sábado, 21 de abril de 2012

The Road to Kyoto and a Discourse on Homelessness in Japan

The Road to Kyoto and a Discourse on Homelessness in Japan

Kyoto is some 50 km north of Nara and can be traversed almost entirely by a bike path, which hugs the Katsura and Kizu rivers. At a leisurely pace, I followed the bends of a serene river that ran like a scar on the face of the Kansai flatlands, which are carpeted in tea farms and framed by neat rows of suburban homes. Without warning, materialized the highrises of Kyoto. The skyscape is crisscrossed by elevated rail lines and overpasses. This is a modern city shrouded in history. The former imperial capital of Japan, Kyoto is one of the few Japanese capitals spared complete destruction by WWII and still boasts many pre-war buildings. Boulevards are checkered with fancy department stores and ancient wooden palaces and shrines alike. A search for relics of ancient Kyoto can be a tourist treasure hunt. On my list of notables scattered throughout the city, were traditional handicrafts of wooden combs and fans, an anachronistic yuba (tofu skin) factory, Ukiyo-e galleries, the famous Ipodo Tea House, and a traditional natto (fermented soy bean)  factory. I made a paltry attempt to stop at some of these places on my way out.

My final night in Kyoto the rain let up and I left my hobo sleeping spot from under a mechanic’s shop awning to the more congenial atmosphere of Maruyama Park. Entering the park from the main thoroughfare of Shijo-dori, under the grandiose entrance of Yasaka shrine, the park opens around a small oblong lake, fed by a series of twisted streams. A walking path, embellished by wooden bridges, cuts its way through the aquatic garden. There are plenty of benches beneath gazebos and overhangs that provide refuge from the impending rain; however, I arrived late and much of the prime real estate was already occupied. Unlike the jovial coterie of subversives whom I was well acquainted with in Yoyogi-koen’s Blue Tent City in Tokyo, these displaced individuals, by all appearances, were bereft of home and community alike. In the morning, to see these well groomed persons upright, one would never have guessed they had slept the previous night on that very same bench. I couldn’t help but wonder how these people had arrived at their present condition.

Homelessness in Japan is certainly different from that which I’ve experienced in the United States. A little online research shed some light on the idiosyncrasies of the Japanese experience of this common social ailment. Japan’s homeless problem is a new phenomenon. Sure there have always been vagrants and beggars, but their numbers have, until recently, remained inconsequential. It wasn’t until Japan’s bubble economy burst in the 1990s that a significant number of dispossessed persons emerged and the word “homelessness” entered the Japanese lexicon (albeit Japanese homelessness remains picayune when compared with the United States). An exposé published in the Boston Globe in 2007, entitled “Clothed, clean, and homeless in Japan”, interviewed a former taxi driver, whose healthy disposition and mild lifestyle defies Western stereotypes of the typical park dweller. According to Toshio Mizuuchi, a professor at Osaka City University who studies homelessness, dispossessed persons in Japan are much less likely to be marred by mental problems and drug abuse than their U.S. counterparts  (statistics for the city of Osaka, nearly double the national average, range between 10 and 15%; while U.S. figures closer to 25%) . The article makes no attempt to conjecture on the reasons for such a disparity between cultures, but it’s interesting to note that in Japan, nearly half of all homeless persons receive no government support and many do in fact earn money.
Obviously, Japan has a much different approach to dealing with this important societal affliction.

An article published in the New York Times in 1996, at which time homelessness in Japan was at its zenith,  entitled “Welfare as Japan Knows It: A Family Affair” by Nicholas Kristof, although outdated, explains some of these cultural differences that make homelessness in Japan unique. For one, Japan doesn’t suffer from many of the social ills that epitomize the American experience of homelessness: only 1% of Japanese births are to unwed mothers, compared with more than 30% in the U.S. Illicit drugs are not nearly as prevalent. Furthermore, Japan has a much more egalitarian distribution of wealth. Probably the biggest cultural difference that makes a system like theirs possible in the first place, is the strong emphasis on family obligation and, as Kristof puts it, “an abiding sense of shame that colors almost every aspect of life”. It is this sense of patrimonial honor that is the reason why so many Japanese refuse assistance even when they do qualify; not to mention, the process is anything but a day at the beach, or should we say, a day at the park. Considering the insurmountable preconditions, stringent regulations and intrusive monitoring, one author succinctly writes, "one could say that they prefer to freeze outside than be frozen by officialdom's coldness".

Japan’s homeless community can draw strength from a long history of community organizing and direct action. In Tokyo, I was struck by the level of self reliance, but also how disparate communities worked together on issues that transcended their situation, namely the anti-nuclear movement. At the time of my visit, Blue Tent City in Yoyogi-koen was under siege by park officials. Theirs was a struggle that homeless communities have faced in other Japanese cities as well. Stories about the Osakan Castle-Park homeless community and their many triumphs against the city provide a model of resistance. Members of the community formed a central homeless people’s association that aided in the distribution of food and health services, as well as plot strategy and intermediary negotiations when faced with forced removal. Members even sued for the ability to register the park as their legal residence (legal residence is a prerequisite for qualifying for welfare). They organized sit-ins and held Karaoke sessions when the city criminalized such outdoor events. And when their tents were finally confiscated, they sued the city for restitution. Under pressures to beautify the city for Japan’s hosting of the Winter Olympics, the Blue Tent City in Castle-Park was ultimately disbanded. Many of its members moved to other parks, but continued to remain active. Their legacy of community organizing and direct action remain an inspiration to other dispossessed and marginalized peoples throughout Japan.

The BBC ran an exposé reporting on the effectiveness of the Osakan homeless people’s association that even operated a volunteer-run farm. Pictures can be seen at the following link.

In the U.S., welfare, which is doled out with more frequency and less restrictions, is also more contended than in Japan. A great article, by Jarvis DeBerry, showcasing the insidious speculations of a public grappling with the questionary role of the state, appeared in a New Orleans' newspaper today. The article concerns a debate that ensued after a photo was published showing a boy in public housing with an iPad, a luxury item that welfare recipients in Japan would not be permitted to own. The article paints supercilious those who are too quick to judge what the disadvantaged should or should not own.

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