Social and Pastoral BulletinNo. 89Apr. 15, 1999

Yuasa Makoto (Homeless Association)

Shimokawa Masatsugu (Jesuit Seminarian)

There are about 400 homeless people living in Shibuya ward (Tokyo) these days. Their numbers have sharply doubled, as a result of the business slump. Since a few years back, the presence of homeless people in Shibuya railroad station has become quite prominent. I usually go through that station everyday and, though I was aware of their existence I. always, tried to pass by unnoticed. From December 29, at the end of last year, the homeless themselves acted together to confront the hardships at the end of the year and the beginning of the new one. That is the most difficult season for the homeless because of the lack of work and food, and, together, they keep themselves alive. Such a common struggle for existence has continued for many years in towns like Kamagasaki and Sanya, where many daily workers live. When I heard of the homeless winter struggle this year I wholeheartedly decided to commit myself also. One of my main motivations to participate in the winter struggle of the homeless living in Shibuya was occasioned by the impact I received from an article with photos that appeared in the front page of an English speaking newspaper last December 29. The article dealt with the forced eviction of 35 homeless people living by the side of a school in Kamagasaki. About 220 Osaka city officials conducted the forced operation.

In my contacts with the homeless - in Tokyo they call themselves companions - I came to know many things for the first time in my life. For instance, I was not aware that among them there were so many people even younger that myself, and that all of them were so earnestly and seriously struggling to find jobs and to lead more human lives.
I was much surprised, because that was not the public image I had of them. And again, talking of their activities in Shibuya, there is no divisory line between the homeless and their supporters. The homeless, from their side, are becoming more and more self-supported in such a way that, they don't seem to be receiving assistance, but, instead, exploiting their own possibilities, they act as partners to help to build a better society. On top of this, they truly deal respectfully with each other and are careful to accept new comers with respect. For instance, my first experience with them was that when I met them, one "companion", thinking that I was one of them going to pass the night outside in Shibuya for the first time, kindly instructed me how to make with cardboard a place to sleep, and led me around the station so that I could get accustomed to the life of the homeless there. Up to now I have always experienced that persons living in comfort try to do things for the less fortunate, out of compassion and motivated by welfare attitudes, but this was my first experience in Japan of a different style of action and this was totally new to me. The fact that such a movement has originated in Japan at a critical moment when the homeless are so rapidly increasing, gives me the impression of a new light about to emerge in the middle of so many hardships.

I want to offer Mr. Yuasa the opportunity to explain the situation of the homeless in Shibuya and his involvement with them. While I am a late comer, he has been active with the homeless in Shibuya for the last 5 years.
Nojiren" a New Association of Homeless People in Shibuya

"Give Receive","Call for Be invited" are ways to relate with people, although without any hopeful vision. Reflecting seriously on this,"Nojiren" ( Free Association to Secure the lives and the Right of Residence of the Homeless in Shibuya) was established at the end of March 1998. Nojiren was not meant to be for fixing guidelines for groaning action; but because of the urge of change for establishing relationships of companionship among the homeless, something more basic as a premise for action was needed. To put it simply, there is a need to be able to joke with other companions and, according to circumstances, to scold each other. When it comes to a clear division of tasks, like "give - receive" it is not so easy to do. A person who scolds others remains with a bitter aftertaste and the one scolded resents it. When one succeeds in breaking through - to call and to answer back - in building a relationship with the other (the alpha and omega of Nojiren's thinking), doubts still arise. Homeless people are usually oppressed by various forces, like legal and social discrimination, which means that they are already burdened with handicaps. To close one's eyes to such a reality and to dream of an abstract vision of "equal relationship" is by itself an imposition of new oppression. If I want to build a relationship so that I can act at ease with a homeless person, I need to transform the social realities which affect the life of that person; but in order to be able to transform those social realities I, myself, need to take an attitude of acting in concert with such a homeless person. The daily activities of "Nojiren" consist of a process of struggling within such a cycle.

