A Contented Life in a Tokyo Park

Katsunori Hamahara, 64, eats fresh food discarded by local shops and bathes regularly in the park restroom. The homeless in Japan are about 10 times more rare than in the United States, and tend to lead more self-sufficient lives.
Katsunori Hamahara, 64, eats fresh food discarded by local shops and bathes regularly in the park restroom. The homeless in Japan are about 10 times more rare than in the United States, and tend to lead more self-sufficient lives. (By Blaine Harden -- The Washington Post)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 16, 2007

TOKYO -- Retirement comes in January. That's when Katsunori Hamahara turns 65, when his government pension kicks in and when he will be able to afford a place to live.

Until then, the former cabdriver will stick with the life he has made for himself: He hangs out in a park and sleeps nearby on a bench.

By U.S. standards of homelessness, it's not a bad gig.

Hamahara eats free fresh food -- rice, fish, meat and vegetables. Because of strict Japanese hygiene laws, lunch boxes are discarded by convenience stores about 15 hours after they are prepared.

"If I am lucky, I get really good food, much better than at a restaurant," said Hamahara, who has befriended neighborhood convenience store employees.

He bathes, combs his hair and washes his clothes in the park's clean public restroom. With the two brooms and dustpan that he keeps at his side, he tidies up the restroom and the park every morning at dawn, often with park employees.

Most days, small children, along with nannies and parents, invade the park. Hamahara finds peace in the sounds of their play but keeps his distance. He does not talk to children, fearing he might frighten them or their guardians.

He has chosen his neighborhood well. The park is in Nishi-Azabu, where houses and apartments often rent for $10,000 a month or more. And the bench where he sleeps is next to a fancy supermarket that is guarded at night by private security guards. Hamahara says the guards are kind to him, which makes his sleep restful.

Police officers have never bothered him, he says, and no one has stolen or disturbed his possessions: an umbrella, a hand-held fan, a winter jacket and clothing he keeps in a large cardboard box that says "Kleenex" on it. When Hamahara needs money, he goes to a construction site and offers himself as a day laborer, making about $90 a day.

"I feel very comfortable in this park," Hamahara said on a warm morning in late summer. He was not expecting visitors, but he was cleanshaven, his white T-shirt was spotless and his sneakers looked new.

The homeless in Japan are rare birds -- about 10 times more rare than in the United States, according to government studies in both countries.

There are only about 18,500 homeless people in this country of 127 million people. That compares with estimates of 335,000 in the United States, with a population of 300 million.


CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company