Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

'Please help': Homeless man's sign highlights struggle for Japan's young, poor in pandemic

A 35-year-old man who was asking passersby for money is seen near JR Shinjuku Station's west exit in Tokyo on Jan. 7, 2021. He agreed to being photographed on the condition that his face would not be shown. (Mainichi/Shinji Kurokawa)

TOKYO -- "Please help I'm struggling because of corona and other things," read the words on a piece of cardboard held up by a man, his head hung low as he sat against a wall near the west gate to JR Shinjuku Station, one of the capital's busiest stations.

    I saw him amid the crowds on the night of Jan. 7, after a state of emergency was declared in Tokyo and neighboring prefectures. A passerby dropped some coins into a small bowl the man had put in front of him, and said, "It's not much, but..." He thanked them.

    When the man finally raised his head, I approached him to try to find out more about him. It turned out he was 35; he said he lost his job to the coronavirus and had since been unable to find new work. Over the New Year holiday he stayed at a friend's house, but said that he couldn't be dependent on them forever, and now he's begging for money while living on the streets.

    The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has prepared 1,000 hotel rooms to temporarily accommodate poor homeless individuals, but the man said he'd only "heard about the program from an acquaintance" and was unaware of how specifically to receive the aid. "In any case, I'm jobless because of the coronavirus. That's it," he said before looking down again.

    I was still worried about him after I left, so I went back to where he was about 20 minutes later to give him a slip with contact details for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's consultation services. But he was already gone. A young man and woman who were standing near where he'd been told me, "He was here three days ago too, and we've seen him around for quite a while now."

    "There are many others out there struggling in the same way, especially among young people," said Ren Onishi, 33, director of certified incorporated nonprofit organization Moyai Support Centre for Independent Living that helps those in poverty. The slump in economic activity brought on by the pandemic is taking its toll on nonregular workers, day laborers and others with unstable working arrangements.

    According to a survey by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, as many as 80,000 people in Japan have been laid off or seen their employment contracts terminated for coronavirus-related reasons. On Jan. 9, more than 200 people had received food provisions distributed in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building as part of a program Onishi is involved in. The number of recipients set a record high, and was 2.5 times those in the same period of the previous year.

    National and local governments have taken measures, too. As mentioned previously, the metropolitan government has since Dec. 21, 2020, made 1,000 hotel rooms available to people in need including individuals who planned to spend the New Year holiday at internet cafes. Following the state of emergency declaration, it also extended the period for applications to use them to Feb. 7.

    At a Dec. 25, 2020, press conference, Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Norihisa Tamura made a rare call to members of the public to seek livelihood assistance, saying, "People who are really struggling have the right to receive benefits, so I'd like them to apply without hesitation." The Japanese government has also established a variety of aid programs, and appears poised to respond to the current emergency.

    But even if this aid framework is established, it won't lead to any support if information about it is not conveyed to people who need it. Despite the expectation that individuals who sleep in internet cafes and other places will account for a large proportion of hotel room program users, the metropolitan government has not asked internet cafes to inform its customers about the help available, and a representative of the metropolitan government's community welfare section said they do not plan to do so in future.

    Support workers in the field have reported hearing from many people claiming they weren't aware of their eligibility to stay at hotels. A metropolitan government source revealed just 235 people had used the program as of Jan. 4.

    Additionally, the aversion to welfare shown by some individuals in need also appears to be an obstacle. Onishi told the Mainichi Shimbun that even if people in need are able to reach support services, there are cases of them expressing strong resistance to receiving livelihood assistance and other support.

    "In Japan, poverty is seen as a matter of 'personal responsibility.' Those who think this way should be approached and persuaded so they can feel at ease in using support services," said Onishi. He added, "It's not enough to just open consultation services and wait for people to come. I want administrative institutions to take the lead in cooperating with private support groups so that individuals can use services more proactively."

    Will sufficient support reach poor people amid the chaos of the "third wave" of coronavirus infections? When I went back to Shinjuku Station on the night of Jan. 9, the homeless man was nowhere to be seen.

    -- Consultation services

    Tokyo Challenge Net, a social service provided by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, can be reached by calling 0120-874-225 (Japanese language only) or 0120-874-505 (for women only, and Japanese language only)

    Guidance on temporary loan emergency funds and other support can be found on the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare website: (in Japanese) (in English)

    (Japanese original by Shinji Kurokawa, City News Department)

    Also in The Mainichi

    The Mainichi on social media