'Economic miracle' leaves poor behind

HOMELESS AND HIDDEN IN JAPAN

February 07, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Every business day, black limousines bring the well-dressed and the powerful to To kyo's gleaming new $1.255 billion, twin-tower City Hall.

But every Wednesday night a grim parade approaches the same place. It comes from a different Tokyo. It's here to see the Salvation Army.

Dull eyes, stubble beards, stringy hair, a battered shopping bag or two full of belongings: These are Japanese who were left behind or fell out of their country's celebrated "economic miracle" after World War II.

They wait at the City Hall curbside for a weekly free hot meal and a chance at some used winter clothing from the Salvation Army.

Millions of Japanese are proud to have "lifetime employment" at a corporation that provides everything from company health checkups to weekend golf.

For the predominantly male and middle-aged members of the Wednesday night queue, work has always been something to find one day at a time -- if at all -- especially when the weather or the economy is bad. This winter, the economy is very bad and the employable among these destitutes have been among the hardest hit.

Last summer, the world's No. 2 economy entered its second recession since World War II. Last year was the first time annual unemployment figures rose in six years. They averaged 2.2 percent for the year and 2.4 percent for December, the highest monthly level since May 1989.

No one thinks unemployment in Japan will ever approach 7.3 percent, where it stands in the United States. But on a mild winter's Wednesday night outside the City Hall garage door, unemployment has faces and voices that cannot be seen or heard in government figures.

Who are they?

"Many are alcoholics, and some have psychological problems," says Col. Ted Morris, national commander of the Salvation Army. "And there always are some who simply choose to drop out -- they don't like the stress of all the relationships with other people in the usual Japanese lifestyle, or they can't cope with all the other pressures of a full-time job. After all, there is a kind of freedom to life on the streets."

For day laborers, unemployment has instant impact. The ones in the City Hall queue call themselves "throw-away workers" and "economic shock absorbers."

"I never expected my life would fall so low that I'd be homeless," says Mitsuo Akiyama, 63, a day laborer. "I can still get work sometimes, and I don't depend on anybody else, but I can't pay for a place to sleep any more."

The government of Japan has no provisions for unemployment compensation. There are government-run shelters for Japanese who want to be rehabilitated and trained for work. But the men in the Wednesday night line here hold to a peculiar pride in their independence.

As Wednesday evening wears on, their line stretches single file from the City Hall garage entrance, around a nearby corner and a half-block up the sidewalk. This evening, there are about 180 of them. They wait for a white Salvation Army truck and a van that arrives with it at 8 p.m.

Except for the shimmering City Hall towers, this could be a Skid Row scene in any American city: Christian songs, a prayer before the food, white plastic bowls and spoons, cardboard boxes of used clothing and blankets. The biggest difference may be that the bowls are filled with steaming white rice and helpings of vegetable-beef curry.

"We're getting about 30 percent more in all our relief lines this year," Colonel Morris says. "This is where a slower economy makes itself felt first."

"We think there are about 6,000 or so permanently homeless street people in Japan," he says. (Some private relief organizations estimate as many as 8,000.) The Salvation Army commander adds: "Now the number is increasing because of the economic troubles."

Either number would be a handful compared with the homeless of Europe or America. But even those numbers run counter to some of the most cherished stereotypes of corporate and governmental Japan. In a country proud of its strong and squeamish about its weak, officialdom does not exert itself to document this face of life.

"The government doesn't count these people -- they seem mainly to want to keep them out of sight," Colonel Morris says. A hint of mischief widens his smile: "They keep asking us to move that food line into the park across the street, but we kind of like it right at the new City Hall."

Inside the marble-and-chrome City Hall towers, welfare officials acknowledge that they keep no records of how many "homeless" or "street people" there are in this metropolis of 12 million.

"The metropolitan police keep some figures, but they don't want them publicized," says Akira Murayama, chief of the human protection section of Tokyo's Bureau of Social Welfare. "I have heard their numbers, but I don't know what the number really is." A police spokesman declined to give any number.

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