The drunk, the suicidal and the hostile: Tokyo's homeless interviewed

The drunk, the suicidal and the hostile: Tokyo's homeless interviewed

A journey into Tokyo's less salubrious areas reveals the hard lives of those living on the streets
homeless tokyo
Cooling off in the summer heat, a Tokyo man finds a bench to rest on.

Imagine for a second, that after some bad luck, you ended up suddenly homeless in Tokyo. The first decision at hand is which corner of the city to inhabit. Possibly for the rest of your life. 

Would it be Shinjuku, with busy passers-by who will barely acknowledge your existence? Or Akihabara where you can feast your eyes on cute girls working in maid cafes that you can't enter?

Asakusa could be a very wise choice -- with energetic rickshaw practitioners running along Sumida River to help alleviate your loneliness and delicious Tokyo shitamachi-cuisine scents traveling in the wind to trick your appetites. 

The homeless communities in Tokyo are widespread and growing. One in six Japanese were declared officially poor in 2010 and by December welfare payments hit a record high.

So what happens to these people after their lives have turned to the streets?  

homeless tokyoA homeless man at Sumida River says shochu and magazines keep him amused.

Homeless in Asakusa

You can expect a warm-hearted welcome from your future companions in Asakusa -- unless you visit them empty-handed. Asked how they would treat any newcomer, three elderly guys uttered in chorus one important message: “Bring some shochu if you want to really be one of us.” 

The three wound up homeless due to unemployment. “We got fired from our jobs,” one of them says with a sigh.

“Of course we’re not happy with our life now, but there is nothing we can do. If there is a job, we would be happy to take that opportunity, but we all know we’re way too old to get hired,” one adds, currently 72 years old.

“I’m always thinking about throwing myself into that river, but I can’t,” another guy says, 63 years old.

homeless tokyoThe number of unemployed and homeless in Tokyo has been creeping up.

Satisfied with a homeless life

Along Sumida River is another man who started living there only two years after “retiring” from his job.

In a typical day he says he does, “Nothing really. But I’m doing a couple of part-time jobs. My strong suit is interior carpentry work –- especially repapering walls,” he says with obvious pride.

But all the money he’s earned vanishes away in a weekly ritual he always looks forward to: “The only reason I’m working is because I want money for drinks!” he says.

Surprisingly he even suggests that he is happy with his life.

“I have freedom,” he says. "No need to dash onto the busy Tokyo trains, no troublesome human relationship, and no curfew –- freedom is the most privileged attribute that you can expect to acquire if you turn homeless," he says.

homeless tokyoTokyo's homeless keep their possessions inside blue covers, found in parks around the city.

Go down to a 'slum town' in Tokyo

While the homeless in Asakusa are relatively spread out but friendly, the so-called “Sanya” region -- a notorious hotbed for Tokyo worn-out vagrants -- is an area where the community is locked together yet hostile.

The easiest access to Sanya is by switching to the JR Joban-line at Ueno station, and getting off at Minami-Senju station. 

An illuminated signboard of McDonald’s is the first thing to face you out of the station. Across the nearby pedestrian overpass is Namida-bashi intersection. The heart and soul of Sanya.

Here not all homeless people are as open to inquistiveness or newcomers -- some glare with squinted-eyes -- especially if you break two important rules.

Rule one: blend in.

“Don’t show off your intelligence,” one guy suggests right away. “The more uneducated you look or sound, just like us, the better chance you have of surviving in this community.”

Another man gives the same opinion more sharply. “You better act or talk the same way homeless people do if you want to communicate with them, otherwise you’ll be kicked out."

Rule two: do not ask questions.

On the top of that list comes name, age, occupation, and where they came from. The last two will ignite hostility immediately.

homeless tokyoThree men at Sumida river who enjoy conversation with the general public if they approach.

The Sanya expert who joined the ranks

One Sanya 'resident' first came to Sanya more than 15 years ago. But he wasn’t homeless -- yet. Inspired by his curiosity to find out what the Sanya homeless were really like, he decided to plunge into their world. But after years of observing and joining them, he ended up homeless as well.

“I don’t remember my name,” he confesses, preferring just to be called "Ojisan" -- a common way of referring to middle-aged men in Japan.

“Nor do I recall my age. I forgot,” Ojisan continues. Another homeless man soon joins the conversation. “It’s no big surprise, considering how many of us don’t even have a certificate of residence,” he says.

Ojisan explains that no such word as 'friendship' could be applied to the homeless in Sanya. Does this mean they often have a fight on a daily basis?

“Well, not so far off,” he says with a laugh. “But I would say it’s more than just a fight. They almost kill each other.”

According to him, there have been many cases where fights in Sanya go too far. The reason is simple. Their rage skyrockets, for example, when they find their belongings missing or their hellos ignored by their “friends.” 

Then they start accusing each other. Only that their fists are the first thing to fly out. “Everyone thinks he is somebody,” Ojisan says.

homeless tokyoOn the streets of Shinjuku some homeless prefer to be where the city is at its busiest.


Asked what distinguishes the Sanya homeless the most, Ojisan points out their complete acceptance of their identity as the homeless.

“The Sanya homeless abandoned their hope a long time ago, so they accept the fact that they’re homeless. But Shinjuku and Ueno homeless men still have a difficulty admitting they’re homeless, and therefore they haven’t yet given up their hope,” Ojisan explains.

“They think the Sanya homeless are losers, and that they are not the same,” he adds.

But what if they’ve failed to achieve the goal of rehabilitating their life after years of roaming about in Shinjuku, Ueno, and other cities? Do they join the Sanya homeless then?

“Well, once you end up homeless, that’s it," Ojisan says. "There is no turning back. So it’s no use bringing up 'what-if' conversations on this issue, because one ugly truth always prevails: you die homeless once you turn homeless."

No expectation of the public

The people of Sanya have, it seems, also given up hope of receiving help.

“Help? The only thing they do is just kick us out, saying that we stink,” says Ojisan. “You have no idea how terrifying people can sometimes get. We all know there is no one who will offer us help."

Yet in Sanya -- where most residents are elderly men -- energetic male voices can be heard, whose clear articulation and young vigor stand out compared to the voices of the long-term residents.

The voices are from members of Sanyukai, a non-profit organization for Sanya. They are organizing a soup-run event, keeping their hands busy dealing with requests from the homeless for an extra bowl of their free tonjiru.

Starting in 1984, Sanyukai supports the people in Sanya and helps them rehabilitate their life. Its main activities include the soup runs, providing daily necessaries such as toothbrushes and towels, and running a medical clinic, all free of charge.

Moriya, one of the workers, joined the organization because he’s Catholic.

“Those in need of help keep showing up every day. You can’t carry around a blanket all the time, especially if it’s got wet, no matter how much you need it. That’s why we’re here, to provide the homeless with decent, if not completely new, clothes three days a week,” says Moriya. 

Humor and hope

Back in Asakusa, one of the 63-year-old men -- no longer capable of speaking with clear articulation -- shows the humor these forgotten men of Tokyo still have.

“You know, as you can see, my legs are broken, but the good news is I still don't need Viagra!” he says with the dynamic laugh of a TV comedian.

Beaming out the next moment were the jealous lamentations of his friends, slightly older than him, whose teasing ridicule was now replaced with envy.

"What I really want is a girlfriend," he says, revealing the humanity of the homeless of Tokyo, and the hope that still exists amongst the majority.