OSAKA -- On a wintry night at the end of 2020, a man walks along a mainly deserted street in the Airin district of Osaka's Nishinari Ward in western Japan, an area known for its day laborers. In the darkness at the edge of the street, people can be seen lying inside cardboard boxes.
"Are you OK there? Do you want a sleeping bag?" he asks one man.
Daien Ishiguro, a self-employed, 73-year-old resident of Osaka's Chuo Ward, is there to hand street dwellers sleeping bags and heat packs. For two decades he has continued to support homeless people with other volunteers, and they have handed out more than 16,000 sleeping bags to date.
At around 9 p.m., the volunteers spot a man in his 50s looking for a place to sleep near JR Shin-Imamiya Station. For the past two months, the man has had no option but to live on the streets.
"Thank you so much. The warmth reaches my heart," the man says as he receives a sleeping bag, pressing his hands together in appreciation.
The volunteers walk along areas like the Nanba entertainment area and over the course of about 2 1/2 hours, hand sleeping bags to around 10 people.
"We're in the middle of the coronavirus crisis, so we've got to look out for people more than before," Ishiguro murmurs, as if talking to himself.
It was after he lost two of his loved ones that Ishiguro began his activities on the streets. His second son died of leukemia in 1989, aged just 4. Then eight years later, he lost his wife to cancer at the age of 49.
After his losses, Ishiguro became depressed. When thinking about the meaning of living, he came across a diary entry that his wife had written right before she passed away. "I get the feeling that I'm helped by my connections with people," she wrote. "I'm going to go and return the favor to everyone." Though she had suffered from metastasis of cancer for many years, the entry spelled out her dreams for the future and her feelings of appreciation.
Ishiguro began to wonder what he could do in place of his wife. As he was pondering this, an acquaintance asked him to come and volunteer cooking food for people in the Nishinari area, and he saw people who lost their lives on the streets.
"I don't want anyone else to die," Ishiguro thought. He started soliciting donations, and began distributing sleeping bags to people in 2001.
At first, Ishiguro scoured the streets with an acquaintance, and handed out close to 1,000 sleeping bags some winters. His supporters gradually increased in number, and on weekends he continues to keep watch over people on the streets and helps cook meals for them.
When he started his activities, there were people living on the streets all through the city of Osaka, but now they are concentrated mainly in the Nishinari area. While walking through the streets, he feels that the number of people who sleep on the road and pass away has diminished considerably.
According to a national government survey, there were 6,603 people living on the streets in Osaka in 2003 when the survey began, but by 2020, the number had fallen to 982. But as coronavirus cases have surged, circumstances this winter are different. The number of unemployed people is increasing, and Ishiguro says he is seeing new faces at the events providing food to the needy.
Coronavirus cases have continued to spread this year, and there are no signs of the virus being brought under control. Ishiguro worries about the prospects of people who have lost their homes and jobs ending up on the streets. He has accordingly cooperated with other support groups and spent more time than normal going around and checking up on people.
His 21st winter of helping people looks to be tougher than normal.
"Various turns of fortune and support are what brought me here today. Without forgetting to be thankful, I'll be happy if I can someday tell my wife and son, 'I did my best,'" Ishiguro said, his breath turning white in the cold winter air.
(Japanese original by Shuntaro Sawa, Osaka City News Department)