Shinjuku Central Park was intended as the recreational centre of one of the capital‘s most ambitious developments, but it is now a giant outdoor dormitory for labourers and salarymen pushed out of work by recession.
As well as the Park Hyatt hotel, the park is a stone’s throw from the futuristic 42-storey metropolitan government building and a host of other awe-inspiring structures conceived at the height of Japan’s economic power.
Yet this symbol of the city’s optimism a decade ago has become one of the few visible signs of the drawn-out decline since then, with several hundred temporary residences of cardboard and tarpaulin squeezed behind bushes and alongside the park’s temple.
The orderly behaviour of its residents also helps to explain why Japan has been able to suffer a 12-year slump without the wrenching social disturbance that might be expected elsewhere.
In the past seven years, government statistics say the homeless population in Japan has more than doubled to 25,200, of whom 5,700 live in the capital. The numbers are tiny compared with London, Paris and New York, but anti-poverty campaigners argue the problem is under-reported.
Many of those in Shinjuku Central Park appear so ashamed of their lowly status that they would rather not be noticed at all. Most of them are ultra polite, even apologetic, are rarely implicated in crimes and do not usually beg, preferring to work whenever possible by recycling cans, labouring or queuing up for concert tickets for yakuza ticket touts.
Not only are the park’s lawns, paths and toilets kept spotless, but the inside of the tarpaulin homes are so regularly swept and tidied that this writer felt ashamed of his dusty office. As for any Japanese house, visitors must remove their shoes before stepping on to the cardboard floor and the futons are aired on the railings outside.
It may be the bottom of the social heap, but hierarchical values seem as strong here as anywhere. Far from the survival of the fittest, the pecking order is at least partly determined by seniority: those who have stayed in the park the longest live in homes of stout hardboard near the outer railings. Further inside are rows of tarpaulin tents, which have addresses recognised by the post office. Finally, there are the newcomers who must make do with benches and cardboard.
Drugs and alcohol are remarkable by their absence. The only empty cans (all carefully collected) are of a soft drink distributed by a Christian charity.
The residents, who are mostly men in the late 50s, the generation worst hit by the economic slump, seem accustomed to gaman (endurance) the teeth-gritting habit of a lifetime, inculcated by a conformist education and driven home by decades of corporate loyalty.
That system may have failed them, but usually there is little protest. The exception last year was a demonstration by 250 homeless people, which encouraged the government to allocate its first budget for rehousing, retraining and healthcare for the homeless.
For the most part though, the mood is one of resignation. “I get cold and hungry, but there is no point complaining. It’s just the recession,” said one of the park’s newest residents. “I just have to keep looking for work and hoping that things pick up.”