People who’ve spent time in both Japan and the United States oftentimes make the observation that they don’t see homeless people in Japan. This is a fair observation. Homeless people are not widely seen in Japan. The same is not the case in many cities in the United States.
The lack of visibility of homeless people in Japan doesn’t mean that the country has beat the problem of homelessness. There are homeless people in Japan. With that said, there are a number of reasons why homeless people aren’t widely seen in Japan.
The Extent of Homelessness in Japan
Like the United States, Japan is a wealthy nation. With that said, Japan has a fairly equal distribution of wealth when contrasted with a country like the United States. Japan has a large, thriving middle class, comprising over 90 percent of the entire population of the country. Less than 50 percent of the population of the United States is in the middle class.
There is a significant disparity in the number of homeless people in Japan as opposed to the United States. A comparison of the homeless populations of the cities in Japan and the United States with the largest homeless populations in each country is illustrative.
The population of the City of Tokyo is 14 million, with a homeless population of about 5,000. The population of the City of Los Angeles is about 4 million with a homeless population of almost 32,000 as of May 2018.
Armed with this data, one of the reasons you very well may not see homeless people in Japan is because there are far fewer people left living on the streets in that country than is the case in the United States.
How Homeless People Live in Japanese Society
Japanese homeless people are considered to be quiet and polite. Homeless people in Japan can rarely be seen asking for money. Panhandling simply does not occur. (As an aside, the lack of panhandling is deemed ironic by many people familiar with Japanese culture. The reality evidently is that people would be very apt to respond positively to a homeless person asking for money.)
Homeless people in Japan also strive to stay out of the way. This represents another reason why you really may not see homeless people in the country, even in Tokyo. Homeless people have a tendency to build makeshift shelters in remote locations – along more isolated riverbanks, for example.
When homeless people do have to sleep in high traffic locations, they oftentimes pack up their belongings and remove themselves from such a location during peak hours.
Shinjuku Central Park is a prime example of how this works. This park is filled with homeless people at night. When the morning dawns, these individuals and families carefully pack up their belongings and get their possessions out of the way. During the day, the park is filled with office workers and others, with no real evidence of homeless people. This illustration of what happens in Shinjuku Central Park is commonplace throughout Japan.
The Broader Japanese Society and Homeless People
On balance, the general Japanese public tends to ignore homeless people and “give them space.” By this, it is meant that homeless people in Japan are rarely harassed by anyone, including law enforcement.
Courts in Japan have provided homeless people in that country a far broader set of rights than is seen in the United States. For example, a considerable percentage of Japanese homeless people live in what commonly is called homeless encampments in the United States.
These tent communities tend to be located near rivers or in parks. Japanese courts have ruled that these homeless tent communities on public land cannot be merely dismantled by the police or anyone else. Homeless people in these tent communities are protected by the same due process rights that apartment renters have. In other words, in order to dismantle a homeless person’s tent or a tent community, the regular eviction process must be followed.
Age and Homelessness in Japan
The largest demographic of homeless people in Japan are people over 40 who are unemployed. There is data to suggest that ageism is a fairly broad problem in Japanese society. The net effect of ageism is that people over 40 face more significant challenges finding employment. While ageism does exist to some degree in the United States, it isn’t as widespread as is the case in Japan.
A sense of honor, perhaps even shame, among this demographic likely results in these individuals who are older taking strides to remain under the radar when it comes to the living situation.