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March 30, 2022

Homelessness and the pandemic: Tokyo

Malcolm Foster

Changing face of

homelessness in

Japan's largest city

Official surveys by the metropolitan government show that there are 862 people, nearly all men in their 50s, 60s and 70s, living on the streets, sleeping mostly in parks, by train stations and rivers, or on the side of the road in Tokyo. That’s a stunningly low number for a city of almost 14 million, a rate of about 6 per 100,000 residents.

Advocacy groups say the true number sleeping rough is two or three times higher because the official estimate is based on tallies during the day, when some people experiencing street homelessness are working or out walking about. The Tokyo-based Advocacy Research Center for Homelessness (ARCH), has conducted night-time counts that indicate there are more like 1,500 to 2,000 sleeping on the streets within the city’s central wards. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government says that it will also start counting homeless at night in its 2022 survey.

But homelessness in Japan is changing, manifesting itself in different ways and becoming harder to see and measure, support and advocacy groups say. More young people impacted by homelessness are emerging, and far more people without housing are spending at least some of their nights in 24-hour internet cafes, where they can rent a tiny booth with a computer and just enough space to lie down for under 2,000 yen (£13) for a 12-hour night shift, or around twice that for a full day. Most facilities also offer access to a shower and free drinks. Tokyo authorities estimated in 2017 that there were about 4,000 such “internet cafe refugees,” as they called, but that number may well have risen. 

Younger people affected by homelessness probably rotate between spending nights at friends’ homes, internet cafes, all-night fast food restaurants and on the street, activists say, making it hard to get a true read of the problem. Masami Iwata at Japan Women’s University says this group represents a kind of “invisible homelessness”.

There are obvious signs that the pandemic has pushed more Tokyo residents to the edge of their financial resources. Charities that have operated in the city for years report higher numbers of people coming to their soup kitchens. These days, more than 400 people line up to receive a free bento and other food items at a twice-monthly soup kitchen organised by non-profits Tenohasi and Doctors of the World Japan in Ikebukuro, one of several downtown hubs, up from about 100 before the pandemic. Similarly, Moyai Support Centre’s free food giveaway is drawing more than 400 people a week in nearby Shinjuku compared to about 60 before Covid, said Ren Ohnishi, director at the non-profit.

Also tellingly, the number of people seeking government housing assistance has sky-rocketed. Those approved for such emergency housing aid jumped 34-fold last fiscal year to nearly 135,000 from under 4,000 the previous year.

Temporary hotel use

When the pandemic struck in early 2020 and Japan announced its first state of emergency, many internet cafes were forced to close temporarily. To avoid a sudden influx of people onto the streets, the Tokyo government secured several thousand rooms in business hotels around the city to house them until the state of emergency was over. This was perhaps the most overt, if temporary, government measure to help those without homes during the pandemic. Without this, the number of street homeless would have jumped, says Nao Kasai, co-head of ARCH.

Tokyo has no night-only shelters, as are common in the United States and elsewhere, where people can sleep for the night and leave in the morning. This kind of set-up doesn’t fit with Tokyo’s overarching goal of getting people to stop living on the streets and under a roof, says Emi Yaginuma, who helps oversee homeless affairs at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. “We don’t want to encourage people to come and go and stay only for brief periods in a shelter,” she says. 

The city does have about 150 longer term, dormitory-like shelters run by nonprofits indirectly supported by the government where about 4,000 people live. However, these facilities have a poor reputation. Some are dilapidated, and most are crowded, stressful places to live with lots of restrictions and little privacy. Many people experiencing homelessness prefer the streets, advocacy groups say. During the pandemic, authorities allowed residents to continue to live in these shelters but limited new entrants, housing them in business hotels instead.

Vaccine efforts dragged

Charities say there was little done by the government – national, metropolitan or ward-level authorities – to actively help those living on the street in Tokyo cope with the pandemic. Social workers hired by the Tokyo city government, who make regular rounds to check in with people sleeping rough, distributed masks and leaflets with information about Covid-19. But advocacy groups say much of the material was not written in an accessible way for people experiencing homelessness to understand.

Likewise, although vaccinations were available to the people impacted by homelessness, authorities were not proactive in coming up with a plan to actually inoculate them. Health ministry officials told advocacy groups that all citizens could obtain vaccines, and that the information was available on official websites or at the local ward office, not realising that many people impacted by homelessness don’t have access to the internet and are reluctant to visit ward offices. Advocacy groups had to push local officials to make that happen - and only after most of the rest of the country had been vaccinated. 

In Japan, the policies, orders and much of the funding come from the central government, in this case the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, but it’s up to the local governments – in Tokyo, the 23 wards or cities that make up the urban sprawl – to carry out the measures.

In a huge city like Tokyo, the metropolitan government – which functions as a prefectural, or state, government – oversaw vaccination efforts by local ward health centres, which were carried out in different ways and at different paces. “It’s all quite decentralised,” says Akiko Mera, executive director at Doctors of the World Japan.

Concluding that government efforts to communicate to Tokyo’s homeless about the vaccines were inadequate, Mera stepped up her engagement with local ward officials. She helped craft leaflets that were easier to understand and conducted two surveys among people experiencing homelessness in Ikebukuro, in northwest Tokyo, where her group focuses its works, to collect their views about vaccines. 

