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Homeless people were evicted from their spots as Japan pushed ahead with Summer Games

Osamu Yamada, right, is seen being warned by a Tokyo Metropolitan Government official to remove his belongings from a grassy area near the new National Stadium in Tokyo on June 18, 2021. (Mainichi/Harumi Kimoto)

The Olympics may be called the "festival of peace," but for at least one man forced three times to leave outdoor spaces near Tokyo's National Stadium that he called home, they were far from peaceful. Although the 2020 Games have ended, his former "homes" remain surrounded by fences. He's not the only one experiencing issues like this. In the name of the festival of peace, many people have only had inhumane treatment.

    On June 18, approximately a month before the Tokyo Games began, four staff from the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government appeared at a grassy area near the National Stadium the latter manages. Osamu Yamada, 64, who had long been living there, was surrounded by his supporters when meeting the officials.

    Osamu Yamada, who has lived for years near the National Stadium, is seen on Aug. 9, 2021. (Mainichi/Harumi Kimoto)

    An organizing committee staff member said, "We'll be setting up fences here," and a Tokyo government official handed Yamada a "warning." The paper read, "This property (belongings) is interfering with road management, so please remove them immediately."

    Born in Tokyo, Yamada remembers his father bringing him to the old National Stadium to watch track and field events at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. "The seats were numbered, and I wondered why we were forced to sit in specific seats," he said, jokingly. Then, too, measures were taken against homeless people in the name of "beautification of the capital." Yamada never imagined that 57 years later, he would be subject to displacement.

    After graduating high school, he worked construction jobs that came with boarding, or day jobs while living in cheap lodging houses. But the economy and jobs started dwindling in the early 1990s. Cheap lodgings were renovated into hotels one by one. Unable to afford a room, Yamada found himself on the streets.

    In this photo taken on Jan. 21, 1996, people who lost their jobs after a prolonged recession, and those who could not find employment to begin with, fill Shinjuku Station's west exit corridor. (Mainichi)

    During this time there were many people in similar situations. "The area around the traffic circle in Shinjuku would get so crowded that, unless you went early, you couldn't find a spot to sleep in," Yamada said. "The underpasses were filled with cardboard boxes used by people living there."

    The Tokyo Metropolitan Government building moved to Shinjuku in 1991. Gradually, the area became heavily monitored, and by the end of the 90s Yamada was at the Tokyo Metropolitan Meiji Park right next to the old National Stadium.

    Yamada met other homeless people he could trust at Meiji Park, and before he knew it, he had been living there a long time. Aluminum buyers started coming around, and collecting cans became a source of income for him.

    Osamu Yamada makes a living collecting aluminum cans, which he carries out late into the night and early morning, as seen at around 5 a.m. on Aug. 5, 2021. These days, he picks up empty cans of alcohol consumed outdoors, which has become popular during the coronavirus crisis due to bars closing early. (Mainichi/Harumi Kimoto)

    Then Tokyo's winning bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics changed everything. For the construction of the new National Stadium, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government permanently closed down part of Meiji Park in January 2016. Yamada wanted to stay put in the place he had come to know so intimately, but in April 2016 an order of enforcement by the court meant he and several others living in the park had to leave their spots. They moved to a different part of the park, but had to leave that area some eight months later due to the construction of a building for the Japan Olympic Committee (JOC) and the Japan Sport Association (JSPO).

    Left with no choice, Yamada moved to a nearby grassy area on an unpaved former prefectural road now filled with weeds. "It was a good place, out of sight for the most part," Yamada said. It was also ideal for leaving the big bags of aluminum cans he'd collected. But yet again, Yamada was forced to vacate his spot.

    Japan Sport Council (JSC), the primary body governing new National Stadium construction, demanded that Yamada leave Meiji Park. Yamada and others living in the park, along with organizations supporting them, filed a civil damages lawsuit against the JSC, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the Japanese government, claiming that the defendants infringed on their right to life.

