living under the poverty line - the majority being women but since it is women, who cares, right? Sadly not the media nor the public.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

People often say it is a choice people make; I can assure you that if people have a choice to sleep in a warm bed they all take that choice. The main reason behind all this are that the person does not have the capacity to make the right choice due to some mental illness. Things are a lot more complicated then we all thought.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

how they cope with strong wind, typhoon or heavy rain

0 ( +0 / -0 )

One thing I have noticed homeless man in Japan, most of them do work collecting carton boxes and cans instead of just demanding money as I have seen in other countries, I respect that. Winters might be really hard for them though.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I don't think homelessness is an issue in Japan if you compare numbers (7,500 nationally) and demographics (90% men, average age 57.2 and 60% former day-laborers) with the total number living below the poverty at one in six Japanese (about 19 million).

I first became involved with the homeless in Japan in 1991. At that time there were about 30,000 living on the streets. Even then the number of women was very small. I know how hard life on the streets can be having spent 15 months living in a cardboard box along the Sumida River.

My reaction to this story was based on what I have seen over the last 20 years: foreign journalist comes to Japan, "discovers that even Japan has homeless" and then writes a trite article overlooking the real issue of poverty.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I don't think homelessness is an issue in Japan

Does it matter how bad it is in other countries? For someone who is supposedly involved with these poor folks, you seem to have limited compassion by suggesting the problem isn't an issue. 7500 people without homes IS an issue regardless of what the numbers are like elsewhere.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

Well there is no denying that is an issue, insofar as the issue exists, but 7500/130 million = ~0.6% of the population. So it's not a big issue.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

I disagree with those figures and I 100% disagree that it is not a big issue. Why not try it yourself and see how big of an issue it is?

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

This is a trite article, if it can be called that. Zero research and only anecdotes and personal observations. As long as there are homeless people homelessness is an issue.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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