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Homelessness in the Land of the Rising Sun

Photo : Matthew McVickarThe developed and rich countries obviously are not immune to homelessness. Thus Japan, although the third world economy, cannot accommodate adequately all of its people.

Jean Lebeau, a Quebec deacon associated with the Foreign Mission Society, has worked for 30 years in a neighborhood of Tokyo, named Sanya, at the Sanyukai Center. This organization includes a free medical clinic, an office for private consultations with social workers, and a team that operates soup kitchens. It also shelters some twenty people.

According to Mr. Lebeau, "the term 'homeless' does not reflect the full reality of homelessness in the region" of the Japanese capital, a city of 13,222,760 inhabitants (as of January 2013), and metropolitan area counts... 38 million inhabitants! Five million more people than the Canadian population in 2011—33,476,688 million—compressed in a radius of 70 kilometers.

The majority of the Japanese homeless are former day laborers who have lost their job—for various reasons—some of which have gone bankrupt. "Many of them have made loans during the economic boom of the 70s and 80s," says Mr. Lebeau. "During the recession of the 90s, they became overnight unable to repay debts, nor even the interest.”

This is why "the unemployed flee to Tokyo under a false name, and are unable to find work because of their age or lack of qualifications." So they end up in the street. Jean Lebeau also indicates that the country has been slow to respond, "because Japan has no history of social services and social welfare" provided by the government. Previously, it was the family or the company that took care of people in need.

Under mass media pressure, the government began to act, with some errors and failures at the beginning," continues the deacon. "At the same time, thousands of blue plastic tents began appearing in parks or on riverbanks."

Today, Mr. Lebeau believes homelessness has declined by 70%, "because of the country's services, such as the new welfare services and also the services provided by civil society organizations."

Finally, what is the social judgment on these people? "The Japanese’s judgment on this depends on their personal status. Some who work hard see them as lazy or drunkards. Others have more sympathy for this problem, but with a rather superficial point of view," he says.


Interesting Links

Article on Japan in the French newspaper Le Monde in 2005 (in French)

Deacon Jean Lebeau receives in 2010 an award for his lifelong work:

Homeless families… in Florida,
(a story from the CBC’s program
60 minutes)


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