- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 22, 2005

TOKYO — When Hisaume Kushibiki came to this capital 45 years ago from north- ern Japan, the country was at the dawn of its era of high-speed growth.

“There used to be a lot of jobs around here,” recalled Mr. Kushibiki, who took a variety of jobs, including as a carpenter or construction worker, and often toiled late into the night. But he found that the older he got, the fewer jobs he could take on, despite decades of experience.

“I’ve been looking for a part-time job for years now, but I cannot get hired because of my age,” said the soft-spoken 63-year-old with a weathered face. “Even if there are jobs, they only go to youngsters, who lack job skills.”

Lacking even a part-time income, Mr. Kushibiki moved to a tarp-covered rectangular box near the river three years ago. The only work he can find is cleaning at a cemetery three times a month, which pays 7,500 yen or about $70 each time.

Mr. Kushibiki is one of a growing but overlooked Japanese urban underclass. Analysts say ingrained cultural attitudes about age are aggravating the situation.

The first nationwide survey of the kind counted 25,296 homeless persons in Japan in 2003. Those close to the issue say the actual number is probably much higher.

The survey showed that the average homeless Japanese is slightly younger than 56 and that people ages 50 to 64 make up about two-thirds of that population. About 55 percent of them used to work in construction; many were day laborers who worked without fringe benefits as Japan flourished in the postwar era. The recession, however, has hit contractors hard.

Tetsuo, a stocky 58-year-old who did not want his family name used, had to quit his job as a construction worker because his age made him a “nonperson” at work.

“My co-workers and boss tried not to speak to me and even look me in the eye,” he said. “It’s a kind of bullying.” He said there was an indirect message that he quit, so he told his boss that he would leave.

It has been six months since his life in a cardboard box began. Collecting empty cans on the streets to earn money, he encounters various aspects of human nature.

Once when he was hauling a cart, looking for cans, some people shouted at him: “Get out of here, or we’ll call the police.”

“But others gave me rice and some food,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot in these six months.”

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government announced last year that 2,000 one-room apartments would be rented at low prices to park dwellers for the next two years.

The metropolitan government employs them for six months in jobs such as cleaning or guarding public spaces. After that, they have to find work to pay their rent. A government official said 714 persons have moved into the cheap rooms.

Some welcomed Tokyo’s initiatives and said other big cities should follow suit. But Mitsuo Nakamura, a leader of a support group for the homeless, said renting rooms to the homeless is not the answer.

“Many of the homeless are desperate for a job. But there are no jobs available to them because of age ceilings,” Mr. Nakamura said. “We should respect their willingness to work.” Many homeless people get meager earnings by collecting empty cans or magazines. They rarely beg or even ask for a cigarette, because such behavior is seen in Japan as shameful.

“What I need most is not a place to stay but a job,” Tetsuya said. “I often go to the employment office, but there are no jobs for a 58-year-old man.”

In Japan, however, it is not only the homeless, but also those older than 35 who have difficulty finding a job — especially if they are unmarried. Companies think married men work harder, because husbands in Japan are usually the sole breadwinners.

That’s why most of the homeless are middle-aged or older single men — a unique aspect of the problem of homelessness in Japan.

“Most of the homeless are systematically eliminated from society,” said Mr. Nakamura, who blames “deeply rooted discrimination.”

Political and business leaders have a lackadaisical approach toward homelessness, critics said. Rarely did party leaders or the mainstream press mention the problems of the homeless during the House of Representatives elections two weeks ago.

A Tokyo government official said, however, that with the help of private business owners, they are working on job-placement assistance for the homeless.

But it is not easy, said Megumi Mizuta, director of Furusato no Kai, a local nonprofit that supports the homeless.

“We need to deal with the problem on an individual basis. It will take a lot of time.”

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