Kyoto’s Homeless


Oike Street – the area we patrolled

There are about 300 homeless people in Kyoto, although in nearby Osaka they number in the thousands. So said Fabio, my new Italian-German friend, who currently studies Noh theatre at Osaka University. I had met him for coffee yesterday evening, when he said he had to leave by 9:30 to go volunteer for a homeless patrol. Curious, I went with him.

Heading towards the catholic church where the patrol volunteers meet, my mind filled with images from the movie Tokyo Godfathers, an animation about three homeless people in Tokyo, who find a baby in the trash around Christmastime, and their ensuing adventure. Thanks to the movie, I had little fear of Japan’s homeless population, but rather respect. These people have found that life can be lived more simply than the status-quo, yet their neatness and courtesy is that of most other Japanese. Their cardboard and blue tarp homes are carefully built, and when they are at home, their shoes will be neatly arranged outside the door. Even when they curl up on a park bench to sleep with their overloaded bicycle parked next to them, their shoes will be neatly arranged on the ground next to the bench.

The actual experience was very positive. Volunteers broke up into three groups to tour different parts of the Shijo-Kawaramachi area. I joined Fabio and the group doing the rounds on Oike Avenue, quite close to my home. When we found a homeless person, we would approach them kindly, trying not to disturb those who were sleeping, gave them some hot tea, asked them if they had any difficulties, and provided information about a monthly get together at the church, where everyone cooks, eats, and cleans up together. In some cases, the volunteers provide the homeless with essential objects they’ve asked for, such as mosquito spray or shoes. I was really impressed with how appropriately and politely the volunteers approached the homeless to show that people really do care.

Being a foreigner on these rounds cast a different perspective on the experience. Fabio said it took a while before the homeless people got used to him. Also, when the group finds new people, Fabio tends to keep a distance, because he doesn’t want to seem like a gawking foreigner. But the response from the people we met was positive. I would often be the one to hand them tea as another person struck up a small conversation, asking how things were. A few asked where I was from, and one – admittedly drunk – man was utterly amazed that I spoke Japanese. “If I didn’t look at your face, I would think you were Japanese,” he said.

Towards midnight, shortly before we returned to the church for a follow-up meeting, one of the volunteers of the group, a young man asked me why I had wanted to volunteer. I answered, because it seemed interesting. Interesting? Now I wish I would have said something like since I’m also a Kyoto resident, I am equally responsible in taking care of the city and the people who live here.

But these people also hold a unique wisdom. I was surprised to hear one man said he came from Tokyo to Kyoto to study, because Kyoto has more and better public libraries, where he goes to read. Of course that is not the only and not the main reason I say these people are wise. Their experience is that of Japan’s underbelly, Japan’s ura. They see many of the problems with Japanese society, but usually no one asks them about these things. By joining this group of volunteers, perhaps I can understand Japanese society a little more. I can see in stark contrast the good things like the feelings of family among the homeless and the volunteers and the problems the people of the street face or at least those they chose to tell us about.

There are many stories of meeting a god in beggars clothes or meeting the Buddha. In Noh, most gods first appear as poor people before revealing their true identity as a god. It has long been known that good things can happen by helping those in need. Perhaps I will meet my own god or Buddha by helping these people.

One thought on “Kyoto’s Homeless

  1. This is the maybe first time I take a look at the night-patrol from someone else’s point of view. Most of the volounteers have their own personal opinions about it, but they never expressed them. I’m also sure that there is a broad spectrum of motivations leading them to do what they do. I guess that, if anybody asked me “Why” do I do that, I would give the same answer: because it’s interesting, omoshiroi (not to forget that the kanji for omoshiroi gives us a hint of a deeper meaning: it’s the “bright light in the face” of pure amazement). As finding Buddha… I don’t know.
    People tend to have different opinions about homeless’ lifestyle. Some japanese say plainly that homeless are people who don’t want to get a job and enjoy their life as social parasites. Now… If you ever spent a night out in the winter (even in Kyoto), you probably know that it’s not all fun and games. Also, picking food from the garbage or collecting cans and biking around with a huge load of them on your back isn’t great fun. Their background is (needless to say) extremely variegated. There are pure drop-outs, gamblers, drunkards, madmen… but also people who lost their job (increasing in number) and couldn’t bear the shame of going back home, or couples who hit the street after being strangled by their debts. Women who escaped from domestic violence (the position of a lone woman is often very critical in Japan) or simple runaways. To my opinion there are two striking features of japanese homeless: their invisibility and their outcast-like position in this glamorous wealth-paradise.
    Being a damn materialist, I doubt that there is any god in disguise among them… but it would a nice surprise to find out I’m wrong :-)

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