Radio Taisou, which means Radio Exercise is a popular morning event throughout Japan. It starts at 6:15 am and Matsuyoshi san tries to come everyday. He is a member of a homeless dance group called Sokerissa, and practices weekly with them, performing every couple of months and he recently traveled to Brazil with them, so it’s important to him to keep his body in shape.
Most visitors to Tokyo who have spent time in other major cities around the world may notice that there seem to be few, if any homeless people around. They do exist however, and in a society where they are generally ignored and shunned they tend to live out of sight, in parks, along the riverside and in areas such as Ueno, Minami Senju and Shinjuku. The government estimates that there are around 1500 homeless in Tokyo, though the number is probably higher.
After Radio Taisou, he goes to McDonald’s for breakfast. It’s cheap and somewhere where he can sit and drink coffee until the library opens at 9 o’clock. He supplements his burger with anything to make it a bit more filling and nutritious, today it was figs and cabbage. I was quite surprised when he pulled half a cabbage from his backpack!
This is the story of a project that I have been working on called ‘Ibasho Ga Nai’, a Japanese expression meaning to not have a place of your own, or to not fit in anywhere. Matsuyoshi san, a 68 year old man who has been homeless in Tokyo for 6 years is the main subject and I have so far spent 4 days and nights living with him and documenting his story. He built me a box and I had a space next to him in his regular spot next to a bicycle parking area in Shinjuku, that he has been sleeping in for
Belongings are usually kept tidily along the roadside and in some parts there is a sense of community whereby people may share belongings such as brooms – to keep the area around their home clean and umbrellas – to keep their boxes dry in the rain. The boxes and personal belongings are tolerated by the authorities and the only time that they are asked to move on is during the annual Tokyo Marathon.
Many of the people that live in Shinjuku have constructed boxes which are there semi permanently and exist lined up along a handful of streets amongst some of the city’s most luxurious and expensive hotels. Some have built relatively spacious living quarters and even have a separate ‘kitchen’ area with a stove and a main sleeping area. There are also a few makeshift lounge areas where people gather to sit and chat together.
The box I’m staying in is warmer and more comfortable than I’d imagined. The top is covered by a tarpaulin sheet and there is an extra layer of folded boxes on the ground and a sleeping mat to keep the cold out. I have one sleeping bag and a thick blanket (called a mofu in Japanese). In terms of comfort it was fine, the only thing that I had difficulty with was the noise, particularly the skateboards who use the area until the last train at around 12:30am.
Matsuyoshi san was married for 3 years, it didn’t work out and he found himself living in an internet cafe until his money ran out. He still has most of his possessions from before he ended up on the streets and stores them in-between a wall and some bushes by a main road in the center of Tokyo and goes there every morning to store his box and to get anything he needs for the day.
Most of the people who live on the streets here are men between the ages of 40 and 70. They all have different stories. Some have part time jobs and some even have savings and would rather live on the streets and avoid the pressures of Japanese society. As Matsuyoshi san says ‘ they are escaping from management’. In order for Matsuyoshi san to get financial assistance from the government, his family must be informed of his situation which is one of the reasons that he would rather be on the streets than on welfare.
Matsuyoshi san lived in London for 10 years and speaks fluent English. He comes to the library everyday to read the English newspapers from which he often makes translations in order to further his learning and stop himself from getting rusty. It’s his aspiration to become a volunteer guide for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
After the library he goes to Lawson 100 (100 stands for 100 yen as all items are supposed to be 100 yen plus tax) and eats the same thing everyday – in summer tofu and instant noodles, and in winter sweet potato and instant noodles, keeping to a roughly 200 yen per meal budget.
Coin showers are available in some Laundrette’s. It costs 200 yen for 7 minutes. Matsuyoshi comes here every few days after breakfast.
Matsuyoshi san washes his clothes in the laundrette about once a week. The machine seems to like the taste of his socks, as at least one seems to go missing mysteriously every week.
He sells The Big Issue outside a main thoroughfare near the famous government headquarters in Shinjuku. Starting at around 12pm finishing at 4 and aims to sell 10 copies a day, which will make him 2000 yen, enough for him to sustain himself. He usually sells between 6 and 12 copies a day.
At around 9pm every night Matsuyoshi san sets up his box in a walkway by a bicycle parking area in a covered walkway. Before going to bed he brushes his teeth outside, then goes to the public toilet to get rid of the toothpaste and wash. He wakes up at 5:30 every morning and follows the same routine 7 days a week except for when he has dance practice.
Since getting to know Matsuyoshi san we have become friends. He has no pity for himself and I have none for him. He regrets some of his life choices but is doing the best with what he has and is determined to make something of his autumn years.