The unemployment rate of Asia’s biggest economy, Japan, has risen to 3.9 percent. In the past, working at one of the big Japanese company meant having secure employment with a life-long contract. Social benefits and a high pension-plan were guaranteed after retirement. During the economic crisis in the 1990s, big enterprises such as Sony or the automaker Toyota replaced life-long employees with temporary workers to reduce costs and to be more flexible to the market. Jobless and unable to pay the rent, some dismissed employees became homeless.
Homeless people can often be seen in Japan's parks
Ever since the Japanese economic crisis in the 1990s, the number of homeless in Japan has increased steadily.
The official figures for 2008 from the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare in Tokyo estimate there are over 20,000 homeless people nationwide. Most of them are in Tokyo and Osaka.
As the ongoing global financial crisis has hit Japan’s export industry very hard, it is expected that this figure will rise.
Homeless population is getting younger
For years, the issue of homelessness has been ignored by local Japanese administrations. But things are changing now that homeless people are getting younger, says Fukuhara Hiroyuki, an expert on unemployment and social discrimination from Osaka City University.
“It has recently become a big issue in Japanese society,” Hiroyuki says. “In 2008, the number of younger homeless people increased. They tend to be between 20 and 30 and cannot get a job. In the past, most homeless people were aged between 50 and 60. Now the problem is affecting younger people.”
Under the bridges of Tokyo’s Sumida River, one can see provisional housing made from cardboard boxes and blue plastic sheets. This kind of housing can also be found between trees in Tokyo’s public parks.
Most homeless people appear clean and neat. They do not say much. They do not beg for money.
Difficulties of rehabilitation
Harald Conrad, an expert on social issues in Japan at Sheffield University in Great Britain, describes the chances homeless people have of being rehabilitated back into society:
“If you look at the pattern, what kinds of people are homeless in Japan, they are mostly in the upper age bracket.”
“In many cases, they also have broken social ties. For those people, to reintegrate into typical Japanese society might be difficult. It is not just bringing them back to work but also re-establishing social ties.”
Little support from state
One problem is that homeless Japanese people get hardly any support from the Japanese social security system.
The rules are very strict, explains Conrad: “If a person is still somehow able to work, that person would usually not be eligible for benefits under the social assistance system. Homeless people would not necessarily qualify for benefits if they were actually able to work. In the past there were very strict standards and it was very difficult for homeless people to get these benefits.”
The homeless themselves do not talk about their situation openly. They stay in their own community. Most of them have relatives but are afraid to ask them for help. They are too afraid of losing face.