The Voice of Japan’s Near Homeless: An Interview with Mr. Takeuchi

T Newfields
In most of the larger metropolitan centers in Japan, it's easy to notice folks selling The Big Issue, a magazine designed to help improve the lot of homeless and socially disadvantaged people. On September 15, 2008 I spoke with a gentle 51-year-old man hawking this magazine about in an attempt to break out of poverty. Speaking passionately in Japanese, Mr. Takeuchi discussed the condition of homeless people in Japan on a busy street corner in Tokyo.

TN: How did you become homeless?
MT: When I was a young child I had a hearing disability and could hear only a limited range of sound in my left ear and almost nothing in the other ear. I tried various ways to overcome this handicap, but the problem seemed to be getting worse. About 10 years ago, I bought a costly hearing aid for ¥500,000. Since I was working as a day laborer at a factory in Shizuoka at the time, I didn't have the funds for the device. Ordinary banks wouldn't help me, so I went to a loan agency. Unfortunately, soon after that, business at the factory took a downturn and I couldn't meet payments. To cover the first loan, I took out a second one and got stuck in a debt cycle. When my parents died, I became homeless and decided to make a fresh start in Tokyo. At first I camped out along a riverbank and had nothing to eat, but another homeless guy put me in contact with the Big Issue Foundation. At this time, I'm vulnerably housed rather than homeless. I share a tiny room with another guy in a dingy flat in the cheapest part of Tokyo.
TN: How do most homeless folks in Japan live from day to day?
MT: There are many patterns. Some collect newspapers, magazines, bottles, cans, and so on. Others try to find day work at construction sites. A few read palms or don Buddhist robes and start chanting. The chaps I know best sell The Big Issue on street corners.
TN: So what’s a typical day like for you?
MT: It depends on the weather. If it isn't raining, I get up early and try to sell as many magazines as possible during the day. I make 160 yen per copy, and can usually earn 80,000 – 100,000 yen a month if I work hard and the weather is good.
TN: Has the condition of homeless people in Japan changed much recently?
MT: There are more and more younger folks living out of Internet cafes now. Since the Japan’s bubble economy collapsed in 1990, the number of young folks with low-paying McJobs has surged. Many of these folks have a hand-to-mouth existence without any savings.
TN: What does the government do to help homeless people?
MT: Not much. Generally they wish we didn’t exist. Tokyo does provide some limited social services for homeless folks, but basically you're on your own. Unfortunately, some homeless people have mental and emotional disabilities and are not equipped to survive.
TN: What's the toughest thing about being homeless?
MT: Well, you've got to swallow your pride. Lots of people look down on you, but you've got to keep your chin up no matter what. When I first became homeless I went a week without food and that was tough. Fortunately, I have enough to eat at this time. Although young teenagers sometimes harass folks like me, so far l've been lucky. Even though the tenement where I stay could be torn down at any time, for the moment there's a roof over my head.
TN: Conversely, have you learned anything valuable from this experience?
MT: Strangely enough, I'm more cheerful than ever before. Seeing the hoards of people pass by each day, I feel happier than the majority. Also, now and then some folks give me encouraging smiles. I'm grateful for that. My sense of what's important has changed in recent years. I used to read newspapers carefully and watch the telly a lot. None of that seems important now. My life has simplified considerably.
TN: How can people who are homeless break out of that cycle?
MT: That's hard to say. Some folks can’t break out: they have genuine disabilities that keep them locked in poverty. Moreover, the Japanese employment system has structural barriers that hinder homeless people from working. To get a job at most places, a residency registration card is required. In my case, I don't have an official residency card and there are significant gaps in my resume. However, I haven't given up. A person is only defeated when then give up. About 10% of the folks selling magazines like me manage to earn enough to get a stable apartment and rise out of poverty. I believe in being optimistic and will try my best. Having hit bottom socially, there’s nowhere to go but up . . .