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Japanese Economic Boom Bypasses Thousands of Homeless

September 1, 1987

TOKYO (AP) _ Japan’s postwar economic miracle has bypassed 75-year-old Shozo Fukuda and thousands like him. He is homeless and jobless.

Not far from the resplendent boutiques of Tokyo’s Ginza, Fukuda spends his days in the Sanya district, one of the last stops for the down-and-out who fill its shabby flophouses and cheap bars.

Close to 7,000 of Japan’s 90,000 unskilled day laborers just get by in the seedy six square-mile area.

Many are uprooted, rural men over the age of 50; a handful are mentally retarded, and some are severe alcoholics.

″The men are disposable people,″ said the Rev. William Grimm, a Roman Catholic priest who has done volunteer work in Sanya for four years. ″They’re not part of Japan, Inc.″

″Japan, Inc.″ is the term frequently applied to the industrial society that bloomed after World War II, creating an overwhelmingly middle-class nation of 121 million people who are proud of their new wealth.

″The affluent people of Japan don’t think about Sanya; they just live for themselves,″ said Dr. Masahiko Katori, who has worked in Sanya for 20 years.

Katori, who resigned as city medical examiner over inadequate treatment of the city’s outcasts, said the government is unconcerned because ″the men don’t pay taxes and they don’t vote.″

About 3,000 Sanya men are employed on a day-to-day basis by labor contractors linked to the yakuza - Japanese gangsters - as cheap labor for construction jobs. But the work isn’t available for all who want it.

A few prized work slots from a government placement agency, paying the equivalent of $55 a day, are quickly filled, leaving others with no choice but to work for the yakuza contractors at $46, minus a contractors’ skim.

″When human beings fall to the lowest point possible,″ Shozo Fukuda told a reporter, ″it is hard to pretend to hobnob with the strong. It is best to be among your own kind.″ He was at an old peoples’ home operated by Grimm and funded by private donations.

For the past three years, Fukuda said, he has been moving from one clerical job to another, always getting fired because of his age. He finally came to Sanya in July and ″I feel happy here,″ he said.

Out on the dirty back streets of the district, men squatted in a semicircle in the middle of the road, sharing a bottle of cheap liquor while jeering at passers-by. Others lay on the ground, dead drunk.

Tokyo’s homeless also have overflowed beyond Sanya into conspicuous corners of the city.

Vagrants in soiled clothes and long matted hair have made their homes in Tokyo’s numerous parks and subway stations, mingling with well-heeled Japanese executives. The corridors of Ginza Station, underneath the world’s most expensive real estate, are transformed during winter nights into a dormitory for dozens of sleeping vagrants.

The day laborers earn well below Japan’s ″lowest livelihood guarantee level″ of 65,817 yen ($436) a month needed for a person in his 30s for an average lifestyle in the major cities in 1986. For a family of three, the required sum is 129,136 yen ($855) a month.

Tokio Kuriki, vice director of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Sanya Affairs Office, said the day laborers are ″a needed entity″ to do temporary jobs. He said the government offers welfare and medical care to those in need.

Katori, who won an award in 1985 for his 20 years of service in Sanya, works once a week at the district’s free health center, which is funded by the government. He said he usually treats about 100 patients a day but at times ″the number goes above 200.″

Katori said he expects the number of homeless people to increase because of the yen’s sharp appreciation against the U.S. dollar, which has brought tens of thousands of layoffs as sales by export-oriented companies fall.

The jobless rate hit 3.1 percent in July, the highest since the survey was started 34 years ago.

″The men cannot learn new skills after the age of 40,″ Katori said. ″The problem is going to increase as the economy goes down.″

But Fukuda said he won’t be dragged into defeat like others at the rest home.

″As soon as it gets cooler,″ he said, wiping his forehead with a handkerchief in the sweltering summer heat, ″I’m going to go out and look for a job ... any job.″

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