Masa-san: The tough-guy turned savior of Shibuya’s down-and-outs

Masa-san: The tough-guy turned savior of Shibuya’s down-and-outs

Both the former drinker and Tokyo’s homeless can thank their lucky stars
A homeless man rests in the sunshine in a central Tokyo park.
A homeless man rests in the sunshine in a central Tokyo park.

Central Tokyo at 5 a.m. isn’t exactly the stereotypical time or place for angels and good deeds, but that doesn’t stop Masayoshi Tomiseko, 65, from putting on his white sweatsuit and riding his scooter from home every morning to dole out food and supplies to the crowds of homeless men and women he knows so well.

He appears as if from heaven to the hungry congregation and bids each of them a warm “good morning” as he places two onigiri in each outstretched hand. 

Masa, ready for action on another early-morning food run.Masa, ready for action on another early-morning food run.Masayoshi Tomiseko (known as Masa-san to his followers) is a stocky man with clipped gray hair and still in surprisingly good physical shape for his age. It comes as no surprise that he spent many youthful hours in the ring at Kaneko Boxing Gym in Shimokitazawa.

He claims he might have gone on to become a professional boxer were it not for his addiction to alcohol.

Demons and recovery

In a familiar tale, dependency on the bottle took over early, leading him through a string of hospitals and institutions in his early years. However, and fortunately for both Masa and his streetwise friends, he was able to kick the booze for good relatively young and start giving something back to his community.

He joined the Tokyo Union Church and so began his faithful devotion to the homeless. He shows up 365 days a year with his manna from heaven -- technically, better known as the Franciscan Chapel Center in Roppongi.

Katherine Hall, coordinator of the rice program, explains that the Center has been feeding Tokyo’s homeless for the past 25 years. Dedicated teams of volunteers meet daily to make some 400 onigiri rice balls, which are distributed the following morning.

The program is supported solely by donations of time and money from parishioners, corporations, neighbors, other Tokyo church groups, civic organizations and service groups from local international schools.

“We hope our work sheds light on the plight of Tokyo's ‘invisible’ and spurs people into action to improve the lot of those living on the streets,” says Hall.

Hipster takeover

Many of the homeless men and women fed by the Franciscan Chapel Center and the Tokyo Union Church were displaced from Miyashita Park after Nike’s decision to build a skate park there.

In the 1990s the park had become a homeless shantytown -- a symbol of Japan’s deflating economic bubble -- remaining that way until the Nike facelift in 2010.

Homeless people line up for food at a Tokyo distribution point.Homeless people line up for food at a Tokyo distribution point.

When the park’s residents had nowhere to go, the local government stepped in and paid for plywood shacks to be built in an alley across the street from Metro Plaza, not far from the Hachiko statue beside Shibuya Station.

Proud, but grateful

Many of these huts have been decorated by their inhabitants, who manage to take pride in their surroundings, no matter how humble.

Ma-chan, one of the homeless women living there, displays a collection of jars and pots filled with dried flowers in front of her spot. Outside her door is an old tin container where Masa places her onigiri each morning.

One of the highlights of Masa’s career, he says, was sparring with his hero Hiroyuki Ebihara, the former world-champion flyweight.

“For sure I have regrets about my short-lived boxing career and how my drinking ruined my chances, but who knows -- I might have become rich and famous and it could have made my life even worse.”

For more information on the rice program visit the group's website. Donations can also be made direct to the Franciscan Chapel Center and marked 'for the rice program.'