Japan: Irrepressibly innovative, even about homelessness

The concept of saving face is so ingrained into the Japanese culture that its homeless population will resort to anything rather than the humiliation of asking for help from family or friends.

It seems impossible that Japan, with 100% literacy and some of the most sophisticated infrastructure & technology in the world, could (already) have a homeless problem. It does.

Just after publication of the March 2009 “homelessness” issue of THE DIGITAL JOURNALIST, for which I am E-Bits Editor, our Editor & Publisher Dirck Halstead received an email from photojournalist James Whitlow Delano about his ongoing project concerning homelessness in Japan. Delano has worked in Southeast and Central Asia, Africa and Europe, and his photographs have appeared in LE MONDE, TIME, NEWSWEEK, various travel and photographic magazines. He was featured in the January 2009 issue of THE DIGITAL JOURNALIST. If you’ve not seen it before, THE DIGITAL JOURNALIST is an online magazine for visual journalism, conceived by founder Halstead to serve as the LIFE magazine of cyberspace. Now 72, Halstead at age 17 became LIFE’s youngest combat photographer when he covered the Guatemalan Civil War. He went on to become UPI’s bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War, and served from Nixon through Clinton as a White House Photographer for TIME.

Of the homeless in Japan, Delano observes, “As with everything else in Japan, it is not surprising to find that there is a uniquely Japanese way to be homeless, or, more accurately, without abode.”

He notes that the concept of ‘saving face‘ is so ingrained into the Japanese culture that its homeless population will resort to anything rather than the humiliation of asking for help from family or friends. Consequently, at least some of these unfortunate but creative souls are finding overnight shelter in such unlikely spots as Internet cafes, where use of a semi-private, bean-bag cushioned booth can be rented for five hours for the 1,200-1,500 Yen, the equivalent of $12-$15 in US currency, and where those with no place to go can sleep, shower, eat, and even surf the net overnight in relatively luxurious surroundings.

I was in Japan for a little over a month in 1991. While there I spent one night in a Tokyo spa called Utopia. I didn’t sleep there because I was homeless, but because my friend and I chose to treat ourselves to the experience of the 5-floor facility that had absolutely everything a spa offers and where you could stay overnight in surreal surroundings of pampered luxury and emerge the next morning refreshed and ready to resume the rapid pace of Japanese urban living – something that was very popular with the young business set in Tokyo at the time.

During my experience of vintage 1991 Japan I never saw an Internet cafe (the concept wasn’t even named until 1994), nor did I see even one homeless person, but that was then and this is now. Since then, and particularly recently, the numbers of both been on the rise. How paradoxical, that with the emergence of more and more amazing technological advances, the society that supports it is under ever-increasing assault. It is the best of times and it is the worst of times, a paradoxical thought Dickens applied to another type of revolution. These are revolutionary times, indeed. And as much as they are evolutionary, they are devolutionary.

Delano’s photographs of the homeless offer a stunning portrait of Japanese culture under economic and social pressures that have taken hold in the US, are well-underway and have already gone global. Also, I highly recommend a visit to Delano’s home site to see more of his highly relevant, socially conscious work from around the world.

Beverly Spicer