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My Journey as a Christian Parallels My Struggles Working with Homeless People in Japan

by Azusa Nakamura,
senior friend of the SCM/YMCA Japan

My Journey as a Christian Parallels My Struggles Working with Homeless People in JapanMy friends from other Asian countries are usually surprised listening to my story, and then they ask “are there any homeless people in Japan, in Tokyo?” and my answer is yes, there are so many! According to government record (which is not reliable) there are about 25 thousand homeless people, and in Tokyo, about 5 thousand. The term “homeless” is tricky when Japanese government and mass media use it. They usually define it as “a person who have no choice but to live outside, e.g. in the park, along the river, or in the road side”.

We have major poverty issues inside our country, but it is not visualized and even the ordinary Japanese are not aware of this concern. When we hear the word “poverty” we tend to imagine South Asian countries, and some African countries. Because media seldom used the word poverty when they reported about Japanese society. Rather a very important government official once said, “Japan has no more poverty.”

Recently, a new word “ internet cafe refugee” has generated and has become well- known word in Japan. The people who cannot afford to rent rooms or hostels, they sleep in internet cafes, and then find a job (usually nonstandard work) and earn a very minimum which is mainly used for some basic needs for survival like a place to sleep and food. Those people are increasing, especially among young Japanese. “Working poor “ is another word started to be used and this is correct if we include those as “homeless” which is used for international definition. In Japanese society, discrimination against homeless people is very strict. They are said to be lazy, and that they are just idling about because they just don’t want to work. They are hit, battered by people and even sometime set on fire. There is a saying often quoted, “If you don’t work, you do not deserve to eat.”

While confronting this sense of value, very often I feel that here, a person’s worth is thought to be an ability to work, not like human rights, or simple importance of her/his life. I see these perspectives come out from not only non-homeless people, but homeless people themselves. It is very sad to hear them saying, “It is my fault, I do not deserve to live.”

But I always listen to similar words from homeless people.

Homeless people have various backgrounds,and vary in quality. For example, from the people who have just lost their house and job and have never imagined themselves to become homeless. To the people with multiple difficulties to survive in the society: difficulty like they are foreigners, disabled, with mental disorder, poor academic background. Women are more likely to have multiple barriers, like experience of abuse, addiction (alcohol/drug), poor academic background, mental disorder, among others. They are more vulnerable to stay outside. It is estimated that there are more than one million homeless people in Japan. Do you still believe that Japan, this country of mine, is a “rich” country?

Hemal Wickramathilake (1st row, 2nd from left) with other participants of the workshop who visited the tribal village for the exposure.

“Anti Poverty campaign” was held in Japan for these two years to let people know the poverty issue of Japan. This is one of our activities to let people know about the issue. My social work with homeless people is for their rehabilitation, to mobilize social support like medical care and shelter, movement to protest and advocate against the government.

Social enterprise and creating “free space”: these are done by only looking at Japanese issue, not done with comprehensive view, thinking of people of Asia. And I am always challenged to my own question that, if I only focus on Japanese people and issues with my social work, am I leaving out the people in other countries? especially people in Asian there?

Once I had a chance to share my story about the social work with a lot of people. And then one Pakistan guy came to me and told me, “There are people dying in my country, even children are starving, a lot of them have no access to education, but in Japan, it’s not like that. There are more essential things than homeless people.” I had nothing to say at that time. Although I cannot agree but I think he is quite right. That is my challenge! Those two things are phenomena of globalization, world-wide economical system, and economical situation of each Asian country are tightly interconnected with each other. This is the thing we know very well. But I don’t understand this yet in a practical level. How can I get in the inclusive view for my social work? What is the link? How can I get solidarity? What is the inclusive way, which doesn’t exclude children in Pakistan with helping homeless people here? But I am sure I am not satisfied even if there are no more homeless or poverty in Japan, as long as there are in other countries. I expect my SCM friend will continue give me insights and friendship to support my struggle. Thank you, my friend!