A few years ago, I happened to work with a big-name musician and once, we had a moment alone together in the same room. I felt a bit nervous and didn’t know what to say really – until I remembered that in my very own bag was a copy I picked up in Shibuya of “Big Issue Japan,” a magazine sold by homeless. Actually before, after five years of silence, his legendary band had chosen the Big Issue for an exclusive interview — instead of the major music press! Meanwhile the musician was still a bit sullen. Well, that was until I reached into my bag and passed him the mag saying “Did you know that we have the Big Issue here in Japan too? You did an exclusive interview with them before…” He seemed a little bit puzzled, started to flip through the pages and finally uttered with a smile “That was in 1994!” After this anecdote, we take a look again at the Big Issue Japan which is celebrating their fifth anniversary this September. Time for PingMag to talk to Miku Sano, the general manager of their Tokyo office.
Written by Chiemi
Traslated by Natsumi Yamane
First, can you please tell us a bit about Big Issue?
The Big Issue is a magazine that started in London. Originally it was established by founders John Bird and the Roddicks of the Body Shop, who tried to bring over the system of magazines being sold by homeless in America. They thought if they could make a magazine that was purely interesting to read, rather than a magazine people just buy to support the homeless, then that would kind of work out as a job. That came at the time when the British streets were full of homeless who lost their jobs after the privatisation wave by the Thatcher Administration.
And Big Issue Japan was founded in 2003, right?
Yes, that was when people increasingly lost their homes in Japan too. It was also the year when the government did their first ever research on homelessness and their report showed that more than 30,000 people were living on the streets already. So we looked for something we could do to help improve the situation and that’s when we found out about this magazine and decided to start it in Japan too.
How does the system of the Big Issue Japan work?
Big Issue Japan is a limited company that makes magazines to be sold by the homeless. Many of them who come here for the first time don’t even have money to make a purchase, so we ask them to register as a vendor and then offer them the first ten copies for free. The magazine’s retail price is ¥300 per copy, so if they manage to sell everything, they would have ¥3,000 left. Next, we ask them to make the next purchase for ¥140 per copy, and the remaining ¥160 will be their income. After that, it’s up to each vendor: Some people come and purchase ten copies every day, others buy in bulk and return when they have run out of stock.
“There’s a job you can start straight away.” A flyer recruiting vendors.
Do people who want to become vendors simply turn up in your office?
Yes. We have flyers that we leave in places where homeless sleep at night, so recently we’ve had many who come to us after they’ve seen the flyers or people who have been taken to us by another vendor.
How many registered vendors are there currently?
In the past five years, approximately 770 people in total have registered with us. Right now there are around 120 people from their 30’s to 70’s — and apart from a couple, they are all males.
Does it mean that those people who cancelled their registration have managed to get off the streets?
Some have managed while others couldn’t carry on doing it. Most of the homeless were day labourers, so they have little experience in sales and, moreover, they have to make the fact that they are homeless open while they are working. Our staff offer supports for the first few days, but if you can’t sell the magazines once you are alone, then you are really stuck. But if you manage to carry on for around a month, then you get used to it yourself and gradually start building relationships with the customers. Then you start thinking “Let’s stick at it for another day!”
How about the content of the magazine?
The top interviews are usually from overseas, but more than sixty percent of the content consists of original topics from Japan. As for overseas topics, Big Issues from other regions and the database of the International Network of Street Papers (INSP) which is a network for organisations with similar systems as Big Issue, provide us with free contents too.
In the U.K., some celebrities give exclusive interviews in support of your activities. Does that happen in Japan as well?
In Japan, we haven’t been able to get any exclusive interviews yet. However, Japanese rock band Bump of Chicken, who doesn’t appear in the media often, once gave us an interview. They also introduced us on their website and kindly allowed us to sell the magazine at their concerts. That lead to a very big profit!
What a wonderful story! Last year, you raised the price of the magazine from ¥200 to ¥300. How is it going since then?
It was really difficult immediately after we raised the price, but the sales are recovering again now. Until then, the vendor’s profit was ¥110 per copy. So for the vendors in the capital, food was all they could afford even if they sold 20 copies. But now, they can earn ¥3,200 by selling 20 copies, meaning they can stay at cheap accommodations and eat properly with more chances of getting off the streets. That also raised the vendors’ motivations and contributed to the sales increase.
What are the responses of the vendors?
Many have admitted that it’s the customers that keep them loyal to their selling posts. Warm passer byers bring a wave of encouragement by offering food and drinks as a way of saying “Good Luck”. The readers who are faithfully present on the first day of the new issue also help tremendously to keep their tenacity alive. Homeless for different reasons, and isolated from society its become an accepted part of their lives that people will never speak to them, much less acknowledge their presence, as their home is on the streets. A step toward a life that is warmer, kinder– a life with something we all consider to be essential–communication, the sale of this magazine is providing the very portal needed to make such a drastic transition!
I never knew that just exchanging a couple of words would encourage them so much… Lastly, what’s next for the Big Issue Japan?
Our goal is to make a quality magazine so that the vendors can sell them with pride and to provide vendors with better support in gaining control of their lives and help them work positively.
Thank you very much, Miku! You can meet the vendors at stations like Yurakucho, Yoyogi, Tamachi, Shinagawa, Akihabara, Gotanda, Meguro, Ebisu, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Takadanobaba, Mejiro, Ikebukuro, Okachimachi, or Roppongi in Tokyo. If you see one with the Big Issue Japan, please take a copy and have a chat!