Tokyo Report | Society | East Asia

Tokyo’s Homeless Pressured to Disappear Ahead of Olympics

With six months until the Olympics, authorities are being accused of sweeping homelessness and domestic poverty under the rug.

Thisanka Siripala
Tokyo’s Homeless Pressured to Disappear Ahead of Olympics

A man smokes at a homeless camp under a bridge in Tokyo on Jan. 16, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

As Japan puts the finishing touches on preparations to host the Olympic Games, Tokyo’s urban street dwellers say they’re being forced to move to less “visible” spots by the end of March.

After mega Typhoon Hagibis lashed eastern Japan in October last year, a homeless man being denied shelter at a local evacuation center sparked international outrage. As the Olympics captures the world’s attention, the Japanese government’s approach to alleviating homelessness is being carefully watched.

While official surveys suggest homelessness is decreasing, private surveys reveal the opposite. Statistics from 2019 show there are 1,126 homeless people nationwide with some 4,000 sleeping daily at cheap internet cafes.

Tokyo’s redevelopment or “beautification” for the Olympics has prompted the widespread removal of street tents and cardboard houses around central train stations and parks.

In Japan begging on the street is illegal and there is little sympathy for the homeless, who are commonly stereotyped as running away from gambling debts.

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In 2019, Tokyo and its surrounding areas gained new residents for the third consecutive year — 148,783, to be exact, up 8,915 from the previous year. While the population inflow can be attributed to higher paying jobs, construction projects for the 2020 Olympics have also attracted the young working poor, who make ends meet by staying overnight at 24-hour internet cafes. But as construction wraps up, young people are finding themselves unemployed and with tourists expected to snap up short-term rentals there are concerns the working poor will be forced on to the street.

Homeless people on the street can earn money by collecting aluminum cans and selling them to recycling centers. According to interviews conducted by nonprofit organization Moyai in the past, a hard day’s work would earn 1000 yen ($10 dollars). But recently competition among both the young and elderly homeless has intensified, making it difficult to source cans and magazines.

Tokyo’s inner-city area of Shinjuku has the largest homeless population; people can be seen sleeping around the station at night. But as authorities crack down on “trespassing” as a part of terrorism countermeasures, people are running out of places to take shelter.

New orange cones and taped-off barriers have been installed at spots where regular street dwellers sleep. The warning signs on the barriers prohibit sleeping and luggage being left on the street. To make matters worse, coin lockers, where a majority of homeless store their daily possessions, will be suspended over the course of the 17-day Olympic event.

In December 2019, Moyai launched a petition calling for an adequate response to homelessness. They say people sheltered around Shinjuku are worried about where to find alternative accommodation by the deadline. Their proposal and petition will be submitted to the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympics in April.

Officials deny ramping up forced evictions.

During Golden Week in 2018, homeless people were similarly evicted from Ikebukuro’s Nishi-guchi Park in northwest Tokyo by police and council staff to prepare for an event with the governor. Moyai said that, based on conversations with those evicted, more often than not they weren’t offered alternative housing. Local officials say they are considering closing the park at night due to complaints.

The Tokyo metropolitan government’s action plan, launched in 2016, aims to “help all homeless people live independently and rejoin the community.” The fourth draft, known as the “‘private housing first project,” is planned between 2019-2023 in collaboration with nonprofit organizations and Tokyo’s 23 municipal wards. But specific details such as numerical targets have not been released.

Shinjuku’s local welfare division says unemployment and recession were originally thought to cause homelessness, but the real reasons are far more diverse — including chronic illness, mental illness, dementia, and intellectual disabilities. They say despite deploying welfare patrol cars, it’s difficult to convince people to accept help and most are reluctant to accept informative flyers due to distrust.