Raw Japan

Slices of Japanese business, politics and life

Homeless on rise in post-Lehman Japan

September 10, 2009


A year has passed since U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers was forced into bankruptcy, sending out shockwaves that brought the global financial market to its knees.

And just who did those waves batter the most?

Well, in Japan, poverty activists and NPOs have told me the real victims of the Lehman Shock are the laid-off factory workers who were forced out of company housing and onto the streets, creating a new breed of homeless.

In the year since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, companies have laid off more than 230,000 contract workers, helping to push Japan’s jobless rate to a post-war record 5.7 percent (macro economist Edward Hugh notes this figure is closer to 12 percent if we include Japan’s “hidden jobless”). With a growing jobless rate, it’s easy to assume homeless numbers are up too, but it’s even harder to prove.

That’s because official government numbers actually show a decrease in the number of homeless. But on the streets I have heard a very different story.

“Homeless numbers are up big time. At a soup kitchen in Ueno Park there used to be about 600 people who came for meals but now there are about 1,000 people lining up,” homeless activist Yuuki Akira told me at a homeless festival during Japan’s Obon Holiday.

“We see more young ex-factory workers with nice, clean clothes but no idea how to be homeless. They don’t know where they can get a free meal because they are so new at this,” he said.

NPOs who help Japan’s homeless and working poor have told me likewise.

“When the government did their homeless survey in January, they counted 299 people in Shinjuku ward,” Tsuyoshi Inaba, the head of Moyai NPO who advise the homeless and working poor, explained to me.

“But we decided to go out and do our own survey and we counted 598 people — exactly double,” he chuckled. Inaba said the new homeless go undetected because they are out walking around during the day.

A Japanese newspaper reported last month that soup kitchens in Tokyo are even running out of the most basic staple here: “Not enough rice!!” read one headline. The paper┬ásaid the number of hungry mouths showing up for free food at various soup kitchens in Tokyo have doubled since last year.

Perhaps this news is even starting to worry the homeless themselves. At one soup kitchen along the bank of the Sumida River, I noticed about 10 people had reserved their spot at the front of the line by laying out flattened cardboard with a rock on top. A smart way to guarantee a hot meal.

Most of the people in line at this particular soup kitchen were 20- or 30-year veteran homeless men who appeared to know the lifestyle well. But they all told me one thing is for sure: More new faces, more scared faces are showing up for a free meal.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

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