A Park Life in the making

Not necessarily how to make a documentary, but how this documentary, A Park Life is being made. In Tokyo about the homeless communities that inhabit the parks and public spaces. This blog is meant to inform and allow community collaboration.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Blue Mansions

Miyashita Park, Shibuya in Central Tokyo

Sumida River, Taito Ward, East Tokyo

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Meet Aotsuka-san

We met Aotsuka-san along Sumida River on Tuesday, May 9th. We were finishing up some last minute shooting when he wandered over to us and began to chat. He quickly gained our friendship and admiration with his kind smile and easy manner.

Aotsuka-san had lived along Sumida River for a year in a small self-fashioned tent. During this time, he injured his back from sleeping on the concrete and later was able to apply for welfare.

In Japan, it is extremely difficult to receive welfare if you are under the age of 65 and able-bodied. Currently 1.5 million people are are on welfare in Japan, but over 5 million are eligible to apply. A culturally-enforced shame in asking the state for help prevents 3.5 million people from receiving much needed support.

Aotsuka-san now lives in a nearby doya, a small room that he rents for $15 a day. He often makes the 5 km walk back to the river to visit with friends who remain there.

His interview will be added at a later date. Please check back soon to better get to know this sweet person.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

These houses are made to be broken

In most cities, riverside property is a sign of wealth to be enjoyed only by the rich and the richer. In Tokyo, river beds have become a last refuge of the poor as they are scuttled out of public areas by bureaucrats and police.

Sumida River in the east end of Tokyo is one such place. Close to tourist attractions like Asakusa’s Senso-ji Temple and Ueno Park, the river is also the unofficial residence of hundreds of otherwise homeless citizens. Here they have constructed makeshift houses out of found objects and blue plastic tarps. In Japanese they are called “blue mansions.” These so-called mansions are only 1-2 square metres in size and must be easily disassembled.

When we arrived on Sunday, April 23rd, yellow eviction notices were taped to the tents along one side of the river. In bright red letters, residents were asked to collapse their home by April 25th, lest it be removed by the police.

We asked one resident, Nakamura-san, 58, about the notice. He squinted at the paper on the side of his tent. He couldn’t easily read the characters, but he knew what it meant. He had been living along Sumida for almost two years, since losing his job. Each month he takes apart the house and moves its contents over the tall cement wall separating the road from the river walkway. Here he spends the night until the next day when he can rebuild his house.

This is part of what homeless activist Charles McJilton calls the “bureaucratic ballet” that characterizes so much of how the Tokyo government deals with the problems of the homeless. McJilton lived along Sumida River for 15 months and each month he too experienced this monthly cycle.

The official reason for the move is for cleaning, but it also gives city government a chance to photograph the area offering proof to the claim that no homeless live there. As long as there are officially no homeless, problems of Sumida River’s dwellers can go unresolved. And so far they have.

The constant forced movement also fosters a sense of powerlessness and uncertainty amongst residents who must remain nomadic and are prevented from making a stable shelter out of anything more than a plastic sheet and a few poles. They always face the risk that they may be barred from rebuilding, as Nakamura-san twice experienced.

The migration is tedious and unnecessary harassment for the old men who live there, but who exactly shall they complain to?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

I, Acrobat

Co-ordinating this documentary has become more of a balancing act than I imagined. No, that’s not true. I never imagined it would be possible to do this. Now I am trying my best and confronting obstacles a plenty. Oh lordy! Never mind though, difficult tasks are the ones most worth doing.

Last August I met a man on the street who began talking to me just as I was about to unlock my bike. We struck up a conversation and I learned not only was he a writer and haiku poet, he was also homeless. His name is Hideo Asano and at the time he was living in Shinjuku Chuo Koen, once the home to over 300 residents, now only 50 (government expulsions).

Hideo lived overseas for a long time, in California, Latin America and Afghanistan during the Soviet war. Adapting back to life h
ere has proven problematic because he is deeply critical of Japanese society. His opinions are candid as they are abrasive and come across as a harsh diatribe against his nation’s identity. In Japan conformity is thought to be central to harmony. Hideo will have no part in this.

There is a Japanese proverb that goes like this:
”The nail that sticks out will be hammered down.”
I hope this is not the fate Hideo will meet.

He has published 3 books: An American Breakfast (February 2003), The Timber Carriers of Afghanistan: A Personal Visit with the Mujahideem of Afghanistan (June 2003), The Albatross and the Sea (June 2003). He spent all of his savings publishing his books. I believe they are now in a warehouse in Southern California, but also available here: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/search-handle-url/103-1236019-4292663?%5Fencoding=UTF8&dym=0&search-type=ss&index=stripbooks%3Arelevance-above&field-keywords=hideo%20asano

He will be reading some of his poetry in the documentary. In the meantime, please read it for yourself below. These are from his recent haiku collection.

