Homeless people's tents right below a train station in Osaka. Still from German filmmaker Anke Haarmann's documentary 'Public Blue'.

Homeless in Osaka: Reappropriate Public Space

The facts are vague: there seem to be about 25 000 homeless people in Japan. Some of them describe themselves as ‘no jyuku sha’ or ‘field campers’ – as they manage to settle in parks and other public spaces on a more permanent basis, easily distinguishable by their tent houses made of stark blue plastic covers. Especially in Osaka, these ‘campers’ not only organize themselves increasingly over the internet. They also engage in political activities to stand up for their rights and protest against the increasing park clearings by the municipiality. German artist Anke Haarmann did a documentary about this situation called Public Blue. For PingMag she explained the ‘no jyuku sha’ movement and talked about the current state in Japan and its conditions.

Still from ‘Public Blue’: interview with one ‘no jyuku sha’ at Osaka’s Castle Park.

Written by Verena

How did you get to know about the homeless situation in Japan in the beginning?

I spend some time in Kyoto between December 2004 and April 2006. There I became quiet soon aware of this blue phenomenon. The obvious presence of the homeless people in public spaces such as parks was irritating at first… Like for example in Germany, I doubt that this lot of nearly sedentary public accommodations would be accepted anywhere. The police would clear these kinds of tent colonies at once.

I know what you mean! I am always amazed that such blue villages can exist without people coming and disturbing them, destroying their houses, stealing from their gathered goods and accepting that public space is used for “alternative housing” in such a peaceful way. Well, obviously there are official clearings and people do get pushed away, which is a very sensitive issue, but still I am always impressed, that they manage to stay for quite a while and obviously build someting up!

Chart with the existing homeless villages in Osaka – still from ‘Public Blue’.

How did you come up with your documentary Public Space in the first place?

I felt the need of this urgent situation, as two park clearings were on their way at that time (see several videos documenting the clearings taken place in Nagai Park here). So I spontaneously grabbed a camera and started shooting in January 2006. There was no budget involved at all.

From ‘Public Blue’: interview with a homeless at Nishinari Park.

And how did you become interested in the subject of homeless people in the first place?

To be more precise, the homeless term is incorrect as they actually have their own tent homes and call themselves no jyuku sha, or field campers. There was a number of them in Osaka trying to engage in a political way to protest against the coming clearings in two parks. For example, they have an online community with a petition and a WIKI about homeless matters (more details and photos here).

But why the subject of ‘homelessness’ then?

I was interested in the whole complex of homelessness: for once in its problematic nature, as well as the homeless people’s method of adopting an ability to articulate politically for themselves.

Letting the people speak for themselves: interview with a ‘no jyuku sha’, a poet at Tenoiji Park in Osaka. Still taken from ‘Public Blue’.

Homeless protesting against their eviction…

…at one of the Osaka parks.

How did you get to the people then in order to shoot?

By chance I met some people from different political active groups in Osaka that try to improve the situation for the homeless there. Then I filmed the homeless protesters and their supporters and their attempt to intrude the mayor’s office to negotiate with the mayor of Osaka. I shot petitions on the street, a solidarity tent in one park and, at the end of the documentary, the actual defense of the tents against the police during the clearing.

Police forces clear the park, with ‘no jyuku sha’ protesting. Still from ‘Public Blue’.

And everywhere these blue tents… Can you explain why they are blue at all?

It certainly generates a symbolic meaning, a signature – but these are the common stark blue plastic blanket families usually use for their Hanami picnic, for example. Very endurable, too.

Homeless protesting against their eviction. Still from ‘Public Blue’.

How would you describe then the political scene around the campers in Osaka?

Apart from the no jyuku sha, the field campers that organize themselves within their community I worked with the Kamagasaki Medical Network. That’s a group of women providing counseling. Furthermore there is the more political branch called Kamagasaki Patrol that organizes demonstrations. Then there exists a loose network of sympathizers – but altogether there aren’t so many people. The no jyuku sha in Osaka gather several times a month in different parks to exchange information.

Homeless women describing her living condition in Osaka’s Utsubo Park. Stil from ‘Public Blue’.

How would you describe the situation of the “field campers” in Japan? Why do they end up having to live in blue tents in the first place?

