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Dec 2003
Issue 043

KS Classifieds out NOW!

Hard Knock Life;
a homeless man speaks

The blue tarpaulins of the homeless community have become an establi-shed feature of Kansai cityscapes. But very few non-Japanese speakers have an opportunity to converse naturally with members of the Japanese homeless community. Earlier this year, the Midori Group interviewed a homeless man living in Kyoto as a part of a bilingual documentary project.

Midori Group: Please introduce yourself.
I am from Ehime prefecture. I was born in 1969: I'm thirty-four years old this year. I left home in the year 2000. To begin with I went to Fukuoka City, but now I live in Kyoto. I've been homeless for three years in total. I live in a small hut under a bridge on the Kamo River. Four friends each have a hut under the same bridge.

Tell us about your daily life.
I earn my living collecting aluminium cans. I do that from Tuesday to Friday and I go to different places, each about thirty minutes away by bike. On other days I basically rest; but sometimes I go to other areas to look for cans, lie down, rest, take a nap or read books in the Old Palace grounds.

I usually rest alone. I don't set out to be alone, but that's how it often turns out. On Tuesdays, I wake up at around six a.m. and eat leftovers from my meal the night before and I cook rice and have a small meal at about three or four p.m. Then I go to the park and rest an hour, from six p.m. From seven o'clock until midnight I collect my target weight of cans. By midnight I have generally attained my target weight of cans, but even if I havent, I take a rest at midnight.

Usually I rest in the Old Palace grounds. I sleep better there than I do in my hut. I sleep until four a.m. and then start work again. I collect another four bags of cans before six o'clock. Then I return to the park with my cans and after that I go from one set of garbage bags to the next, early in the morning and this is the most crucial time: from six o'clock until ten o'clock.

On Wednesday mornings I hide my cans behind a public toilet, and on Thursdays under a bridge and at some other place. Then I take the cans to a place near my hut, where the vans collect them. Until then I have to prevent the cans from being stolen. My friends and I call the aluminium dealer to collect our cans. After we hand them over, I can rest until early evening.

How much money do you earn?
Our pay depends on how many cans we've collected. Roughly speaking, I collect 130-140kg a week, at 85 yen per kg. So... that's just over ten thousand yen per week.

Before you became homeless, what did you think about homelessness?
Even when things were hardest I never supposed that I might become homeless myself.

How did you become homeless?
I like sake very much, so I was always going to bars and to Karaoke. I also like Pachinko. And so I gradually borrowed more money from moneylenders. At that time I was working for a local chain store, which meant that I could borrow money easily, because it was a steady job and so on.

Once you get into debt, the lenders treat you terribly. My grandmother had a toy shop in my hometown. I wasn't enjoying my job, so I returned home and started work in the shop with my father. But he and I had different ideas about how to run the business... it wasn't satisfying and I began to seek fun after work.

Running the business was hard and we ended up getting a loan. We borrowed maybe twenty million yen. My own personal loan was three million yen. We sold all our property to pay off the business loan. But even then I owed money myself. So I was driven into a corner and left home in a fit of despair. I hated being hassled by the moneylenders. In hindsight, I probably should have consulted a lawyer to solve our financial problems by declaring bankruptcy. It's really a pity that I didn't do that.

MG: What has been the most difficult experience for you since becoming homeless?
When I first went to Kyushu I survived for a week by merely drinking water from the tap of a public toilet. Then a security guard told me I could get a bento box past its sell-by date from a convenience store. In Kyushu I slept rough in a bus terminal for six months. I really think that people should help those who have recently become homeless before their situation becomes as serious as mine.

Do you have any contact with friends and family from home?
I speak with my mother by collect call. My father passed away. I called my mother this morning for the first time in a month, to see how she's doing. I've told her that Im involved in the collection of waste materials, but I haven't told her that I live under a bridge. Well, maybe she understands my situation from watching programmes on TV about the homeless. But she hasn't asked me directly, so I haven't told her about it. I have no relationship at all with old friends. I can't and won't call them.

What are your plans for the future?
I wan't to go back home before my mother retires
in two years. But I really don't want to return empty-handed. I can't go home with nothing to show for myself. I ran a small business so I'm known to the people of my hometown. So Im hoping Ill be able to start a family business back home. But I'm trapped in a rut right now. Having said that, I do have some positive ideas. I'm only thirty-four years old, so I'm still young; I couldn't be so easy-going if I were fifty.