As far as people remain homeless, their problems will not change. The issues they face consist of "bait" and a "site to sleep". Homeless people ordinarily think that they should, at least, have the most basic healthy and cultural life, as promised by the Constitution of Japan, art. 25. It is "food" instead of "bait", and to be able to sleep on a mattress under a roof. They need money to do that, and they must work to earn it, but there is no work available now. "But, what could be done?"... To change such a weak attitude of embarrassment, by hitting at the administration with strong anger: "What are you going to do?," is the main action taken by Nojiren.

There are two main issues involved in the activities of the homeless under the slogan: "what are you going to do?". These are: social security and jobs. Many homeless people supported the high economic growth of Japan with their work in the construction sites. Working under poor working conditions and without proper social insurance they could not afford any savings.
They have already reached their fifties, and left in an environment which does not allow them to save any money, they are about to be totally expelled from the labor market. As a consequence, even if there is some economic recovery, the labor market open to them is limited to a few fields, like street cleaning or working as guards. Again here, due to the high proportion of people of advanced age, such types of work are much sought after. The ability of the labor market to solve the issues of the homeless, even potentially speaking, is practically none. What about social security? The hurdle for going on public relief remains high and the 65 year old mark is a pragmatic functional element. In short, most homeless people are drop outs from a severe labor market and social insurance system. And on top of that they are homeless. "What are they going to do!?"

No magic surprise could be found as a solution to it. The result is that the homeless continue their homeless life; they struggle every day, hauling in very thin threads that lead them to obtain a job and public relief.

Nojiren members back the evil struggles of their companions and by that they have also been able to get some good results. Homeless people are, by their mere presence, constant violators of the law - no matter where they sleep it is always "illegal" - and the only big weapon left to them is the evil-labeled sit-down struggles which produce good results. After all, is it not a historical fact that, universal rights like sacred dignity, were at the beginning wonderful evil struggles?

Action to Meet the Pressing Needs of the Homeless

Let me explain our activities. First, the basis of all our activities is the meeting once a week on Saturdays and the meal together. To this, the patrol activities in Yoyogi park on Fridays, should be added. The homeless gather together on Saturdays to prepare a meal for their companions; they share together information, discuss current events, and go to meet other companions who did not show up for the gathering, scattered around Shibuya town.

On such occasions Nojiren prepares materials and distributes leaflets, and though it also gives away clothing collected and blankets or pocket heaters when it is cold, such distribution activities provide an opportunity to communicate with other companions. This way other homeless start to listen to us and to form a relationship with us so that, all together, we can move towards a self-supported solidarity action. This is only a basis for further action. The distribution of things certainly fulfills an important task for survival that day, but only that will never be enough to open the way to the aspirations of homeless people to leave the streets.

Besides that, the welfare marches on Mondays try to pursue the possibilities of leaving the streets in conformity with each one's situations. On such a day, many of our homeless companions, burdened with various different problems, pay a visit to public welfare offices and seek there solutions to their problems. The sick try to be introduced to hospitals, those unable to work because of sickness or old age try to apply for public relief and job-seekers check the information available in those offices to find a job.

In this way, our homeless companions, confronted with their problems, often run against walls. The ways how welfare officials deal with them is overpowering; they do not pay attention to the homeless. And even when relief is granted, they demand that they receive medical treatment from the streets; those with a job-offer are asked to get their photographs and a seal for the documents to be presented. We, members of Nojiren, help them on the spot, giving them needed information and all kinds of assistance. We have, continually, negotiated with Public Welfare issues concerning the lives of all homeless people. This is, really, a simple way of action with the characteristic that when one thinks that a problem has finally been solved, one finds out that the next one is waiting ahead.
Think, for instance, of how to help people find a job. Up to last year, public welfare offices in Shibuya did not move a finger on this, although they publicly claimed that, "we do not spare efforts to assist in job seeking." As a first step, we made them place in their offices leaflets for job-offers inserted in the newspapers. Then, we made them lend telephone cards for calling companies to apply for a job. The next step was to make them prepare the application documents and the cost of photos and seals, once the interviews had been fixed. We are now negotiating the transport costs to the places of interviews and how much assistance can they receive, before their first salary is paid, depending on the basis of weekly or monthly salaries.

