Tokyo Ueno Station and Homelessness

Book Review

Between Christmas and New Year I read a fascinating novel by Yu Miri called Tokyo Ueno Station, which was in my Christmas stocking ☺️ The writing style is different to any I have encountered before, with no chapters, not many scene breaks and a fluidity between different points in time. Written from the perspective of a ghost of a homeless man who lived in Ueno Park for many years. The story is captivating. I read the book in two days. Tokyo Ueno Park is a great read and I would highly recommend it. I enjoy a book that opens my eyes to something I have previously overlooked and lets me delve deeper into the culture.

Homelessness in Japan

While reading the book, many questions arose for me about the content. Having been to Japan quite a few times, I have seen homeless people, but not many. Consequently, I had to do some research to better understand the reality.

Evidently, I had an unrealistic understanding of some aspects of Japanese culture. Maybe, I was underestimating the impact of the bubble burst after the 1980s, and not taking into account the ingrained sense of social responsibility many Japanese people feel. I had assumed that there is no poverty, no homelessness, no crime. Ultimately, I was attributing a wealthy country with social welfare, which certainly exists, without realising that many people do not want the assistance. Their sense of self-reliance is too strong.

“Doing Homeless”

I was surprised to learn how many Japanese people are homeless. Like many other things, Japan does homeless different to elsewhere. In Japan, “doing homeless” or hōmoresu o suru is seen as a verb, not a noun. Doing homeless is active, not passive. Many homeless are involved in recycling, scavenging, day labour and resale of items. They admire self-sufficiency, perseverance and dignity.

Sadly, despite this virtuosity, many middle aged homeless men are targeted for violence.

Reading about how many men are murdered by young Japanese teenagers was extremely disturbing. Kids beating to death older men with clubs and setting them and their tents on fire. Often thinking they are providing a service to society and not realising their crime.

Ueno Park

In addition, I read an enlightening article called Down But Not Out: Homelessness in Japan. It was written by Abby Margolis and published on the Pittsburg University website. Abby lived and worked in Japan at the end of the 90s and had spent a significant amount of time with homeless people in Ueno Park. Her study suggested there were around 300 makeshift tents in Ueno Park at the time and between 1000-1200 homeless people in the area. (A 2003 survey put the population of homeless people in Japan at 25,296).

The city’s policy is that they don’t allow homeless to camp in the park. However, there are constant monthly”special clean ups” whereby notice is given via posters that the park must be evacuated of homeless people and their belongings. Basically, this seems somewhat of a performance involving the dismantling of impermanent housing, which is stored by the authorities until such time as the evacuated homeless can return to collect their belongings and rebuild their dwellings. Therefore, the situation remains in a constant cycle.

In conclusion, the situation remains, like so many other places in the world, an issue with few reasonable resolutions. Tokyo Ueno Station gave me a perspective I did not expect. One of ethic and moral determination and of self-sacrifice.

Find a blurb and reviews on Goodreads.

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