Iwata Tetsuo

The numbers of street people (homeless) in Japan are more than 20,000 these days. Their rapid increase is due to a series of factors, like unemployment created by restructuring measures, bankruptcies occasioned by swamping business slumps and the unstable working market of construction workers. Sanya and Kamagasaki daily laborers' towns were formerly the most affected, but recently people obliged to live in the street are inevitably seen in public parks and by the rivers, inside the railroad stations and between the tall buildings of the cities. They are evicted by the administration authorities, exposed to attacks from youngsters and have to live poorly under social discrimination.

Easter of Year 2000

Our group called "Onigiri Companions of Yotsuya" started with 5 volunteers of St. Ignatius Kojimachi Catholic Church during Easter of the year 2000. We began to patrol the streets near Yotsuya and Ichigaya looking for the homeless. One in the group, a young student of Sophia University, invited us to try to do something for homeless people living near the Church. That was the start of our activities. Practically nobody had any experience on this and only I had in the past helped at the "Yamasato no Ie" in Sanya town. We made a timid start after receiving some guidance from older volunteer groups, like "Nojiren" in Shibuya and the "Shinjuku Networking". At the beginning we cooked the boiling rice (onigiri) at our homes and distributed it, but just before summer started we had to think about hygienic measures. The Church, sympathetic to our activities, provided us the use of a pantry room where we were able to prepare the food and, as a result, several people volunteered to cooperate, so that a new group was born to cook the rice.

Last year (24 June), a group of homeless left Shibuya for Okinawa where the Summit of industrial countries was to take place and on their way met with many groups of homeless people. The object was to get in direct contact with the homeless and groups of people helping them, in order to establish a national wide network.

I went that afternoon to the Miyashita Park in Shibuya, near the Children's Public Center to help in the distribution of the soup kitchen. All I could do was to wash pans, but the medley soup was quite delicious. The meeting started at 7:00 PM with an appeal from the Shibuya homeless going to Okinawa and the greetings of those who came from Kamagasaki (Osaka) and other parts of Tokyo ready to start their pilgrimage with their homeless companions. Finally, at around 8:30 PM the group moved towards Oomori to have their first stop that night at the Peace Forest public park. Besides a first group that left by car and train, nine of us, myself included, started our walk pilgrimage led by the leader, "the Captain", as everybody likes to call Mr. K. The leader of the first stage of the pilgrimage was Mr. Y, who was accompanying us till Nagoya where he will work on a farm. Mr. Y told me that there is a farm in Nagoya that provides free rice to the homeless and he wanted to thank personally that family. Mr. Y is a very warm person.

>From Shibuya we took the Yamate Street and went to Meguro, Gotanda, Oosaki and Shinagawa. We entered the Daiichi Heikin and when we arrived at Oomori it was 1:00 AM. The companions of the first group came to meet us together with the homeless of Oota. They had prepared some food and all of us introduced each other, sharing our experiences. The companions of Yotsuya had the opportunity of getting somehow acquainted with other support groups from Shibuya, Oota and Kamagasaki's Osaka. That night I stayed with them and left in the early morning to work. That was my first experience as homeless.

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Do you know about pieces of wood nailed to the upper part of a bench to deter people from lying down? I was not aware of that. There is a small hill by the side of Sophia University with several public benches that homeless people often use for sleep. The park department of Chiyoda ward nailed thick rectangular wood pieces at the center of the benches so that people could not lie down.


There was no doubt that, since the Summit was near and the VIP Guest House is quite close by, the aim was to expel the homeless from the place. I looked for the home page of Chiyoda ward and sent them the following message: "the reforms done to the public benches are a violation of human rights. Please, remove them". The answer I received was, "Salary men and students have priority to eat their lunch there and for people walking through the place to rest on the benches".

This event opened my eyes to a bigger issue: People who are at the bottom of society have practically no rights and when others want to take the sides of such powerless people they must confront the power of the administration authorities. As a result, I decided to appeal about the importance of preserving the human rights of the homeless, by working for the removal of the obstacles built in the benches.

Formerly, when I was patrolling the streets of Yotsuya I met some homeless people in the Park of Hibiya. According to rumors, the homeless in Hibiya are on the increase, in spite of the fact that there are no active support groups there. I, personally, began to visit them and was begging to extend the area of action of the friends distributing onigiri in Yotsuya.

Then, on November 18, last year, I got to begin a study of the situation and the needs at Hibiya Park, first. 16 persons agreed to participate in such study.

One of our questions was "Please, tell us which are your needs and what is the most painful for you living as a homeless person?" All the answers concentrated on food and many mentioned rain and loneliness. This was a shock that cut all of us to the heart. They also fervently wanted to have a job. Many of them were over 65 years old and to our questions regarding welfare help all of them practically answered that the matter was too troublesome. Our impression was that they were not in favor of welfare official support.

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The results of our study did not immediately lead us to start patrolling activities. We wanted to deepen our understanding of the issue by meeting together several times. At the end of the year some of us joined a volunteer group that was patrolling the surroundings of Tokyo railroad station. The homeless there were of high age, few of them were living under tents and there was no regular support group attending them, so that food and information about welfare services were not available to them. They remain in the Tokyo Station building and in the Tokyo Forum till midnight when the buildings are closed, then in order to endure the cold they walk solely down the streets towards Ginza looking for remains of food. At around 4:00 AM when the station buildings are open they return to the station to sleep outside there, till shops start business at 9:00 AM. During daytime they go to the public library or wander around Hibiya Park sleeping on the benches there. Watching this I decided to extend the area of my activities from Hibiya to Tokyo station.