Proceeding by simple stages, all we get are tiny results. But in case that one small stage in the whole process falls off on the way, the homeless will never be able to get a job nor to break away from the streets. There is no practical or magic remedy at hand.

Evictions From Public Places Have Empowered the Homeless

Apart from such simple but desperate action of homeless people, the administration conducts sometimes senseless and unreasonable evictions of the homeless. Their thinking is always the same: "Those places are public for everybody. Neighbors have complained." Last December Shibuya ward, based on such a way of thinking, started public works around the Children's Hall, with a clear purpose of eviction of the homeless there.

But, if there is any other place to go people will do it. Since there is no place to go, the homeless select public places, because that way they do not disturb people so much. About 6 years ago UN's Human Rights Commission (1993/77) approved the decision that, the problems of homeless people are not the result of their own responsibility, but it is the countries that produce such a social situation are the ones responsible for it and the ones that should remedy it. Japan has also agreed to it. People may say that such a decision is nothing but a scrap of paper. Nevertheless, we can not agree with a move to retreat from results snatched away by the action of many people from all over the world.

And yet, we have now to give even thanks to Shibuya's Children Hall for the public works conducted to evict us. In other words, the group camping around the Children's Hall that was started as a free expression of protest of the homeless against evictions has already produced real results in Shibuya that have, by far, exceeded normal protests and, needless to say, the blocking of eviction.

The group camping changed our homeless companions. Situations in which a few homeless people have to carry all the burden for many works disappear and each one, personally, took by himself the tasks s/he could bear. Right now, the homeless manage all by themselves, from the establishment of the encamp to clearing it away. Communication among the homeless flows smoothly now, and one of our slogans, "the life of our companions should be protected by all together" is about to become a natural reality in their daily activities. The fact that, strong links among our companions are producing real effects, builds up confidence and, as a result, the activities of Nojiren, in quality as well as in quantity, are widely extended. At present, lots of homeless companions participate in our meetings, so many that our narrow office can not accommodate all.
As a result of our group camping, Nojiren was able, last winter, to transform its most important pending problems into the most effective results so far. The evil fighting produced fruitful results.

Nojiren has started its second year of activities on the basis of the results of the group camp. The issues of homeless people continue to intensify to a serious extent every year. There is no visible change in a situation in which there appears to be more issues coming up that possible solutions. On the other hand, the direction taken by Nojiren, trying to act in concert with the homeless, though simple is producing clear results.

The awareness that the stage has arrived to think seriously and concretely of measures to breakaway from a homeless type of life is already starting to obtain social recognition. Some people have, realistically, started to offer the homeless chances of jobs, instead of material goods. Even from homeless companions one can start to hear courageous opinions on ways to create jobs, at meetings held by Nojiren.

Without stopping at job seeking, Nojiren should, itself, look ahead for creating jobs. Without stopping at seeking public life relief, Nojiren must look ahead for shelters. At Nojiren these days lots of dream stories are swirling around, from realistic and concrete action plans to lucky dreams, in preparation for a scheme for action in its second year of existence.

Nevertheless, Nojiren is a small organization proceeding ahead with still uncertain steps. Confronted by financial difficulties, the things we can do by ourselves are very limited indeed. This is why we are, at all times, expecting people, no matter how few, to relate with us in ways that fit each other. This is, of course, true of all readers of this clumsy article of mine. It is so that in the midst of misfortune our evil struggling can produce wonderful fruits.

[Homeless Association "NOJIREN"]
Peter Masatsugu Shimokawa