By Hideo Asano from Lovers Sit On Dung

Blind man walks slowly
The sighted, worldly, rushes
Focus now or fall

Reed quivers in wind
Bends under rushing water
Smiles beneath hot orb

Temple built in treasures
Loveless temple is empty shell
Drop gold to enter

Sweet tongues rob hearts
Tree of love grows on quarrel
Lovers sit on dung

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Tokyo's shanty towns

The first time I heard about the homeless communities in Tokyo, I was in my apartment in Montreal, in my last year of school wanting
Yoyogi Park, March 2005
desperately to be somewhere else. Somewhere new. Somewhere I wouldn’t be bumping into an ex's best friend, that roommate I never really liked or some other undesirable.
Some happy escape from the insincere street corner conversations. Anonymity. Six years in one city will do that kind of thing.

It occurred to me then that I wanted to know more about these tented communities that had sprung up around Tokyo. A city known for its wacky teenagers, immense high rises and fast-forward technology, Tokyo is an unlikely location for a shanty town. Not to mention that Japan has the world’s second largest economy. But since the burst of the bubble economy in the mid 1990s, small shanty towns have formed around the city, in public parks and along side rivers. When I began to work on this documentary a couple of months ago, I wrote this:


Documentary Treatment

By Shannon Devine

Tokyo is the home of the most successful companies, expensive hotels and luxury services. But in the shadows of corporate towers and government buildings, shanty towns have formed becoming makeshift residences for over 6,000 under and unemployed citizens.

On the west side of Tokyo, Shinjuku Chuo Park is the largest homeless community, with approximately 50 residents. From the outside, the site looks like a well organized camp ground -- tent houses are constructed from bright blue tarps, sticks, wire and other found materials. In the centre is a camp fire where men cook meals or gather warmth after days and nights in the cold. Laundry waves from trees and self-fashioned clothes lines.

Since its conception in the late 1990s, a tightly knit community has formed there with a central organizing committee. The group-oriented mentality of the Japanese has thrived amongst the lowest sector of the population, in the total absence of government assistance. This camaraderie also acts as a form of security against violent attacks at the hands of teenage boys or drunken businessmen.Ueno, Miyashita and Yoyogi Park are also sites of large tented communities. Other parks and public areas around the city host smaller numbers of homeless and inhabitants, all of whom are regularly subject to arbitrary expulsions by the government.


Many of the park residents are former day labourers who could easily secure a living during Japan’s economic heyday of the 1980s and early 90s. When the economy plunged in the mid 1990s, those who relied on daily construction work found themselves out of a job, as did many low level office workers who lost their jobs to corporate restructuring.


93% of Japan’s homeless are men. Age range:Nearly 80% are over 50, with an average age of 59 years old.
65% have some kind of job, often selling magazines or collecting cans. Legal discrimination is also a major impediment to finding steady employment. Those who do find work are still unable to pay start-up rental fees that can cost up to five times the rent price in deposits and real-estate fees.

Most have no social support network, after having broken ties with spouses, children, siblings and extended family and friends because of the shame associated with losing one’s job. Public opinion about the homeless remains negative, which has allowed the government to systematically ignore or expel the blue tent villages for so long. Violence against homeless people continues to be a problem: two park inhabitants were killed in Chiba, (east of Tokyo) in 2002, another man was forced into Sumida River, near his residence in 2004 and residents often complain about harassment.

Documentary description:

The documentary will tell the story of life in a Tokyo shanty town, through three main characters and will be supported with interviews, still photography and spoken word by homeless haiku poet, Hideo Asano, with a possibility of other art work. Supporting interviews will include:
-Kasai-san of the Shinjuku Renrakukai
-Charles McJilton, founder of Second Harvest and homeless activist
-Sanya Welfare Centre co-ordinator, Nasubi
-Big Issue founder, Yoko Mizukoshi or Miku Sano
-Thomas Gill, University of Tokyo Anthropology professor and expert on Japan’s homeless and day labourers

Monday, April 17, 2006

Parasite singles

Last year Tokyo was found to be the world's most expensive city, surpassing even the notoriously pricey London, England. For the average Tokyoite, finding affordable housing can take months. And initial start-up fees are astronomical:

-gift to the real-estate agent (equal to two month's rent)
-key money (equal to two month’s rent)
-deposit (equal to one month’s rent)

Five months worth of rent money gone and not a single month has been paid for. Many young people, particularly young women in entry level office positions, find themselves unable to meet these costs and live with their parents well into their late 20s or early 30s. Such women have gained the unfortunate title of “parasite singles.”
Temple festival in Shinjuku, Nov.24,2004
I came to Tokyo in November 2004, with a room in guest house reserved for one month. Within this time I hoped to find both a job and a house that would allow me the time to learn about those who lack just that: a job and a house --at least in the conventional sense.