Wealth in Tokyo neighborhood begins to crowd out Salvation Army outpost

December 25, 1990|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- Turn left at the Saint Moritz pastry shop, walk between rows of glistening mid-rise buildings full of tiny but sleek $5,000-a-month apartments, pass the Blue Pocket Pet Salon on the left and the Siena Fashion Boutique on the right, and there's the door to Capt. Kimiko Tateishi's front room.

Captain Tateishi is commander of the Salvation Army's Azabu Juban station, a down-at-the-heels, one-story stucco outpost VTC that clings devoutly to the lost poverty of a neighborhood that has become the chrome-and-marble address of movie stars, mistresses, foreign managers, imported limousines and -- by government count -- more breeds of foreign dogs than any other part of the world's highest-priced capital.

Life in a changing neighborhood "is a serious problem," Captain Tateishi said, sitting in front of a portable kerosene heater. She talked across a yellowing plastic-lace tablecloth amid cardboard boxes of canned foods and used clothing.

The roll of soldiers -- members -- has dwindled from more than 200 to fewer than 100 in the past 20 years at the Azabu Juban station, Captain Tateishi estimated.

The relentless rise of apartment buildings for the rich, she explained, has left little room for the factory workers and day laborers who formed the station's recruiting pool before prosperity arrived.

"Many of those people the station used to serve had come from the countryside, but they didn't always find the chance they had come for," she explained. "Many of them were as eager for guidance as they were for a meal."

For the more than one century since William Booth founded the Salvation Army in England, helping the helpless has been the key to the organization's recruiting.

Today in Azabu Juban, Captain Tateishi is a real-life sketch of how resourceful good times can make you if your business is poverty.

She and the other four officers of the station systematically volunteer to work with welfare programs run or supported by the government, one way of finding the needy amid the neon-lighted glitz of downtown Tokyo. Another way is to become members or directors of clubs and other charities in the neighborhood.

She was also working to pull off the station's first-ever version of what is a Salvation Army staple in many Western countries -- a Christmas dinner for the indigent.

That, she explained, is because increasingly the station's visitors are not from Azabu Juban itself but from Japan's small but growing version of the floating homeless population that migrates from one charity meal to another all over Tokyo.

"We feed one or two every day," she said, "sometimes whole groups. Three times a week, the Salvation Army serves hundreds of hot meals in each of three parks in Tokyo.

"Of course, we can't keep in touch with them, because they don't have telephones," she added. "If we manage to have a holiday dinner, we'll have to ask the ones who happen in to spread the word. But they have a pretty good grapevine to let each other know."

The Salvation Army came to Tokyo in 1895 when 14 British missionaries headed straight for the poorest of the poor.

Azabu Juban opened in 1900, surrounded by sweatshops, small factories and rooming houses for day laborers.

Nobody paid much attention.

In a country where Christians have never been more than 1 percent of the population, such attention as the Salvation Army was able to attract was focused elsewhere that year -- on a defeat that became one of the organization's most famous victories in Japan.

handful of blue-uniformed officers and soldiers went to Yoshiwara, old Tokyo's legendary red-light district, and started playing hymns on drums and trumpets to demand that the brothels be closed.

Owners and pimps counterattacked, destroying the drums and trumpets and forcing the wounded squad into a retreat that newspapers reported all over Japan.

Anti-prostitution crusaders of all stripes found new support after the battle of Yoshiwara, and Salvation Army recruiters began to find people who had heard of their organization.

Captain Tateishi was attracted to the Salvation Army when its soldiers came to offer comfort after a fire that destroyed her father's home.

Her father, who had not been religious, was moved to join the Christian church her mother had attended for years.

Later, when her husband proved to have a drinking problem, her father urged her to consider the Salvation Army as a solution. So 13 years ago, already the parents of five children, they joined the organization.

Since World War II and the U.S. occupation, she said, Japan's government has opened orphanages, tended to the indigent and generally taken on many of the charitable activities that had been mainstays of the Salvation Army.

Amid the prosperity of the country, she volunteered, the real news may be that it is still possible for determined soldiers of the cross to find needy people.

By the time she took command of the Azabu Juban station seven years ago, Japanese were already using the neighborhood's name as a synonym for nouveau riche, much as Beverly Hills and Scarsdale worked their ways into American slang.

The needy she and the other four Azabu Juban officers now are able to find, she said, often turn out to be old people living out their last years or months alone without family members to help them.

In a typical instance, she said, for four months this year she delivered government-supplied hot meals three days a week to a 76-year-old woman who had Parkinson's disease, then visited the woman in a hospital.

"Those people need the meals, and that is what the government can provide, but what they appreciate most is the visits -- they have so little contact with other people," Captain Tateishi said.

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