Brief: Visit to San’ya, Tokyo’s Homeless District


Hello Blog. I briefly blogged last week that I was visiting San’ya, Tokyo’s day-laborer and homeless district, and was asked if I would write up a report. Okay, something brief:


By Arudou Debito (,
Released August 6, 2007, freely forwardable

San’ya (kanji: mountain valley) is a place of neither mountains nor valleys. In fact, its most famous landmark, the “Bridge of Tears” (Namidabashi) doesn’t even have a bridge. According to my guide, it was a place where in old Edo families saw off their relatives facing capital punishment, hence the name. It’s a place where people have never wanted to end up, bordering on the Yoshiwara Pleasure Quarters (a place with a long history and full of soaplands today) where people didn’t stay. Given that it’s not convenient to public transport, you won’t necessarily find it. Rather, it’s a place which finds you, depending on your economic situation. Even today, “San’ya” is not listed on a map. It’s long since been subsumed by more famous names on the map (Asakusa, Minami-Senjuu). And unless you have a reason to come here at all (cheap hotels during the World Cup 2002, day laboring), you could possibly spend your life in Tokyo and never know the place existed.

But scholars do. Cornell University Press published Edward Fowler’s “SAN’YA BLUES: Laboring Life in Contemporary Tokyo” in 1998 (reviews and overview at More history from them than I could ever glean in one short visit. Another researcher, Dr Tom Gill of Meiji Gakuin University (who is doing fascinating comparative research on the homeless in Japan, the US, and Britain), acted as my guide on July 31, 2007, and gave me a very brief but thorough introduction. Let me pass some of it on to you:


My introduction to the homeless and poverty-stricken in Japan started near Akihabara at Second Harvest Inc, talking to Charles McJilton (old Metropolis profile at website at He’s an energetic ex-US-miltary fortysomething who has lived in Japan with the homeless (sometimes as one) for nearly two decades. His irrepressible energy makes sure that all the tons of food (yes, tons) which go unsold weekly in Japanese malls and supermarkets–and would otherwise be disposed of (for sell-by or cosmetic reasons)–reach the thousands of people in Tokyo who in fact cannot feed themselves or their families.

I won’t go into any statistics here (I wasn’t taking notes; this was Dr Gill’s interview); contact Charles yourself at info AT secondharvestjapan DOT org for more. But what impressed me (or rather, depressed me) was the degree of polarization he told us about in a field as charitable as helping the dirt poor: Infighting within volunteer groups by ideology (often the radical left in Japan can’t get along with themselves, let alone dealing with areas that are Yakuza-controlled), turf wars over procedure and application, minute perfectionism getting in the way of leadership, responsibility, and decisive decisionmaking, and losing sight of the goal of just getting food out to people who would otherwise starve. Plus the fact that Charles was ignored or pushed aside because he’s a gaijin–after all, why should he be helping people in Japan when there are homeless in “his” country? Not to be sidelined, Charles has created his own company which is now, in the words of one of his rivals, doing better than them. Stop by and volunteer at Second Harvest (volunteer AT secondharvestjapan DOT org) if you really want to see how a country this rich can still have people who fall through the safety net.

For homelessness and abject poverty does indeed exist in Japan–and there is in my view (and Charles’s) a degree of social shame and misunderstanding about why people drop out of the job market. Myself, I would see these people as unfortunates–especially given theories of structural unemployment, closed mental institutions, and a long tradition of “permanent migrant work” I have heard about (“Grapes of Wrath”, anyone?) in the US. But in Japan, there is nary a tear shed. The attitude is more: If the person couldn’t hack it in the job market, it’s his (usually his) fault. Don’t you dare beg from me. You have all this time to be a bum and a hobo while I’m working 18-hour days? I wish I could have this carefree campfire life I see you have along the riverbanks with a fishing pole or a book… How poor can you be when you have enough money for shoes, a shirt on your back, and a cup of booze in the evening? Get a job, you loser. Sort of thing. Of course, elements of this view aren’t grounded in the reality of sleeping rough during all seasons with no fixed address, living hand-to-mouth on what you earned that day on the construction site. And that this lifestyle is for most of them (be it fallout from a lost job or a divorce) is probably not a choice.

Walking around San’ya later I heard about the scams run. About the churches/shelters entrusted with their homeless’s paycheck (they get about 13 man a month from the government–5 man for rent, 8 man living expenses–in Seikatsu Hoshou–although the GOJ intends to cut even that) taking too much off for rent (a regular room often partitioned into four sections of 4.5 tatami) and food. Or skimming 40% off a building site’s pay (around 8000 yen a day) as a broker’s fee. About the Yakuza which control one half of San’ya territory, who killed documentary makers filming life in San’ya because they were making the movie “too leftist” (it was finished, but is very difficult to find or show in Japan), etc. etc. All sorts of ways to further siphon money away from those who get the least of it.

