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Clothed, clean, and homeless in Japan

Numbers, issues in contrast to US

Katsunori Hamahara, 64, a former cabdriver, lives in a park in Japan, waiting for his pension to kick in at age 65. In the meantime, he is well fed and says no one bothers him. Katsunori Hamahara, 64, a former cabdriver, lives in a park in Japan, waiting for his pension to kick in at age 65. In the meantime, he is well fed and says no one bothers him. (BLAINE HARDEN/WASHINGTON POST)

TOKYO - Retirement comes in January. That's when Katsunori Hamahara turns 65, when his government pension kicks in, and when he will be able to afford a place to live.

Until then, the former cabdriver will stick with the life he has made for himself: He hangs out in a park and sleeps nearby on a bench.

By US standards of homelessness, it's not a bad gig.

Hamahara eats free fresh food - rice, fish, meat, and vegetables. Because of strict Japanese hygiene laws, lunch boxes are discarded by convenience stores about 15 hours after they are prepared.

"If I am lucky, I get really good food, much better than at a restaurant," said Hamahara, who has befriended neighborhood convenience store employees.

He bathes, combs his hair, and washes his clothes in the park's clean public restroom. With the two brooms and dustpan that he keeps at his side, he tidies up the restroom and the park every morning at dawn, often with park employees.

Most days, children, along with nannies and parents, invade the park. Hamahara finds peace in the sounds of their play but keeps his distance. He does not talk to children, fearing he might frighten them or their guardians.

He has chosen his neighborhood well. The park is in Nishi-Azabu, where houses and apartments often rent for $10,000 a month or more. And the bench where he sleeps is next to a fancy supermarket that is guarded at night by private security guards. Hamahara said the guards are kind to him, which makes his sleep restful.

Police officers have never bothered him, he said, and no one has stolen or disturbed his possessions: an umbrella, a hand-held fan, a winter jacket, and clothing he keeps in a large cardboard box marked "Kleenex." When Hamahara needs money, he goes to a construction site and offers himself as a day laborer, making about $90 a day.

The homeless in Japan are rare - about 10 times more rare than in the United States, according to government studies in both countries.

There are only about 18,500 homeless people in Japan, a country of 127 million people. That compares with estimates of 335,000 in the United States, with a population of 300 million.

In Japan, the homeless tend to lead lives that are more self-sufficient and less scarred by alcoholism and mental illness than the lives of homeless people in the United States and Europe, according to government figures and specialists.

"Nearly half survive without public support and they earn money as well," said Toshio Mizuuchi, a professor at Osaka City University who studies homelessness.

National surveys have found few drug addicts among the homeless. In Osaka, Japan's second-largest city, 10 percent to 15 percent of the homeless have alcohol or mental health problems, Mizuuchi said, while across Japan the prevalence of these problems among the homeless is considerably lower.

In the United States, a quarter of the homeless are disabled by mental illness or chronic substance abuse, a federal study found in 2007.

The concept of homelessness in Japan is rather new. There were always beggars, vagabonds, and vagrants, but they have been neither numerous nor visible since postwar prosperity exploded in the 1960s. The word "homeless" was almost never used until Japan's bubble economy burst and the homeless became visible in city parks in the '90s.

Even now, there are fewer than 25 state-funded homeless shelters in Japan. In the past four years, because of a stronger economy, the total number of homeless people has fallen 27 percent.

At the same time, the city of Tokyo has moved aggressively to remove about 2,000 homeless people from five major parks. The city has persuaded about 70 percent of them to abandon their tents and hand-built cottages. It offers job training and two years of deeply subsidized rent ($30-a-month rent for an apartment that usually goes for $600).

All this has conspired to make Hamahara a lonely guy in the park. "There are much fewer of us now," he said.

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