    Yamada, who did not want to venture far from his familiar neighborhood, moved to another grassy area just a short distance away from his most recent spot before the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's July 4 deadline. Looking down, he said, "They tell me to get out, but they don't offer an alternative site. That's just displacement."

    Even after the Olympics, Yamada's prior homes near the new stadium remain fenced off in preparation for the Paralympics. "I want the restrictions to end soon," Yamada said repeatedly.

    In the days up to the Olympics, it wasn't just the areas surrounding the National Stadium that were off limits to homeless people. Areas surrounding the Games' baseball and softball venue Yokohama Stadium in Kanagawa Prefecture, to Tokyo's south, were also cordoned off to people on the streets. But the Yokohama Municipal Government, which began discussions with organizations supporting homeless people in spring 2020, prepared a replacement site for the displaced homeless people to stay. With a budget of about 7 million yen (approx. $64,000), the Yokohama government rented out 40 beds in cheap rooming houses, and provided light meals including bento boxes. Some stayed out on the streets, but about 35 people living near the stadium made use of the services offered.

    "No Entry" signs are attached to nets set up around Yokohama Stadium in the Kanagawa prefectural capital of Yokohama on Aug. 3, 2021. Before, during, and after the Olympics, the park where the stadium is located is closed off. (Mainichi/Harumi Kimoto)

    "We discussed how we could minimize the damage to homeless people," said Yukio Takazawa, 50, who supports day laborers and homeless people in Yokohama's Naka Ward. "For homeless people, their work, meals, and personal relationships all depend on where they live. Leaving a place means losing a lot. Only if a place is guaranteed to be livable can they actually 'move' there. On the one hand, we have people being pushed out of their homes. On the other, we see medalists hailed as champions for working so hard. But people in dire straits work very hard each day, too."

    The Mainichi Shimbun emailed the Olympic organizing committee and asked questions including whether consideration was given to people living on the streets when areas surrounding Olympic event sites were cordoned off, and whether the committee violated the Olympic Movement's Agenda 21 about the International Olympic Committee's policy on sustainability to particularly consider society's most vulnerable populations.

    The organizing committee only went as far as saying: "In going ahead with our preparations for the Games, we provided individual explanations to people living near event sites and others who would be affected."

    The "pushing out" of homeless people has been an issue in past Olympic Games host cities. According to the Advocacy and Research Centre for Homelessness (ARCH) and other bodies, at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, homeless people living in the city center were transferred far away, and many living on the streets were arrested.

    With the lessons of the Atlanta Games in mind, the New South Wales state government developed a homeless people protocol for the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics. It stated homeless people are members of the public, too, and entitled to be in public spaces. At the same time, a program to help people off the streets was strengthened. In the run up to the 2012 London Olympics, government and homeless support organizations formed a coalition to enhance aid measures.

    How does ARCH founder Takuya Kitabatake, 31, who also does freelance research on people who have lost their homes, view the Tokyo government and Olympic organizing committee's approach to homeless people?

    Fireworks are set off at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Summer Olympics on July 23, 2021. Osamu Yamada's "home" is in a restricted area the public is prohibited from entering. (Mainichi/Harumi Kimoto)

    Kitabatake said he wished Japan was as human-rights conscious as Sydney's mayor was in the 2000 Olympics, citing a speech in which he said he couldn't pretend to not see the issue of homelessness at his feet and enjoy the beautiful Olympic fireworks. Kitabatake continued, "I think the Olympics are an event that works out only when the human rights of all people are respected and everyone is able to lead secure lives. In Japan today, not only are there homeless people, but people in straitened circumstances because of the coronavirus pandemic. Is it acceptable to push ahead with an event when there are people who can't live decent lives?"

    Administrative bodies' actions affect the public, and encourage a colder view of homeless people. "If administrative bodies reduce the number of people eligible for assistance, people in homeless circumstances will be pushed to society's edges. Unless members of the public are determined not to allow discriminatory treatment of homeless people, neither administrative bodies nor society will change," Kitabatake stressed.

    (Japanese original by Harumi Kimoto, Digital News Center)

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