I guess that the prevailing circumstances are similar to many other countries: people loose their jobs and don’t have any familial context to rely on. But especially in Japan there seems to be a strong family cohesion…

These jobless people are often elder men that usually were engaged in physically demanding work. When they are not of use anymore at the job, they often try to stay in flophouses for some time – until they can’t afford that anymore. However, only a minority of homeless people then manages to settle and organize itself. The rest stays in a permanent nomadic state, moving around in public spaces.

‘Tent street’ in Osaka. From ‘Public Blue’.

Park inhabitants set up these flower boxes as part of their park environment. Still from ‘Public Blue’.

In your documentary Public Space you talk with homeless people and activists – but no official representatives gave their comment…

I already had made contact with the authorities, but in the end it was my decision as a filmmaker to present mostly the view of the persons affected thus showing their efforts of self-articulation.

In some parks, the authorities set up container villages as basic lodging for the homeless to provide an alternative after the clearings. But these are only temporarily and after a while the inhabitants are back on the streets. I have only seen pictures of that, as they wouldn’t let us shoot inside.

Regarding the clearings in the parks – is there anything people can do against it on a legal basis?

As in every constitutional state, in Japan every action takes place according to its governmental way. Meaning, there was up to then an official announcement of the clearing of the park: in one case the official reason was a planned flower fair, in the other it was simply road construction work.

Osaka river tent town – still from ‘Public Blue’.

I see. You must have made some research about the homeless situation in Japan before… Did it change in the recent years or decades?

It’s difficult to get proven numbers here.

Obviously the homeless population increased after the bubble economy burst in the late 1980s. But there has been the situation of a free labor class for long: laborer from the countryside working in the cities, thus retaining in a kind of limbo state of a nomadic life-style. It actually seems that during the Edo period the whole city structure has functioned in this very same way. Its characteristics changed during the Industrial Revolution of the Meiji Restoration when laborer from the countryside were recruited en masse and subsequently housed in slums.

Osaka trainstation – also a public space for homeless people to sleep. From ‘Public Blue’.

Osaka river sights with lots of ‘public spaces’. From ‘Public Blue’.

In your abstract called “Squatting Public Space” which goes along with your documentary, you talk about the ancient Japanese town structure. You state that then all the common houses were grouped around the castle or the palace for its protection against invaders – leaving no gaps for “public space” as we might know it in the Western hemisphere.
Therefore you hint at the possibility that this made it more difficult to establish a political culture of public articulation amongst the Japanese village people in the old times.

However today, with the field campers’ “reappropriation of public space” you monitored an emerging of political activities that have been generated out of that created space. Please explain!

‘Public wardrobe’ I saw in Shibuya, just under a highway overpass.

Regarding the structure, old Japanese cities were planned as military strongholds and thus served as political instruments. I found that considering how they were built, there wasn’t much opportunity for people to get together and organize themselves – if they wanted to. Of course there were places such as Sento, the public baths or traditionally the Shinto shrines have been places where the commoners gathered during festivities like Matsuri, but that is still very different and can’t really be compared to something like the European market place.

I wouldn’t think of a hot bath as a hotbed for political activities like demonstrations.

Of course, in Europe there wasn’t any town planning concept that specifically tried to encourage the commoners’ sense of political self-consciousness. But with several historic movements within the city, the possibility of a public gathering and a subsequent developing of a political consciousness and articulation evolved eventually. And I can simply say that to me, it seems like structure wise this wasn’t the case with the ancient Japanese cities.

And up to the present time I have the notion that there are less public places with benches to rest on or open spaces, such as market places for people to gather. But don’t get me wrong now – there are certainly lots of activities taking place in public spaces such as Hanami.

I always feel, like public space is created in Japan, rather than provided by the city as such. I notice for example that some private people are planting flowers underneath street lights or around the tiny bits of green at the bottom of the trees along the streets. It seems like – for example – the lack of a garden or a park near by doesn’t make people sit there and grief, but create their own little private flower empire, in a tiny public space!

…but I guess that would be an own subject for another article… Thank you very much, Anke! For more info check out her website and watch the Public Blue movie trailer here!

  • http://imomus.livejournal.com Momus

    It’s great that you do urbanism articles like this as well as design ones. But of course this is also a design issue — the blue tarp and wood constructions of the “field campers” are often very ingenious, resembling the kind of temporary structures often erected for art installations.

