In many parks throughout Tokyo, homeless people lived in tents that they constructed out of blue plastic tarps. There were approximately three hundred such tents in Ueno Park, Tokyo's largest public park, when I conducted research in 1998-1999. Most homeless people lived alone, but if we include the number of persons sleeping on benches, under awnings and on the surrounding streets, there were approximately 1,000-1,200 homeless people in the Ueno area. Homeless people in Ueno Park supported themselves through what they referred to as "doing homeless" (hōmuresu o suru). Doing homeless included recycling, scavenging, occasional day labor, resale, and maintaining neighborly relationships. Homeless persons who lived in Ueno Park did not panhandle. Most, also, did not attend the church-run soup lines that came to the park several times a week and attracted up to 1,000 persons from the surrounding areas. These were not simply economic choices; rather, they reflect the moral meanings of "doing homeless." Homeless people in Ueno Park prided themselves on their self-sufficiency, honor, and perseverance. In other words, for them, doing homeless was not just about pursuing particular types of labor; it was about approaching their work with discipline. That is, they had standards they set to live by and that they pushed their neighbors to live up to-standards of virtue, hard work, sincerity, perseverance, and obligation to others. To accept a handout would betray their sense of self-reliance and other virtues connected to doing homeless with honor and dignity. Doing homeless and homeless people's explanations on how it should be done, then, are grossly at odds with the popular perceptions of homeless people as lazy, disaffiliated, and beyond the moral values of society.
Homeless as "Others"
Typical news headlines about the homeless include such titles as, "The Other Japan," "The Other Side of the Coin," "Down and Out in Tokyo" (or Osaka, or Kobe), and, perhaps most poignantly, "The Unsalaried Man," which plays on the term "salaryman" as Japan's prototypical (male) worker. These headlines, which invert the symbols of Japaneseness (and Japanese masculinity), serve to reduce homelessness to a negative identity. The homeless are, by popular headlines at least, what Japan and its archetypal salarymen are not.
These representations have a real effect on the lives on homeless people in Tokyo. Certainly this imagery of otherness helps explain why homeless men are often targets of violence. There are reports of school children and others striking homeless persons with rocks, throwing firecrackers at them, stabbing them, setting them on fire, and verbally harassing them. While there are also reports of homeless people committing abuses against each other, one rarely, if ever, reads of a homeless person behaving violently toward a local resident. Still, these same residents frequently complain, especially when protesting a shelter rumored to be built in their neighborhood, that the homeless make local areas unsafe for women and children. Such complaints further exemplify the way in which homeless people are popularly viewed as "others" to be feared.
The Japanese government also participates in this view. While there are welfare, health, and day-labor related policies that may apply to some homeless individuals, usually the very sick or the very old, there is currently almost no policy that specifically addresses homelessness in Tokyo. The metropolitan government persists with a hands-off approach towards the issue of homelessness. Traditionally its policies have been aimed at cosmetically hiding or containing homelessness to day-laborer neighborhoods, while preventing them from spreading into other neighborhoods. For example, wooden blocks are nailed into the center of park benches to keep homeless people from sleeping on them, and water to public drinking fountains is turned off to discourage homeless from gathering there and bathing.