On the occasion of doing patrol activities also around Tokyo station during the end of the year, I decided to force further the area of action. Many, among the group doing patrol and the other one cooking the food, thought that the time was not ripe to enlarge the area of activities. Nevertheless, I think that it was a fact that if we missed this opportunity, we could never extend our area of action to Hibiya, Yurakucho and Tokyo stations.

On March 31 this year we met a 73-year old homeless outside the Concert Hall at Hibiya Park who had been there without any food for a whole week. Lying on the soil and all wet because of the rain, he was waiting for us. He was so debilitated that we called for an ambulance that brought him to a hospital in Adachi ward. After a whole day of negotiation with the hospital and although he was unable to move by himself, the next day the hospital forced him to leave the hospital, because there was nothing wrong with him. The following is the content of our negotiation and the exchanges we had with the authorities of the hospital.

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"We understand that this person is pitiable, but if an ordinary patient comes here we do not have any other bed available". By the way, when we asked, "what do you mean by an ordinary patient?" the answer was, "of course, a patient that is not a homeless". This is very severe language. This incident offered us the occasion to think seriously on supporting welfare action for the homeless.

I have a full time job and cannot freely move at daytime, but I decided to visit the homeless interned in the hospital or staying in prefabricated cheap lodgings. Recently, it is a matter of joy that the numbers of volunteers cooperating to support the activities concerning the hospitalization of homeless people, the writing of needed papers for getting welfare aid or for applying to enter the rehabilitation centers are increasing.

I was at work one day when I received a phone call from a group supporting welfare activities for the homeless. They asked me whether I agree to be a guarantor of Mr. H, a 77-year old homeless who had the possibility of receiving welfare aid and renting an apartment. There was a need of having a guarantor and they could not find any. At that moment I did not know what to do. "Suppose that I accept on the spot now, but what about the risks involved?" At the same time I felt that the issue was about a real involvement in the problems of homeless people. I gave my consent. I knew that last May 19, "Moyai", a support center to assist the homeless to be self-sufficient had been established with the main task to look for guarantors.

The owner of the first apartment refused to accept Mr. H, in spite of a guarantor, because he was very advanced in age. After searching further an apartment could be rented. I became his guarantor and, after signing the contract, he finally could rent a place under a roof. Although he lives alone he has a tatami room to rest. The "Moyai" support center takes the responsibility to help me in case financial or legal problems should arise, as a result of being a guarantor.

Let me end sharing some experiences of the last year. When people get involved in activities related to medical or welfare fields concerning persons who are despised by others or discriminated against, the thought of giving oneself to them arises. On one hand we realize that there is not much one can do. Maybe one is able to pay a visit to the homeless once a week and bring some onigiri, but during the whole week they must look for themselves. In reality, society despises them and disdains them because they are dirty, but if, even one out of ten, comes to think that somebody takes interest in them and if, furthermore and as a result of that, they begin a self-sufficient life, it is a matter of joy.

When a few days ago I went to Hibiya Park I met with Mr. N, a homeless living there for near 30 years. He said to me, "I like the onigiri you always bring, but what gives me joy is that you come to meet with me once every week". Upon listening to him I felt happy and was encouraged. From now on, I can not do much for them, but I decided that I want to continue considering important to be near them.

At this moment, my heart is caught between a total dedication to them and a softer involvement.

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Thanks to the distribution of onigiri a new type of community has been born. The members consist of homeless people, catholic lay, Brothers and Sisters, students, nurses, medical doctors and all those who prepare the food and distribute it. This is a special blessing.

* Cooking the Food
People use the pantry of the Church to cook the rice (From May to September, 56 pieces each time, and from October to April, about 200). They also prepare tea that they bring to the homeless. This is done every Saturday afternoon from May to October.

* Onigiri Newsletter
The Newsletter (250 copies a week) gives detailed information to the homeless regarding distribution of food, centers for self-support, special lodging during winter time, welfare aid and other important information regarding public offices and free-of-charge public baths
* Visits to the Homeless
We go to Yotsuya, Ichigaya, Hibiya Park, Yurakucho and Tokyo stations bringing with us onigiris, tea and the Newsletters for the homeless. We listen to them and make sure of their safety and health. We advise the sick and the old to call on Welfare public offices. In wintertime we distribute medicines against cold and body warmers. We collect blankets and underwear to distribute them any time, but especially when the seasons change. Every Saturday evening we gather at the Church and leave to visit the homeless at around 6:00 PM.
* Welfare Activities
(1) Every week on Monday morning at 9:00 AM we support interview activities with public offices. For instance, when sick homeless people need to go to a hospital we assist them at the Tokyo Metropolitan Welfare Office or at the Welfare Office of Chiyoda ward. The reason to do this is, because the homeless feel uncomfortable left to themselves and sometimes the administration authorities do not cope with the needs.
(2) We do follow up work visiting the homeless patients in the hospital and also those who entered the prefabricated lodgings for daily workers.
* Please, cooperate with us by sending funds and goods to the following address:

Zip code 270-0103
Nagareyama City, Mihara 3-107-15.

During summer we are short of T-Shirts, trousers, underwear, socks, towels and shoes.

Thank you for your cooperation.

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