    I like that Anke goes into the Japanese precedents, too. Western commentators can often — and inevitably, I think — see these phenomena through the lens of their own concerns. For instance, post-Protestants may well see values of defiance, self-determination and thrift in these constructions. That’s also a “construction”!

  • http://nyuudo.blogspot.com nyuudo

    One the best document I’ve read here…
    Sometimes it seems Japanese society doesn’t want to recognize those deep “social problems” or even worst, just overlook at them…
    Great, Great, Great Job.

  • http://www.chriskalanmi.com chriskalani

    That’s hardly “homeless” it is just like the live in a crappy village thing… homeless people don’t have structures or clothes… they sleep naked in the snow and rain using the curb as their pillow.

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  • http://merzmensch.blogspot.com merzmensch

    Very interesting reception and artistic access to this social problem. Some Japanese artists also concern themselves with this theme. For example, Tokyo artist group Pheromone (pheromone-pad.com) uses symbolism of “field campers”. They build tents and use as material advertisment banners. Their intention is the homeless reality of consumer generation, the emptiness and nothingless of its values.

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  • http://denpaiboon_cyahoo.com Chaweewan Denpaiboon

    First of all, 25 years ago (1980), I was interested in slum in Japan, No one knew slum in Japan. I think that Japan is modernization and industrial country. I ask Japanese officier of UDC, He said that no more land in town for low income group. and I ask him where did he live, he said that they lived in outter town. So I could not found it.I believe him, Japan is rich country, no more low income group.
    But 15 years later, I could found a few slum in Tokyo,Osaka, in Kyoto.
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    I look forward to hearing from you soon.

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  • Kevin

    We live in Osaka. We pay taxes. We can’t enjoy a single clean park anywhere anymore because the homeless are taking over. Most just are those who don’t want to be a part of society. They have been offered housing, but they don’t want to live by the rules. So instead they appropriate land that we pay to upkeep. I want to see the police clear them out for good.

  • sean Hamerton

    I went to Japan in Jan 2008 for 3 months.
    Staying in Osaka which I liked very much for five weeks.
    Coming out of a ‘Super Tamade’ supermarket, having survived the ‘Special day, special day!!’ repetative audio advert brainwashing, that drives you round the twist.
    (That alone is worth the trip!)
    It was raining one night , and this poor little jap sod was against the side of the supermarket wall, lying down with a coat over his top body, boots off, and his sock covered toes just dipping into a newly formed puddle.

    These people should be known for what they are…The Unwanted.
    Not ‘The homeless’ although they most surely are.
    They are the UNWANTED.
    Call a spade a spade and things might improve.

    Having said that, I worked out how high all the packets of fags they have ever brought in say a 50 year span.
    At 1 packet a day and 3/4 inch thick per packet it would be over 1140 foot high. Imaging that!
    And cost about 25,000 pounds.
    What a bloody waste of money they scrimp about all day for.
    Not to mention all the empty 200ml jars of sake that would reach to the moon and fill up Wembley stadium.
    To Japanese Government..Give them a job doing something and get them off the streets…got that!

  • Richard

    They are not homeless. They have made illegal constructions. These are thus slum dwellers invading the precious few public spaces.

    Go to India. There, up to 80% of the walkable city space is slum, people sleep everywhere. Do you want that?

    I do not know yet what solution for slum dwellers may be. Maybe retraining. Maybe population control. At any rate, slums are cancer of the urban space. I and my family may end up in one myself, one day…

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  • Judith

    This is a world-wide problem, but only viewed as a “problem” in first-world countries – the last place it should exist! In Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, police have had their hands tied for nearly a year, unable to clear out homeless camps on public land, resulting in the camps mushrooming around town, along with crime within the camps. While the homeless should indeed be allowed to own their own personal property, and that property be treated respectfully within the bounds of the law, as anyone else’s property would be, nevertheless, allowing the homeless to camp at will in public parks, along public hiking trails, etc., isn’t a constitutional “right”. These areas aren’t set up to handle the safety & health issues needed for housing people (sanitary toilets, etc). These are issues that affect everyone, and the homeless must be bound by the same laws that govern the rest of society.

    You can read more about the Anchorage issue at http://www.adn.com/2011/04/11/1805088/new-procedures-may-let-city-clear.html

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