TOKYO (BP) – As the sun rises over Japan, millions rise early to head to work. An intricate system of commuter trains and subways moves countless men and women from the comfort of their homes to a skyscraper in Tokyo or a factory in neighboring Nagoya. Together, the two cities represent the business and manufacturing facets of the country’s economy.
Hisaya Kazu, 62, also rises early from his cardboard cocoon to go to work. By 3 a.m., Kazu is picking up aluminum cans and other debris in Sakae Park in Nagoya. He cashes in the aluminum for enough yen to buy his meals for the day. As day breaks and the city wakes, Kazu, who is homeless, finds a place to hide, away from public view.
A homeless man waits for food to be distributed in a park in Nagoya, Japan. The ministry to Nagoya’s homeless population is led by IMB missionaries Wang and Rose Lee.
“The police don’t bother me, and the city [officials] know who I am,” he says. “They know I keep the park clean so it is OK for me to sleep here at night. They just don’t want to see me during the day.”
In the United States, a 2008 report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors cites substance abuse, lack of affordable housing and mental illness as the primary causes of homelessness. In Japan, however, employment practices are a primary cause of Japanese homelessness, explains Wendy Hoshizaki, an International Mission Board missionary. Most Japanese factories and some businesses house their employees in company-owned dormitories, so those who lose their jobs often lose their homes as well.
“[Usually] it’s the typical blue-collar guys who get most of the crunch,” says Hoshizaki, a New Jersey native who works among Tokyo’s homeless. “When the stock market crashed [in 2007], we [also] saw some young [business] men who had been kicked out of the company dorms.”
Cultural factors also play a major role in Japanese homelessness. For most Japanese, unemployment and homelessness are a disgrace to the family’s honor, says Richard Oue, an IMB strategist in Tokyo.
“Many times, if somebody loses their job, they are too embarrassed to go home,” says Oue, whose home state is Georgia. “They’d rather become homeless than tell their family.”
In Japan’s male-dominated society, a man’s identity centers around his work. Companies reward loyalty. Through hard work and heavy after-hours socializing with clients and co-workers, a Japanese worker gains what they consider “life everlasting” – a healthy financial portfolio and a comfortable retirement. Losing that position, falling from grace, leads to shame.
The economic downturn that began in 2007 made it impossible for some companies to reward loyalty and remain solvent. Financial analysts estimate that nearly one million Japanese people lost their jobs between 2008 and 2009. After the March 11 tsunami, close to 158,000 people lost their jobs when water destroyed entire villages and the fishing industry along the Northeastern coast of Japan, which is 10 hours north of Tokyo. For many, losing their job means a loss of identity.
Japanese men with homes and families who are laid off often pretend to go to work each day to avoid the humiliation. They prefer spending their days in the park rather than sharing the truth with their families and friends. The facade is easy to carry out, depending on how deep their savings accounts are. Many Asian banks only allow the primary account holder – the male – the ability to withdraw money and gain access to account records. Some men bring money from savings or investment accounts home to their wives as if they were still receiving a paycheck. Others who face large amounts of debt leave town. Still others contemplate and often commit suicide.
In the wake of the massive downturn, Christian workers note a new spiritual interest among the Japanese. Among the homeless, in particular, a significant number in Tokyo and Nagoya are responding to the Gospel as IMB missionaries partner with other Christians to distribute food, share the gospel and start Bible study groups.
“[The homeless] are beginning to ask, ‘What is important? What is real? Isn’t there some hope?’“ says Mark Hoshizaki, an IMB missionary with ties to Texas who now works with the homeless in Tokyo.
Still, more than 99 percent of Japanese do not know Christ. In a society built on pride, Oue admits a significant crisis is what it will probably take to pull the majority of Japanese from their self-sufficiency to reach out to God.
Kazu is one example. Four years ago, he lost his job as a construction worker in Nagoya. Separated from his wife and son for years, he lives in Sakae Park, where Wang and Rose Lee, IMB workers with ties to California, hold an outreach and food distribution for the homeless each Saturday. He doesn’t like this kind of life but he has no other choice. In a few years when he is 65, he will be eligible for government assistance and housing. Until then, he must be patient.
Kazu sits quietly behind a fountain wall, surrounded by his meager possessions and out of sight of Christian workers preparing to distribute food and lead the group in worship. He did not take a number to receive one of the 70 box lunches. He claims he isn’t hungry.
Although Kazu is homeless, he still maintains his “Japanese pride,” refusing assistance even in the face of dire need. He can take care of himself.
“I had a big lunch,” Kazu says. “I don’t need a box today.”
Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and the Cooperative Program help Southern Baptist missionaries around the world share the gospel. Give to the offering through your local Southern Baptist church or online at imb.org/offering, where there are resources for church leaders to promote the offering. Download related videos at imb.org/entirechurchvideo.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tess Rivers is an International Mission Board writer in Southeast Asia.)