Some were suspicious, claiming they were being used as guinea pigs by authorities, and some were concerned about possible side effects. But many of them expressed a desire to get vaccinated, and Mera used this data to convince local ward officials to work with her group to offer immunisations to any individual experiencing homelessness who was interested. 

While most Japanese citizens were mailed a vaccine coupon, that was an obvious problem for most without housing. So Mera and her team spread the word to people affected by homelessness in Ikebukuro that they could get a first shot on a certain date in late November after the biweekly soup kitchen lunch. 

Media coverage in Japan about homelessness increased after the onset of the pandemic but has focused on how the pandemic’s economic fallout is pushing people to the edge, not about challenges facing people newly threatened with homelessness, or how to vaccinate them. There’s more public sympathy for people newly threatened by homelessness but not much concern or attention paid to those whom it has affected for years.

Decline in homelessness

Japan experienced a surge in homelessness in the mid- to-late 1990s, after the economic bubble of the 1980s collapsed but the size of the problem has steadily shrunk since. No official national homeless tallies were conducted until 2003, when the government estimated there were about 25,000 people sleeping on the streets nationwide, a number that has now declined to just under 4,000. This doesn’t include those sleeping in internet cafes.

Experts say that a main factor behind this decline is more flexible use of a public assistance programme called “livelihood protection”, which offers government money to people who are destitute and have no assets or family to rely on. For a single person in Tokyo, it offers qualified individuals 53,700 yen (£350) in monthly housing assistance, which can be used to cover apartment rents or stays in government-funded shelters, and about 75,000 yen (£485) in living expenses. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, few people received such aid due to strict enforcement of criteria, but over the past 15 years officials have become more flexible.

Until recently, a requirement for obtaining this money allowed officials to contact an applicant’s family to see if they can support them. This discouraged many from applying because they were embarrassed to let family know they are destitute, or because they had strained relationships with them. In recent years, this requirement has been waived if applicants don’t want relatives contacted, but some are still worried that officials will do so. Still only about 20-30% of people who qualify take advantage of it, says Hiroshi Goto, social welfare professor at Rikkyo University. 

Job-search support offered at government-run “independence support centres”, which also have dorm rooms, has also helped reduce homelessness, says Yaginuma at the Tokyo government. 

And since Covid-19 struck, the jump in those receiving government housing assistance has also kept many from losing their homes. Increased activism of charities, including helping individuals look for jobs or apply for government aid, also contributed.


People experiencing homelessness face strong prejudice in Japan. In a culture that prides itself on self-reliance and hard work, they are generally viewed as lazy and shameful, or even dangerous. They are often ignored, and parents tell their children not to look at them. Charity workers say many Japanese view them as a nuisance and embarrassment that should be put out of sight. “Homeless people are not viewed as ‘normal’ people, they’re not viewed as fellow-citizens,” says ARCH’s Kasai, which conducts the night-time surveys. 

Homelessness has long been seen primarily as a threat to the harmonious, prosperous ideals in Japanese culture. Generally the motivation to eradicate homelessness is to make society a better place for everyone else, not so much to help those without homes. Japanese culture can be very hospitable toward guests that are viewed as acceptable or proper, but is cold toward many of those on the margins, including its own. These factors may also be behind the relatively low rate of homelessness in Japan – it is something most people try to avoid at all costs.

This prevailing notion affects homeless people’s self-image as well. Most are deeply ashamed to experience homelessness and that keeps some from applying for government aid. Many have disabilities or struggle with depression. About half have only a middle school education, and their job options are limited, often “3-K” jobs – kitanai (dirty), kiken (dangerous) and kitsui (tough) – that few others want.

The outdoor space in Tokyo in which people can sleep out has also shrunk over the past 10 years. This has been mostly a result of park and city renovations that aim to beautify and gentrify the city, particularly ahead of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. For example, wards renovated many parks but locked them up at night or hired security guards to escort out people experiencing homelessness. 

There are still some clusters of tents in Ueno Park and Yoyogi Park, as well as men sleeping out in the open, but a lot fewer than there used to be.

Little impetus

In their assessment of government actions to help the homeless amid the pandemic, advocacy groups say that authorities proactively implemented economic and other practical stop-gap measures, such as housing “net cafe refugees” in hotels, but were slow to provide health-related measures such as vaccines, and essentially needed non-profits to prompt them to carry them out.

Given that the visible number of Tokyo street homeless hasn’t grown, there’s little impetus for the government to change its approach or policies toward homelessness, charity workers say. So even though the problem remains, some authorities may actually be glad that homelessness has become less visible, charity workers say.

Moyai’s Ohnishi says he hopes that the closer cooperation between non-profits and the Tokyo Metro government will continue, but he still sees a reluctance among officials to “get out from their offices” and onto the street, where they should be engaging with people who are struggling.

The huge demand for emergency housing aid is likely to prompt the government to expand that programme, predicts ARCH’s Kasai. And the pandemic will also probably lead government shelters to offer more individual rooms instead of larger rooms for four to six people, she said, so perhaps some small changes will result.

Embracing a broader, more proactive approach to helping the homeless is essential, Mera says, given that for years, Japanese experts have warned that the country is due for a major earthquake that could lead to widespread destruction. “There’s going to be a lot more homeless people when that happens in Tokyo,” she says. “Are we ready?”

* Malcolm Foster is an international journalist with 26 years of experience reporting for major news organisations in Japan, Southeast Asia and the US

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