What can the general public do for homeless people?
I'd like activists to come and see us often and talk to us without waiting to be asked. It's best for people to speak to us as equals... not in a conde-scending kind of way, but just like friends. Anyone could lose their job now-a-days, so people ought to understand our situation.

Text & Photos: Midori Group / William Kremer

Read more about the Midori Group and William Kremer in this month's PROFILE section.


Up to date cinema listings guide so you always know what's on, where and when!


Festivals, performances, shows, gallery openings...your guide to what's coming up in the next few weeks.


Hard Knock Life
The Midori group peers thrugh the tarpaulins of Kyoto's homeless community.


Ski Suki?
The lowdown on some of the best ski resorts in Japan for folks who want to get a jump on the ski season.


Beauty by Coro
Time to dress up for the holiday season.


J Soccer Monthly Review
Soccerphile.com's Sanborn Brown on the latest action in Japanese soccer.


Top games on the horizon
The lowdown on what's hot and what's going to be in the gaming world.


Outback Grill
Sizzling steaks and blooming onions in Umeda.

Kitahorie's Covent Garden Social Club
A Canadian Cheers in the middle of Kitahorie.


Some of the news you won't see printed elsewhere, plus the best of the rest.

:: ART

Ikko Tanaka retrospective and Angkor Wat rubbings, plus other art listings for December.


Ya La Tengo, John Mayer, Clarence Gatemouth and many more incoming live acts...


ELLEN ALLIEN vs DJ MAYURI @ Club Two, Carl Cox @ Under Lounge and more...


Pixars' Finding Nemo, the much anticipated The Last Samurai and many more...


William Kremer A member of the Midori Group, and co-director of "Kyoto Poverty".

A Modern Day Case of Kaiseki-Ryori —

Yoshida, Higashi-Ginza

Masuo greets us fully attired in the fashion of the season. Wearing traditional Japanese garb he cuts a strange contrast to the cool, concertina-like buildings that fan this muggy Tokyo interior, but this a typical Kaiseki resteraunter and we're meant to embrace the opportunity to lose ourselves in relaxation so we gladly surrender ourselves to a Japanese robe or "Happi" when its offered.

A lowered door frame forces us to stoop at the entrance of the tea-room before we can be admitted so as to humble all participants in the spirit of the tea ceremony or "Cha-no-yu" from whence Kaiseki-ryori arose. Inside this candle-lit chamber of calm the heady scent of Japanese cedar greets our senses as our feet glide over the 200 year-old pathway from the” consecrated world" outside (to coin a 15th century Buddhist phrase).

Named a "Roji-sen" after the eminent teacher Sen no Rikyu its function is to induce the guest to throw off all worldly cares in preparation for the meal ahead, but as the walls reverberate faintly with the mish-mash sounds of the street, this is no easy task. Perseverance however rewards the guest with an elevated state of mind; the ultimate goal of Kaiseki-ryori.

Once behind closed doors Masuo treats us to his 22-carat recollections of boom-time Tokyo when rich Company Executives kept quiet council between these discreet walls with kimono-clad companions.

After kneeling to receive the contents of the cleansing tray our legs are relieved to find heat at the base of a concealed drop, a feature of traditional Japanese inns that dates back to the days of Zen Buddhism and reduced living space.

A glance around the dark wood interior renders up the appeal of the sixteenth century antiques that glow eerily from candle-lit recesses. Amongst them sits a rare female Buddha and an Iron Kettle suspended precariously over a sunken hearth to warm guests in winter.

Afternoons at Yoshida we're told, are spent flitting between meditation and food preparation in the lulls afforded by the inconspi-cuous nature of this two-room hideaway. Small enough to be staffed single-handedly Masuo simply locks up when he needs to step out to Tsukiji Fish Market at daybreak for the freshest cuts.

Twelve courses later, feeling warm and nourished we stumble on to the pavement outside with eyes enlivened by secrets and folklore.

The proof of the pudding...
A typical modern-day kaiseki restaurant that offers a combination of fresh wholesome dishes unobscured by sauces and crowned off by Japanese tea; a modern day substitute for the hot water pale and ladle or "Yuto" used for cleansing in 15th century Monasteries.

An experience that has taught us to appreciate home-cooked, nourishing food once more and a place to return to for a relatively inexpensive bolt from the City. But deeper than that, Kaiseki-ryori is about looking outside of ourselves once in a while to realize what peacefulness can be attained from the simple things in life.

Options range from ¥13,000 to ¥18,000 / ¥10,000 lunch-time