The Olympics and Paralympics have brought global attention to Tokyo and Japan, but what is the situation like for people beyond the stadiums and arenas?
We spoke to our partner Diversity Soccer Association and The Big Issue Japan about the state of homelessness in Tokyo and Japan.
Tokyo 2020 is an Olympics and Paralympics like no other. Less than a month before the postponed start date, the Japanese Government announced a state of emergency, banning all spectators from attending the games.
Seeing the empty stadiums it’s easy to think it’s only bad news, but there is a silver lining.
Miku Sano from The Big Issue Japan explained why her and her team welcomed the news. Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) allowed hundreds of people who had been made redundant and lost their accommodation because of Covid-19 to stay in hotel rooms in the city. With thousands of spectators arriving, The Big Issue Japan and other homeless organisations have been campaigning to allow them to keep their rooms. The decision to ban spectators meant that overnight, there were more rooms than people and that no one had to move.
But it’s not all good news. Despite being given a temporary roof over their heads, people staying there didn’t have access to food or other support. One local organisation who distribute packed food, Miku explained, normally would give food to 180 people a day, now they’re seeing 400.
“We don’t know the official figures.”
The official numbers of people who are homeless is going down in Japan, but how realistic is it? That’s the question Miku, Naofumi Suzuki and Sho Kawakami from Diversity Soccer Association, ask.
The government figures only cover people who are street homeless. They physically count the number of people who are on the street during the day. In order to improve the accuracy of the reporting, in January 2016 the Advocacy and Research Centre for Homelessness (ARCH) started a bi-annual overnight count. On the ‘Night of Change’ volunteers document the numbers of people who are sleeping on the streets in Tokyo after dark. Their research found that approximately 2.5 x more people were sleeping rough in Tokyo at night than during the day. (1)
Despite their efforts to fill the gap in reporting, thousands who are in between housing and the street and living in internet cafes and saunas are still missing from the official figures. The most recent research was published in 2017, finding 4,000 people were in this position in Tokyo alone.
Miku explained, when The Big Issue Japan started in 2003 there were not so many internet cafes. Now they’re everywhere and people often go there to sleep.
Estimating the number of hidden homeless – those who were previously on the street and who now sleep in internets and cafes – suggests that numbers have not fallen, but have stayed the same. It also suggests that figures of people who are homeless are quadruple official figures.
The human cost of ‘beautification’
Naofumi Suzuki is the Executive Director of Diversity Soccer Association. He explained that the “Beautification of the city naturally went with the removal of people.”
Tokyo won the bid to host the Olympics in 2013. Naofumi and Miku explained they’ve seen a gradual change towards the treatment to people who are homeless in the city over the last eight years. It’s not always big changes. A bright light here or a sign there, but all of these small statements make people who are homeless feel more exposed and less safe.
In some areas people have been forced to move elsewhere. A short walk from the Olympic Stadium, which is hosting the athletics, is Meiji Park. A lot of people who are homeless used to live there. In the process of getting ready for the Olympics, the park was cleared, the people included.
It’s not only people who are street homeless who have been forced to move elsewhere. People in social housing have also been strongly encouraged and in some cases, forced to leave their houses in areas of the city.
Naofumi published an article addressing the issue in 2018. He wrote: “The expansion of the stadium led to the expulsion of dozens of homeless people who lived in and around the park surrounding the stadium, and a sudden decision to demolish a nearby public housing estate built for the 1964 Summer Games forced over 200 tenants, most of whom were elderly, to be relocated.” (2)
Another example Miku gave was at the Tokyo Metropolitan office. They used to allow people who were homeless to sleep in the parking area when it was raining and there was also a food distribution centre nearby. This has now all gone.
What causes homelessness in Japan?
But what causes people to lose their houses in Tokyo and Japan? Miku, Naofumi and Sho explain that losing jobs is the biggest cause of homelessness and the shortage of social housing. A common problem in many major cities.
“In Japan, it’s difficult to say, ‘please help me.’”
But it’s also about the stigma of asking for help. The current welfare system in Japan puts the initial responsibility on a person’s family. The welfare office’s first step is to contact someone’s family and inform them what’s going on.
As a general rule, if you haven’t asked your family for support, it’s for a reason. The process discourages a lot of people from asking for welfare support as they are ashamed to tell their families and do not want to bring shame on them and their communities.
Miku explains, “Not only do they lose face, but they would make people ashamed, make their community ashamed. It makes it harder to go back.”
Naofumi adds, “People can come to Tokyo from rural areas and not have a social support network. This means if they lose their jobs, they quicky become isolated.”
Through his work with Diversity Soccer Association, he’s found that the majority of people he works with have lost their jobs because of psychological disorders and learning disabilities, which have caused them to struggle in the work place. The majority, he said are unaware of their disability.
Social welfare as a human right
How can we tackle the issue of inaccessible welfare? Sho Kawakami, a coordinator at Diversity Soccer Association and The Big Issue Japan Foundation, says it should be a human right.
Tsuyoshi Inaba, the co-president of The Big Issue Japan Foundation, started an online campaign calling for social welfare to be an acceptable system for everyone and recognised as a human right. More than 60,000 people have signed so far on Change.org.
When asked if he could wish for one thing to help people who are homeless in Japan, Naofumi wants people to be more understanding. To put it simply: “people’s perception needs to change.”
Before he’d worked in his current role, Naofumi said he didn’t know much about the causes of homelessness. By doing his job his perception changed. He says public opinion is generally “really harsh, most think it’s their fault.”
“It’s going to be a long time before homeless goes away completely but I want people to be more understanding and accommodating.”
Miku added to this: “I was going to say we need more social and supported housing, but if attitudes don’t change, people will continue to be isolated which is one of the main causes of homelessness.”
Sho agreed saying loneliness and isolation were key factors. He said: “We have to create activities which create support networks for people. Activities to bring people together. Of course, housing, job, income is important but bringing people together and creating a support network is just as important.”
The Diversity Cup
He is practicing what he preaches and with Miku, Naofumi and the Big Issue Japan Foundation, they set up the Diversity Cup. Since it started in 2015, the annual tournament has reached more than 1,500 people. Since Covid-19 forced it to be cancelled two years in a row, they haven’t been deterred and have swapped to regional friendly matches.
Working with men and women and girls and boys of all ages they want to promote the message that football is for all. Alongside this, they also hosted an online YouTube series where people working with vulnerable people can come together to share skills and experience.
Homelessness in Japan might be an ongoing issue, but with people like Sho, Miku and Naofumi fighting for social welfare as a human right, hopefully Naofumi might get his wish after all: a kinder Japan for people who are homeless.
1) Advocacy and Research Centre for Homelessness https://archcd.wixsite.com/english
2) Naofumi Suzuki, Tetsuo Ogawa & Nanako Inaba (2018) The right to adequate housing: evictions of the homeless and the elderly caused by the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Leisure Studies, 37:1, 89-96, DOI: 10.1080/02614367.2017.1355408
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If you want to find out more about Diversity Soccer Association’s work supporting people who are homeless in Japan, please visit their website: https://diversity-soccer.org/english/