There are 43 people in the village, but some years ago there were as many as 400. Some have been living here for a few months only, but some are true veterans – one has been around for good 20 years, and over there lives ‘ojiisan’ (‘grandpa’), who has been staying in the park for as many as 50 years. Some people have moved out back to ‘happy life’ in the city.
I’m sure many people who have been to Japan have seen or at least heard of some of the ‘villages’ of homeless people in parks. I first saw one of them at the Ueno park in Tokyo, when I was visiting Japan in 2004. Back then the village seemed huge, and it was just out there in the open, not even pretending to hide. A silent, but powerful complaint against the society and the craze of real estate, it could have not gone unnoticed with its uniform blue tents, which the homeless apparently get from the local government.
Yesterday me and my friend B. set out to see another homeless village, this time in Yoyogi park, and try to meet Ms. Misako Ichimura, a known artist who lives amongst the homeless in the park. Petals from cherry blossoms already falling on the ground, laughter of high school kids enjoying their spring break and the quiet scenery of early evening offered little hope – the park looked like a ‘clean’ and comfortable place, without anything what the society (at least in LT) would term ‘anti-social elements’. A friend called, and I asked him what is the word for ‘homeless’ in Japanese. The friend said they use a transcribed English word – homuresu. Apparently, these people don’t even exist in the language.
B. suggested that we ask one person whether he has heard anything about the artist. Anxious and worried, I finally approached the man and asked him if he often comes here, and, if so, if he has heard anything about the famous artist Ichimura. The man said that he only comes to the park once a year, to see the cherries. When his friends joined him for a cherry viewing party, he said to one of them, ‘They are looking for some Ichimura, who appears to be famous, an artist who lives with the homeless, have you heard anything?’ The second man pointed at where the tent village should be. Having received their compliments on my Japanese, I thanked them and we went to look for the homeless. A group of foreigners was sitting on the ground and observing cherries on the closest point from which the homeless village cannot yet be seen.
Most of the tents were blue like the ones I saw at Ueno, but some people had write neat tents, one of them even had a flower vase near the entrance. Even in these conditions, people try to make their housing aesthetically pleasing. We saw two men sitting and chatting. I asked them about Ms. Ichimura. After some consultation with two other people, the man located her tent, but the artist was away. Apparently, she is known by her first name in the village. One of the men even spoke English (others did not), and he immediately switched to it, seeing our foreign appearance, although I talked to him in Japanese. He did his best to answer our questions in a mixture of English and Japanese. Some foreigners would come to stay at the village. The man calls them ‘marijuana tourists’ – they take pleasure in experiencing this kind of lifestyle in Japan, and enjoy the absence of police. While we were talking to the homeless, a man in what I thought was a police uniform showed up, had a short chat with the homeless and went away. ‘What was the policeman doing here?’ I asked. ‘What police? Where?’ the homeless were surprised. I said that I meant this man who came on his bike to talk to them. ‘That was a park guard. They come once in a while, so you can feel really safe here. The police is outside of the park – they don’t come here at all’, the man said.
One woman who also talked to us said she doesn’t live there, but comes for work. Quite some homeless people in Japan work if they can find anything. Most often they do low-paid low-skill jobs at marketplaces and the like. Begging on the streets is almost absent in Japan. Critics say that many people become homeless after losing their jobs and not being able to handle housing debts anymore.
I asked the people how they survive in winter. The woman said it’s OK, as long as one has a sleeping bag. ‘The homeless without tents are in a much more difficult position’, she added.
Ms. Ichimura is very well-known in the village. She distributes free food to the homeless every Thursday. During the day she goes to Kokuren university, where she teaches. There is also another artist living there – if I understood correctly, he’s a musician. Quite some people come to the tent village to visit the artists every now and then. They, as well as the marijuana tourists, are in an advantaged position to choose how much they want to get involved with the community and when to draw back. The Yoyogi park accommodates both people who enjoy the freedom of going in and out (the hanami party people and tourists), as well as those who have no choice but to stay there.
The people we met were really helpful and interested in what we were doing there. And, needless to say, I was proud to be able to speak that much Japanese as to ask these questions 🙂 I should go there again tomorrow and try to catch Ms. Ichimura.