In Japan you never see the homeless sleeping on sidewalks, or begging for change. At least in the six major cities I’ve visited. There is a strange communal atmosphere to “homelessness” here. The homeless all live unmolested in the corners of city parks, and they live in small homes that appear more like urban teepees than anything else. Due to their quasi-permanent residence they all have a fair modicum of modern amenities. Some have gas powered hot plates to cook food, others manage even to watch TV. Many have laundry hanging to dry outside their tents. Many are busy reading books or Manga Comics when I pass by.
They greet each other like they’d never heard the phrase dog eats dog. Some of them seem to keep very happy loyal pets around them. People do not shy away from them, but if anything is the same, it is that they are ignored, because they are tainted, shamed. Shame is the social equivalent of leprosy in this country still. At the very least they are left alone to live and die as they please. The vast majority of the “unhomed” in Japan seem to be men, because I have never seen a woman in one of these park communities.
None have ever bothered me, and until one night in Naha, Okinawa I never bothered them either. On this particular night I was walking through a park, near a small open air amphitheatre that appeared abandoned, and I saw the typical park row of homes, looking like a crude imitation of the suburbs. Some men were sleeping under the stars, while others were no doubt inside their shacks. It was at this moment that I tried to start a conversation with a man sitting outside smoking a cigarette:
Waiting is the only part
After a brief introduction I walk to a convini,
and deliver a sandwich to a man named Shin,
he refuses unless we split it. As we eat
he recounts his story, his English more broken
than his smile. It happened when the 80’s bubble
burst, the loss of a job coincided with the loss
of a wife. They have no Japanese word
for alcoholism. There are no steps, just one
long fall from the top of the glass to the bottom.
His neighbor snores loudly next to an empty carton
of Sake. I look with wonder at the other neighbor
who is miraculously watching TV, a J-Pop concert
of some kind. Poverty makes Mcguyvers of us all.
Shin brushes his jet black hair, I don’t know his age
but there isn’t a hint of gray. He is staring somewhere
past me, lost in whatever brightness there was before.
They wanted a baby, they were in the pleasant habit
of trying when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
He watched her hair come out, he gestures to his own
mane, but looks at the ground while grasping for English
words, he says, one drink, for every hair gone. Hope
is resilient, but bleeds to death like everything else.
He buried himself long before he buried his wife.
The last guardian of happiness was a child, never conceived.
Chotomate, he excuses himself, among the residents
of this community anything was available, so long as
someone bothered to throw it away. He found
an old English computer dictionary, the first word
is bankruptcy. I start tracing his life, a protractor nautilus;
no job, no insurance, no baby, cancer, alcoholism,
bankruptcy. The sad stories always the most predictable.
The last expense, the funeral, was paid by her parents.
His life continued between the bookends of shame and death.
A stray dog passes between us looking for scraps.
He uses the distraction to think of an answer.
Hachi…eto…years, and he moves his index figure,
one orbit around his head, the duration of his residency.
I ask him what he does here, sleep, and the computer
flashes, dream. A hobby we have in common. I pull out
my own dictionary to ask, What next?
It is the best answer I could have hoped for, Tomorrow.
I will see the sun from 30,000 feet, as an ecosystem
of remorse scratches together enough cash for revelry.
Some of the men here probably bent toward this life,
a little more lost everyday, some like Shin, break
all at once. They all have a home here with no address,
smiles without mirth, life awaiting death.
We look at each other, somehow knowing our conversation
is finished. I point to his home, Misete kudasai?
He opens a hello kitty tarp. Without a word, I am caught
in a whirlwind of Shin’s loss, pictures everywhere.
His wife, his dog, his car, his parents, her funeral,
memories worth holding on to. Home, is the place
where we all wait for tomorrow.