The day I spent with Tokyo’s homeless

“I’m going to make the world a better place.” I said the words with confidence, and my reflection in the mirror nodded agreeably. My undergrad self had decided to finally embark on the mission of my life: to solve homelessness in Japan. The revolutionary plan was to use the famous pen-as-my-sword method and write a thesis on the subject. What better way to fight social injustice than with academia?

First, I had to locate my research-subjects-to-be. So, how does one find homeless people in Tokyo? Google, of course. After a few searches, I found a group of homeless people in Yoyogi Park who hold weekly art-classes open to the public. Amazingly, their leader’s e-mail was listed on the page. Do homeless people have internet? I quickly pushed the unbidden thought away and sent an overly polite mail to compensate for the guilt. Imagine my surprise when she replied.
“I’ll see you Monday next week at 12 /Sato”

(No, that’s not her real name. Neither are any of the other names in this post. I’m not a complete cretin.)

The blue tent village: a guided tour

Sato-san greeted me at the entrance of Yoyogi Park and promptly introduced herself as a “homeless activist”. I felt more than a little nervous—not for my safety, mind you (Japan has cured me off that) – but for saying something inappropriate. So I just nodded. She went on saying that she’d moved to the park of her own accord in 2003 and been homeless ever since.

“This is the tent-village. When I first moved here, there were hundreds of tents. But the authorities have cleared us out and now we are only 30 people left.”

The cluster of large, blue tents looked surprisingly home-like. Laundry hung on ropes between trees, tables and chairs were placed on the ground, and some people had hung art outside their tents. But regardless of the neatness, I could only imagine how muddy the ground must get in rainy weather, and how cold it must be in winter.

Sato-san introduced me to the residents of the village, and my shy attempts at conversation were met with mixed reactions. Some were suspicious, others seemed mildly interested. I made up for it by smiling too much, which, looking back, might have made me look slightly demented.

Afternoon art with the homeless

crayons“Today we are painting with crayons,” Sato-san said. I dutifully picked up a red crayon and assaulted the poor piece of paper in front of me (I was never good at drawing). A skinny man brought me rice cakes and tea with a smile. “Please enjoy,” he said in English. They were moldy. Someone cracked a joke, and just like that, the frosty atmosphere melted. Before I knew it, I was smiling and joking with them. We talked about humid Tokyo summers, AKB48, Swedish fish, and all manners of topics in between.

They told me how the yakuza (mafia) tries to force them to work at construction sites without pay. How NPO people exploit their livelihood support. How worried they are about being evicted before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. How scared they are of the groups of young men who kill homeless people. How hard it is to get a job without an address. How much safer it is to stay together in the tent-village than sleeping rough.

I guess a real academic would have taken notes, photos and asked clever questions. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort even remotely crossed my mind. Then again, I was never good with the entire academia-thing.

Clash with the authorities

Like a bolt out of the blue, a dozen park guards suddenly appeared from nowhere. They were yelling aggressively at the skinny man who’d offered me rice cakes. Within one minute, the argument had escalated to a full blown fight between the homeless and the authorities. Sato-san was hurling acid comments at the guards, quoting Japanese law by memory. I finally understood why she called herself a homeless activist. She was magnificent.

To this day, I have never seen Japanese people argue in this way.

A park guard approached me to check if I was okay. “Are they keeping you here? You can leave if you want,” he said. My facial expression must have been savage, because he backed off quite hastily. Silly man. Couldn’t he see I was with them?

The most educated man in Tokyo

In the midst of this, an old homeless man came and sat down next to me.

“They are trying to evict a resident from the tent village, you see. It happens sometimes,” he said in perfect English.

I blinked. “Oh.”

“My name is Yanagi, by the way. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“N..nice to meet you,” I stammered, trying to not gawk openly.

“I don’t live in the tent village, but sleep here and there you see,” he said, as if that would explain why a man with no shoes spoke the best English I’ve ever heard in Japan.

And thus followed a most extraordinary conversation

“You know of Maslow’s pyramid? I think people at the top tend to be more unhappy than the ones at the bottom. The more we think, the unhappier we get – don’t you agree?” Yanagi-san said conversationally.

Maslow who now? No Googling in the world could have prepared for me the knowledge-gap between me and Yanagi-san. If my mind was a puddle, his was the sea. But with his well-spoken and gentle manner, he lifted me up with him, and the hours flew by unnoticed.

Who are you? I wanted to ask. Why are you homeless? You could be a minister. A scholar. A king. Yet, none of those questions crossed my lips. I guess I’d caught a mild spell of Common Decency.

The judgement of civilization

It was almost dark by the time I finally had to go. I thanked everyone and was relieved to hear that the skinny man’s predicament was solved.

“It’s dark, I’ll escort you to the station,” said Yanagi-san, and he was as good as his word.

As we approached the neon lights and blinking signs of Shibuya, Yanagi-san told me about the history of the area and how it had evolved since WWII. But I could only listen with half an ear, distracted by the openly rude stares of the people around us. Yanagi-san pretended not to notice, but I was bubbling with fury. What are you looking at, you insipid fools? I wanted to shout.

When we reached the station, I gave him my e-mail address.

“I have…misplaced…my belongings, but when I find them I’ll make sure to e-mail you,” he said.

I silently cursed at the lowlife who would steal from a homeless person. Out loud I only said “thank you.”

“Never lose heart,” he said with a smile. “It’s my favorite English saying.”


Yanagi-san mailed me a month later from an Internet Café. Every once in a while, he would send me short updates. Photos with diplomats and scientists. One time he sent me a greeting video from a hanami (cherry blossom viewing). Then one day, the mails stopped coming. I’m sad to say I have not heard from him ever since.

A few years back, I found out that he comes from a very distinguished family indeed. Not much of a surprise there. I still don’t know why he became homeless, but perhaps it doesn’t matter that much after all.

And yeah, that thesis? I ended up getting quite a bad score. Apparently, it was too emotional to be academically viable. And I’m glad it was.

6 thoughts on “The day I spent with Tokyo’s homeless

  1. What an interesting read!
    Thanks for sharing this experience even if you did not receive a grade)
    Have you ever been back to blue tent town?

    1. Thank you so much. I really appreciate that you enjoyed the post – it’s one of the most unforgettable moments in my life.

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