Finding oneself on the streets is quite possibly the ultimate test of inner strength and character. Cities rich and poor witness their most marginalised citizens living in wretched conditions. For some, the streets rob them of much of their sanity, and they become ghosts in a shell, while others, made of stuff stronger than I know, refuse to be flattened by the indignity of homelessness.
In Japan, homeless people who are able to earn some money spend their nights in Internet cafe booths or capsule hotels while those with nothing typically sleep in underground passages, doorways or by the side of the road. Then there are others who inhabit pockets of the city parks, where clusters of shelters made of cardboard boxes and blue tarpaulins exist like tent camps, small outposts beneath the trees and among the bushes.
These camps echo many of the trappings of suburban civilization. One tent will be little more than a modest sheet of tarpaulin held up by a length of rope tied between two trees, while its neighbour will be an ingenious geometric construction featuring a window and door with eaves. Another dwelling may have a landscaped porch. Here and there shoes are neatly placed by the entrances along with dustpan and brush sets and bicycles are parked nearby. Some tents glow with the light of lamps and the sounds of battery powered TVs and radios emanate from others while an open door reveals a lit gas burner warming some food. On sunny days umbrellas and laundry are hung out to dry.
The idea of these homeless communities is tragic, as is their existence in a country as wealthy as Japan (or America, or England, or France…) But these park camps aren’t miserable. And that’s the thing. There’s a dignity to the lives of these people who have been knocked down by who knows what. Unlike their brothers on the streets, they have not given up their humanity. And I admire their strength and their resolve. And I love the optimism and hope that is evoked by clean laundry drying on a tree. Shine on indeed.