San’ya, however, is an odd slum. It’s not a blue-tarp tent city or a phalanx of corrugated-metal shacks sucking on Smoky Mountain, like you’d see in other countries. It’s clean, cheap (a tourist draw, actually–it has excellent maps in English and Japanese telling you what’s there to see and eat and stay cheaply; the map even unabashedly calls the area “San’ya”–as do Internet maps The inhabitants taking shelter under the covered main storefront area seemed to be quite friendly (especially later at night after they have a snootful) and often returned our konbanwas. We stayed in a day laborer hotel (which even had its own website!) offering a clean 4.5 tatami room with TV (free p*rn), common bath and toilet, Internet in the lobby for 2700 yen a night. And saw overseas backpackers checking in at hotels elsewhere. San’ya is certainly a lot better than Japan’s worst slum (that honor would probably belong to Osaka’s Kamagasaki–where people are reputedly very vocal against gawkers and ostentatious bearers of normal wealth). But my sample is biased; we were there on a good night–warm summer, no rain, and people able to sleep rough in the parks. It’s not a place you’d want to end up, to be sure–especially in winter. Tom and Charles have experienced life on the streets with these people, and a nice chat with one crowd (a very friendly guy in his sixties who had been living this life for close to 30 years) revealed that they would be clearing out of their sleeping area by 3AM to be first in line for the next day’s construction labor somewhere in Tokyo. Lose the romanticism about hoboes toasting marshmallows, people.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has taken some measures to alleviate this situation, such as offering apartment owners with spare rooms full payment of rent, with the homeless paying 3000 yen a month themselves to stay. Problem is that they have to be off the government rent deal within two years, and whatever feeling of community the San’ya long-term day laborers had created over the years gets dissipated when apartments are (naturally) scattered around Tokyo. And of course there are the scams I mentioned above, with people skimming off the homeless in their shelters. Very few people escaped this lifestyle with a steady job in any case, and back they would come to San’ya. The jury is still out on whether this policy has been effective.

In any case, that is my introduction to Japan’s laborers, done for if only to turn readers onto the issues. I make no case that my narrative is properly informed, empathetic, or representative. It’s just an eyewitness account from someone who stayed one night in the comfort of a dive hotel, with proper access to food and basic amenities. Those who would like to know or do more, contact Second Harvest Japan and volunteer, or read up on Dr Gill’s research on the subject, links below.

Thanks for reading!

Arudou Debito
Sapporo, Japan,

More on the homeless movement in Japan by Dr Tom Gill:

Charles McJilton at Second Harvest Japan:


5 comments on “Brief: Visit to San’ya, Tokyo’s Homeless District


    Debito, maybe you’d better ask me about stuff like this before you post publically. Sanya owes its roots to being the center of one of two of the Hinin Buraku where the outcastes lived during the Edo period, the other area being Shinagawa. –MS

    “Edo’s hinin population was not especially large — one estimate put them at slightly over 5,000. Many lived communally in about 20 hamlets scattered on the fringes of the city. The one in the north, in Asakusa adjacent to the Yoshiwara brothel quarter, was headed by a man with the hereditary name of Danzaemon. The southern community, near Omori, had its own boss, Kuruma Zenchichi, who was subordinate to Danzaemon. The top men had a modicum of status and were permitted to carry a sword. They also had the power of life and death over the people they oversaw and were, when ordered by the government authorities, obliged to execute those of their own community who had been found guilty of crimes.”

    (from page 35, Mark Schreiber, “The Dark Side: Infamous Japanese Crimes and Criminals — Kodansha International, 2001)


    Dear Debito

    Really enjoyed your post on the homeless (if enjoyed
    is the right word but I m sure you know what I mean).
    Ive done many lessons on the homeless with students
    and have been very dismayed by their attitudes –
    ‘losers, drunks, lazy etc etc’ and have tried my very
    best to explain that this kind of discrimination leads
    very easily to other forms.

    Anyway I visited the second harvest site and made a
    donation and I hope that many of your readers are
    moved to do the same. Its a wonderful organisation and
    commendable for its action on the appalling waste that
    goes on in the rich areas of the world.

    best wishes and thanks for the links too,

  • Dear Debito,

    thank you for your information on the homeless in Sanya.
    I think the original Japanese expression for homeless is “furousha”, meaning people who float and wander about….
    The “fu” from “ukabu” (floating, as used in Ukiyo-e) and “rou” from “ronin” meaning wandering samurai. This term might suggest that furousha wander about because they want to live out their free spirit and being to proud to claim any welfare? Even though this is not true….
    The newer term “homulessu” (from the English “homeless”) may insinuate that the existence of homeless is not really a typical Japanese phenomenon, more something that can be associated with the outside, foreign and unknown.

    20 years ago, when I lived in Tokyo the Hari Crishna gave food to the homeless in Shinjuku. I wonder if they are still around…

    By the way – I loved your Mac D. article in the Japan Times,



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