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Living with the poor of Tokyo
by Charles McJilton

Christian missionary McJilton reports on his experience as a homeless man in Tokyo, highlighting the attitudes which perpetuate isolation and hopelessness even among those with skills and resourcefulness. 


Tokyo, Japan
I am a Christian missionary. After living in one of the poorest sections of Tokyo for several years, I felt God call me to take another step to be closer to the poor. In January 1996 I went to live in a cardboard house along a river in Tokyo. I eventually spent 15 months there and these are some of the things I found.

I found a problem more complex than I previously imagined; I found myself on the receiving end of charity; and I found a group of men living to the best of their ability in an adverse situation. And from those who supposedly have nothing, they freely shared their food, resources, and time with me.livin299.jpg (16637 bytes)

What comes to your mind when you hear the word "homeless"? An old wino, drunk and reeking of urine, shuffling through a station? Men sleeping on the streets at night with only a blanket and some cardboard to keep themselves warm? To be sure, some of these images are correct.

Certainly if you met me on the streets of Tokyo you would never have guessed where I slept at night. And if you met the majority of my neighbours it would not occur to you that they are homeless. There is another face to the homeless in Tokyo.

There is Mr. K who at 73 years old is the undisputed master-builder of cardboard houses. In the last four years he has taught himself how to build houses able to withstand snow, torrential rain, typhoons, and even flooding. A short man with leathery hands and slow, methodical movements, he is a walking encyclopedia of information. He can tell you the time of sunrise, sunset, low and high tide, and the next full moon without blinking an eye. You want to know about haiku [a form of poetry]? Heíll be glad to help you.

If you were to ask him why he chooses to live along the river he would probably just chuckle softly ó he is a humble man by nature. But if you became friends and pushed the issue he would probably just say that along the river he can take care of himself, and there is no need to rely on the government.

There are so many others who have chosen to respond creatively to an adverse situation. They have given creative suffering a new meaning. You often hear from outsiders: "They choose to be homeless." Well, yes and no. Yes, Mr. K chooses to live along the river, but to him it is the only choice available given his desire for autonomy and companionship.

The majority of these men cannot imagine an alternative to their current situation. The path to freedom seems blocked by so many walls that any alternative is but a mirage to them. Hope, for some, is the precursor of disappointment.

"Get a job"

However, we see a different picture. We say: "Get a job," "Stop drinking," or "Go back to your families." Our words are meant to add comfort and encouragement and yet they are no better than telling a man who sees only a desert to drink deeply from the cool well next to the trees. For him there is no well, no trees, and not even water. He has long ago lost his ability to see reality. Or perhaps it is we who have lost our ability to see reality through his eyes.

I canít help but wonder if this is the reason that Christianity has yet to take root with these men. Apart from it being viewed as a foreign religion, many preachers and missionaries are seen as not understanding how the men see their world. The preachers offer a solution without understanding how the men view that solution. In other words, what the men may be looking for is to have their material needs taken care of: if I become a Christian I will get a job, have a place to live, and be accepted just like other Christians. And yet, the preachers are offering something more abstract: salvation of the soul.

However, there are things we can do. Sharing a meal, providing work, going to their funerals, walking alongside them in demonstrations have a far greater impact because we are giving of ourselves.

This may seem trivial, "Anyone can do that." OK, then why arenít more people doing it? One reason is that it takes time and we often feel as though we are doing nothing.

You can also look around your church and see if there is a place at the table for these men. By this I mean, do the leaders talk about the homeless? Do they talk about the ways in which your community could respond in welcoming these men as Christ did? Do they touch on the issue of spiritual poverty and material poverty? Are they willing to talk about the harder subjects such as societyís prejudices and even our own prejudices? If not, why? If we cannot discuss these issues how can we welcome the poor when they come to us?

It would be a shame to have someone moved by our Christian acts of mercy gravely disappointed when they come to our church and not feel welcomed due to our own awkwardness. The poor are not someone out there we must rescue, but Christ dwelling among us. We must realize that they are not different from us: they are our brothers and sisters.

For most of these men this is the end of the line. They will follow in the footsteps of others who have left the world before their time. Few dwell on their own impending death. Their main concern is to get through today, this week, this season. And yet, I found that these men whom you would assume to be quite unhappy seem to have found a way to carry on with as much dignity as possible. Expressions of their humanity still shine forth in an otherwise bleak existence. There is humour, joking, sharing, and concern for one another as they continue to face a hard life.

I existed between two worlds: theirs and corporate Japan. I have to be honest in saying that I feel more comfortable with these men. They have taught me much about the value of human relations and what it means to be human in the face of an inhuman situation. My one desire is for other people to come to know and understand them as I have: my brothers struggling simply to live in the face of adversity.


Charles McJilton is a Christian Missionary living among the homeless in Japan.

From the January- February 1999 issue of Share International.


Articles about homelessness

FAQ on homelessness
Also see:
Articles on hunger and poverty
Articles on sharing
Articles on social justice issues
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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005