Tuesday, April 11, 2006

In Japan, Even the Bums Are Clean and Polite

I don't pretend to be an expert on homeless people. I've never so much as really talked to them, not at home and certainly not here. Nevertheless, I've noticed certain differences between Canadian bums and the Japanese variety, differences which I think are indicative of the larger differences between Japanese society and, well, the rest of the world.

To start: create a mental image of a bum. If you're from the west, odds are you're now picturing some wild-haired, filthy, drugged out lunatic, harassing pedestrians for spare change with which to buy crack, heroin, liquor, or mouthwash. If you're from anywhere else, you can probably add 'starving wretch' to that image (you can't in the west: I lost track of the number of obese street people I saw in Toronto. Note to homeless people: I'm not overly generous to strangers on the best of days; your being well-fed is unlikely to sway me towards handing you my subway fare.)

Okay, now chuck that image out. In Japan, it's almost completely different. True, they're still alchoholic - I'm pretty sure that's a homelessness universal - but alchohol abuse is also rampant in the culture as a whole over here anyway so I'm not convinced it's a defining feature like it is in Canada. Everything else is different, though. For a start, they're generally clean: if you walk around Shinjuku station near the time of last train, you'll see neat rows of cardboard boxes - the homes of the homeless - and if you peer inside you'll see their possessions, all squared away in a fashion that would have impressed my boot camp instructors. The homeless themselves aren't particularly clean by the standards of Japan, but compared to Toronto bums they're paragons of personal hygiene.

Then there's the whole begging thing. Basically, here, they don't. I've never seen a homeless guy sit on a street corner with his hand out, waiting for spare change to fall into it and occasionally dishing out verbal abuse when it fails to fall fast enough. They know no-one would give it to them, and anyways, it would basically never occur to them to try. In the west, we have this idea that society exists to give us stuff for free; not so, here, where the direction of duty and responsibility is very much in the opposite direction. That has it's downsides, but one of the major upsides is, no panhandling. If homeless people in Japan want money, they have to do something useful to get it (one example: collecting discarded manga porn from trains, and selling it on street corners. Yes, you heard me right: there's a market here for used porn.) Otherwise, they survive through scavenging ... just like bums everywhere (and the fact that they do survive so well makes me wonder at exactly how badly the ones back home need that pocket change. Though I guess it's hard to find smack in a dumpster....) Sorry to go on like this, but this is one of the things I really like about this country: the ability to go to work without running a daily emotional blackmail gauntlet.

None of this is to say that there aren't occasional creepy moments. I particularly remember a couple of times in Yokohama station. I was coming to work one Sunday morning - this is maybe a couple of months ago - and saw a guy sitting on the stairs, head buried between his legs as though sleeping or crying; he had no shoes (it was winter, mind) and his feet were red, blistered, filthy, and cracked. One week later, and I saw the same guy, in exactly the same place, in exactly the same position, as though he hadn't moved at all. And I had to wonder: had he died, and no one bothered to check him out? Or maybe he was a ghost, haunting the station. It was like something from a horror movie.... Needless to say, I let him be.


At 10:48 AM, Anonymous meg said...

that last bit makes me want to cry. but, i'm the kind of person that always smiles at bums, feeling guilty and apologetic when i can't afford to give them change.

At 7:51 PM, Blogger Matt said...

of course you feel guilty and apologetic. that's just human.... that's why junkies begging for spare change are such an emotionally destructive force in communities.


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