Tokyo’s homeless live along the Sumida River, and their lifestyle might leave you feeling philosophical. When I visited Japan this summer, I spent a great deal of time walking along the bank of the Sumida, starting from Asakusa until past where the river bends. Aside from the cool breeze, pretty views and curious street art, I was intrigued by the number of vagrants who have setup makeshift houses and call this stretch home. I found them to be dignified people who enjoy spending their weekends like any regular person. On a Saturday afternoon I observed them reading the newspaper, playing chess, drawing, listening to music and relaxing by the riverside. Others were simply not at home. And all of them were far too busy going about their own business to be interested in a passersby like me or to stop and beg for alms.
Even more intriguing were the structure of their homes. It appears many of Tokyo’s homeless live in sturdy tents and makeshift huts built from scraps of cardboard and wood, tied together with rope and covered in waterproof plastic. Some were decorated with wooden slats or pot plants. These makeshift homes contained possessions as well, such as umbrellas, water bottles, bicycles, trolleys, and other utensils and creature comforts. I was most impressed that almost every home had a broom to keep the inside clean and shoes were kept strictly outside. One tenant had recently washed their clothes in the Sumida river and they hung their laundry to dry outside.
As I investigated these meticulously maintained homes, I realised Tokyo’s homeless have not given up hope. In London, I was used to seeing the more stereotypical homeless person that lives in squalid condition, begs for money, loiters around public parks drinking, and has a hardened appearance. Despite a generous social welfare system, they live day to day. However the people here take a long term view. They still care about keeping a clean home and are too proud to ask for money. What is more, it is apparent most of these dwellers have regular income. Bottle collection is a lively pursuit and many of the homes contain high-vis vests and uniforms, suggesting outdoor employment. Since 2010, Tokyo has been through some tough times and the number of people forced to live on the street has increased greatly. The government turns a blind eye to their situation, however Japan is making a comeback and today it boasts the world’s third largest economy. Do these people live in hope of one day moving back to a cosy apartment? Or perhaps they are satisfied with their lot, enjoying the kind of million dollar waterfront views that most middle class can only dream of?
I asked a few of my Japanese friends about these so-called homeless people along the Sumida. They insisted that they are mostly former CEO’s and other previously successful business people who lost everything after the Lehman crash. Because they used to be rich and accustomed to a certain lifestyle, they are still prideful and try to maintain their dignity by living in the best way possible. They especially take solace in their beautiful waterfront views. That could also be the reason why they get angry if you try to give them some coins!!