Kavitha Rao

Freelance journalist, author & trainer

At the food bank
Far Eastern Economic Review, January 2003
How Tokyo helps its homeless

Dawn breaks over Tokyo's busy Shinjuku subway station. Groups of homeless men roll up their blue tarpaulins and begin rummaging through garbage cans for food. Not far away, trendy restaurants are throwing out the night's uneaten dinners, part of the 6,000 tonnes of food that--according to some estimates--is dumped every day in Asia's wealthiest city.

Unavoidable waste? Charles McJilton, an American activist working with Tokyo's homeless, doesn't think so. McJilton heads Food Bank Japan, a non-profit organization that collects unsold food from stores, restaurants and food manufacturers in Tokyo and distributes it to the homeless, elderly victims of domestic violence and others in need.

"Hunger in Japan isn't a problem of scarcity; it's a problem of distribution," says McJilton. Since September 2002, when Food Bank began systematically taking donations, it says it has shifted over ¥10 million ($84,380) worth of food.

The handouts mean a lot to Noriko Ishii, a 60-year-old woman who's lining up with almost 100 homeless people on a freezing winter evening in Ueno Park." This food really makes a difference to me," she says, clutching a small package of buns and a bunch of celery donated by the store group Costco Japan. "This will last me at least three days." Ishii has been homeless for the past five months, and says she survives on ¥16,000 a month selling aluminium cans for recycling.

She's an exception in the park. Most of those waiting in line are men in their 50s. Dressed in threadbare anoraks and tattered shoes, they rub their hands together to keep warm, but show few signs of impatience. Fifty-year-old Hiromi Yoshira is typical of the men. "I was laid off two years ago from my job in the construction industry because I was too old," he says. "I now live in a sleeping bag in the subway, and eat at soup kitchens run by the churches."

His story is not unusual. Most of Japan's estimated 30,000 homeless are day labourers laid off when they're in their early to mid-50s. They generally only become eligible for pensions when they reach 65, and in the years in between it's easy for them to fall through the cracks of the social-security system.

Women in crisis, too, are often let down by a system geared to deal with citizens who have a regular address, bank account and phone number. "Most of our women come here as a last resort, after being given the bureaucratic run-around for months," says Stephanie (who declined to give her full name), a volunteer at the Help Asian Women's Shelter. The crisis shelter helps victims of domestic violence and trafficking, and receives help from the Food Bank.

Food Bank Japan's biggest challenge is Japan's complacent attitude to its needy. "The Japanese have an almost visceral aversion to the homeless. They think of the homeless as idle layabouts," says McJilton, who has lived in Japan for 11 years. "Getting companies to donate unused food is a struggle. Japanese firms are usually very risk-averse. They are often worried about the government permissions involved, or the liability they may incur."

Still, at least Japan can comfort itself with the knowledge that by the standards of most countries--Asian and Western--it has relatively few homeless people. McJilton, though, warns that could change. "Japan is the most rapidly ageing society in Asia, and has been in recession for over a decade. There is likely to be a crisis in the next 10 years, especially affecting those aged 50-65."

He adds: "The elderly poor tend to allocate half their money to medicine and half to food, so they end up with both inadequate treatment and nutrition. They shouldn't have to choose."