Newly poor find shelter in Hibiya tent city as economic crisis worsens in the land of the Rising Sun
by Pino Cazzaniga
Plants shut down or lay off workers, who are left without money and home. Suicide and crime are signs of their malaise. But some good may come out of it after all, raising hope among some.
Tokyo (AsiaNews) – The financial tsunami caused by Wall Street’s crisis a few months ago is hitting Japan hard. Over New Year celebrations Hibiya Park, a large green space located downtown between the Imperial Palace, the Diet (parliament) building and the city’s commercial core, was turned a tent city. The broad green grass is now covered by tents and tables where union officials and volunteers are helping out the unemployed by providing them with a hot meal and advice.

“I am grateful to have a place to go for New Year because at present I have no place of my own,” said one of the many laid-off workers who now call the tent city home. “The volunteers have given me encouragement, but I have no job prospects and the year that is beginning looks gloomy.”

The newly poor should not be confused with the homeless who usually spend the night in the underground areas of big stations—they are just victims of the global financial meltdown that has reached Japan.

A 69-year-old man now living in the Hibiya tent city used to work at the Nissan plant near Tokyo. He quit in order to let younger people to work.

“Someone had to leave the company,” he said. “So I quit voluntarily because there are younger workers who must support their families.”

Another temporary worker, 39, was laid off in mid-December.

“Since then I have thought several times to kill myself. My family is in Osaka but I cannot see them in this state.”

On the radio he heard about the tent city in Hibiya Park. “I am grateful to the volunteers, especially since they talk to us out of kindness, not out of pity.”

Suicides and crime

Until 20 years ago, about 80 per cent of the Japanese population was middle class, enjoying the good life. A good standard educational background was good enough to get a full time, lifelong job in a solid company.

Towards the end of the 1980s Japan’s banks invested heavily and recklessly at home and abroad, losing a lot. The soap bubble economy eventually burst, threatening the country’s economic system. It took Japan ten years to come out of that crisis thanks to the daring policies of Junichi Koizumi, a reform-minded prime minister who, inspired by the late US President Ronald Reagan’s neo-liberal economic approach, pushed through deregulation, a policy which outgoing US President George W. Bush had continued.

In fact many experts believe that the current global economic crisis is not due to the capitalist system per se, which since the fall of the Berlin Wall has spread wealth everywhere, but to the lack of proper government supervision of financial institutions.

In Japan though, deregulation has had tragic consequences for temporary workers, who make 30 per cent of the workforce. Their contracts usually last a year and are not always renewed.

A Labour Ministry study showed that from now to March 85,000 temporary workers will lose their job and some 2,150 will become homeless since they will no longer be able to live at company-run hostels.

In the last few days of 2008, as many Japanese crammed planes and bullet-trains to go back home to celebrate the New Year with their families, in the capital many a young man walked the streets, a bag in the hand, carrying a few items of clothing and some money in their pocket to spend at cybercafés for the night. Having just lost their home, wandering hopelessly in the city, overwhelmed by desperation, some have taken their lives. Others got seriously ill because health care was suddenly a luxury. Still others took to crime. In the upscale neighbourhood of Roppongi a 28-year-old man threatened some passer-bys. After he was stopped by a policeman he said that his “contract had ended in mid-December” leaving him without a future. “I am frustrated,” he said; “I just wanted to scare people.” Two days later another one killed a taxi driver, cutting his throat to rob his daily earnings. Similarly episodes have been recorded in Osaka and Kobe.

A tent city has also been set up in Tokyo’s Hibiya Park where doctors, lawyers, trade unionists and ordinary people offer their services to the new homeless over the holiday break because government offices remained closed from 27 December o to 5 January,

Former US Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has called the present situation a “once-in-a-century financial crisis” but such a view can encourage a fatalistic kind of pessimism at a time when the crisis is so big that it needs to be closely studied to be overcome. The future remains unclear.

Indeed, it does. The crisis that has hit Japan’s top car maker Toyota is a sign that we are living in exceptional times. In 2007 the company sold more than 17 million vehicles. In 2008 it lost 150 billion yen, not as a result of speculation on the stock exchange but from lower earnings in its main markets in the United States and Europe where the financial crisis on Wall Street and a higher yen cut into its sales.

“Positive” effects

An editorial writer said that, as paradoxical it may appear, this crisis is having important positive repercussions. First of all, it marks the end of a unipolar world. The United States has shown that it is not up to it. The impact of the financial meltdown on Wall Street is worse than that of the terrorist attack against the Twin Towers. Unipolarity is giving way to multipolarity in world governance. The unbridled global capitalism of the last 20 years appears to be at an end.

The financial crisis’ challenge to Japan is particularly important for it ha a positive side since it is forcing the country to adopt more broadly-based policies.

The Asahi daily wrote that Japan must find solutions to its problems by relying on its own economic and cultural resources rather than depend upon others, namely the United States, as it has done for so long. Its own history is a lesson in the matter.

In the last 150 years the country has faced three great crises: the transition in mid-19th century from medieval feudalism to modernity; the transition in mid-20th century from militarist imperialism to democracy, and the current financial revolution.

History shows that it was able to overcome the first two crises by relying on its own cultural resources. But the third challenge is the hardest ever because it calls for courage in taking on new values like concern for man and a commitment to solving environmental problems for the whole of humanity. For Christians these are spiritual values that come from God.

At the end of a debate broadcast by NHK TV a man and a woman were asked to write on a tablet a term that could symbolise the New Year. The woman chose omoyari, which means concern for others, sympathy; the man wrote kibo, hope.