In the recent disasters around the world with Hurricane Katrina in the US and the giant quake in Pakistan, what was just as heartbreaking as hearing about the thousands who had died was seeing the thousands more left homeless. People outside for days on end, their only possessions what they can carry with them, left to the mercy of the unbearable heat or harsh cold and, particularly in the case of the elderly and infirm, with absolutely no means of getting themselves out of the situation. Totally helpless.
Switch to Japan. Fukuoka City, Tenjin. There is an old man, in his late seventies, who lives on the street. His only possessions are what he has with him. He is outside all year round, left to the mercy of Japan’s sometimes harsh weather conditions. He can get water from a public restroom not far away but for food he relies on the kindness of strangers. He has bad legs and, although mentally tough, he is physically frail. He has no means of getting himself out of his situation. While there are organizations that aim to help get people off the streets, they invariably see getting a job as the first step. At his age and in his physical condition his working days are over. Despite this, he has a keen sense of pride and considers it his responsibility to pick up cigarette butts and other trash, sweep up fallen leaves and generally keep clean the stretch of public road that has become his home. His greatest pleasure is receiving a lottery ticket that I sometimes buy for him. He says it gives him the chance to dream of a better life.
I first met him several years ago when I was teaching in a nearby building. I wanted to help but was wary. Overcoming my trepidation, one day I took him a bento. He was courteous and appreciative. It was the start of a mutually beneficial relationship: I take him food and other essentials; in return he’s become a sort of grandfather figure to me, always pleased to see me, always ready for a chat. When my son was born he somehow managed to buy him a present. When we part he never fails to tell me to drive safely. It is one of the warmest relationships I’ve experienced during my 15 years in Japan.
I’ve been taking him daily necessities every week since that first bento nine years ago. Now, I’m not looking for a pat on the back, I’m looking for people to take my place. I’m going back to England at the end of the year and I’m worried about Matsubara-san. If you’re reading this and thinking, “Japan has the second biggest economy in the world – they can take care of their elderly” or “Nobody ends up on the street without contributing to their situation themselves” or even “I’m only a visitor here – it’s not my problem,” then you are not the person for the task.
Hurricane, earthquake or unexpected circumstances… Whatever the cause, homelessness can be the result. Unlike Katrina and Pakistan, where you might have sent money to a charity and hoped for the best, this is a chance to do something directly, and see the results with your own eyes.
If you’ve been moved by this piece and feel a desire to help someone in need, please contact me via e-mail at email@example.com. While people outside of Japan need our, help someone in our community does too.
Helping the Homeless
Please feel free to get in contact with Sarah about helping her friend Matsubara-san. However, if you would like to help in another way, the following groups are involved in helping the city’s homeless. Interested people are urged to get in contact with them.
This group, operating from the Minoshima Pastoral Center, provides takidashi (simple food) to homeless people throughout the year. During the colder months from Dec. 2nd to the end of the second week in March, they provide food every week. For the rest of the year food is given out once a month, always in the evenings. They are always open to donations of clothes and daily necessities.
Hakata New Life
With the aim of helping the homeless return to society as soon as possible, they provide bread, fruit etc. to those who live on the street. On the last Saturday of every month, they provide basic food at Dekimachi Park near Hakata Station. Call 092-481-5477 if you want to help.
By Sarah Umetsu
British, Translator & Narrator