‘When I dance I forget everything else’ - the arts/homelessness sector in Japan

By With One Voice Director Matt Peacock

‘How does dancing make you feel?’ – I asked a man in a park in Toyko during a rehearsal by Sokerissa, a dance company that works with homeless people. He looked up at the sky and I thought he wasn’t going to be able to answer. Then he suddenly looked at me and said ‘when I dance I forget everything else’.

Sokerissa is one of a small handful of arts projects that work with homeless people in Japan. It was set up 10 years ago by choreographer Yuki Aoki, who could no longer ignore the fact of homelessness. His troupe comprises nine men and meets weekly in a space supported by the Big Issue Foundation and in parks where many homeless people sleep. This is the only direct-action arts project with rough sleepers I have come across outside Rio (the majority of other projects work through homeless centres).

Sokerissa, the dance company for homeless people (with Yuki Aoki founder, on the right)

I write this blog on the back of a study trip to carry out With One Voice’s latest country review of arts and homelessness. Having spent 10 days in six cities meeting 117 people across policy, homelessness, arts and people with a lived experience of homelessness (including the seven local arts/homelessness projects we have found so far), I am reflecting on a sector that is so similar yet so different to others I have been lucky enough to encounter.

Over the past eight years, Streetwise Opera has been running exchanges with the Cocoroom in Osaka with the support of the British Council, which has been a driving force and a catalyst for the arts/homelessness movement for a decade. Now that Streetwise has launched the global arts/homelessness social movement and network With One Voice, we are back in the country helping to build the sector by mapping, connecting and strengthening projects, raising awareness of homelessness and the use of the arts, by making connections on civil and civic levels. This may lead to events during the Tokyo 2020 Cultural Olympiad, such as those we have helped to organise at London 2012 and Rio 2016, but the work is equally about building capacity and infrastructure.

We always start these projects with a country review of arts and homelesness, so what better place to begin than in Osaka with Cocoroom where the whole scene began.

It was founded by Kanayo Ueda, a community activist and poet who lives and works in Kamagasaki, a district with the highest number of homeless people in the country. She began by opening a café (Cocoroom) in Kamagasaki at a time when very few people would come into the area. Cocoroom enabled homeless and ex-homeless people to connect with each other and other members of the local community over a meal, tea and arts activities. The café has now become a guest house which connects even more people, especially international travellers, with the residents of the area. Profits go to her University of the Arts - a programme of 90 arts workshops per year including a choir, visual arts, gamelan, calligraphy and drama. It’s a phenomenal programme run by a tour de force – you mention Kanayo’s name in any arts situation in the country and people nod in reverence and respect.

The homelessness situation in Kamagasaki is a snapshot of the situation in the whole country. There are around 100 rough sleepers in an area of 800 square metres, with an additional 400 sleeping in a night-shelter, the largest such facility in Japan. There are, in addition, an estimated 8,500 people living on social welfare in tiny, mostly privately owned single-bed rooms. A few are provided by the non-profit sector. These ‘doyas’ are the size of 2-3 Japanese sleeping mats. Welfare support is available to most people in need but, in order to qualify (particularly for the pension), you have to have built up eligibility through work. Japan has an ageing population and a staggering 70% of rough sleepers are aged 55 and over.

Some 97% of homeless people are men. When the Japanese economic bubble burst in the 1990s, the biggest job sector that was hit were the construction workers. A huge number of them had lived in Kamagaski, in company accommodation, but also in similar districts around Japan (such as Kotobuki in Yokohama and Sanya in Tokyo). When these ‘day labourer’ jobs were no longer available, many of the men became homeless. Now 20 years on, they are among the growing number of older homelesss people. Residents of Kamagaski have the lowest life expectancy in Japan.

The Kama Night-shelter in Kamagasaki which can sleep up to 532 people – currently 400 beds are used

Government figures show around 6,235 rough sleepers across Japan (a reduction from over 25,000 in 2004 as politicians proudly attest). But as always, these figures are approximate and hide a number of factors. Firstly the street count is conducted during the day, so many rough sleepers are not there. In a brilliant initiative by the Tokyo Institute of Technology’s ARCH project (Advocacy and Research Centre for Homelessness), students have done night street counts every month for a year in Tokyo, finding 1,331 rough sleepers - pictured at the top. This is 250% more than the official figures.

As is the case in most countries, the number of hidden homeless people cannot be counted, but the policy makers are also concentrating much less on the number of homeless people who are in homeless centres. These ‘shien’ centres number around 2,000 across Japan and typically house 30 men for between three and six months while they look for work. What is particularly relevant to the role of the arts is that the shien centres are also known as ‘independent living’ centres which is a euphemism for ‘getting work’. Everyone we met agreed that independent living is more than just employment but there is no clear strategy to enable people who have left the streets or a homeless centres to support themselves. Added to this, if you consider that the vast majority of homeless people are elderly, it is not surprising that there is chronic isolation and most can’t get work.

This is one of the big challenges and opportunities in building the arts/homeless sector – it would fit perfectly into the current national homelessness strategy. If this was done at policy level (as in Manchester through the Manchester Homelessness Charter), thousands of homeless people would benefit both individually and through an improved public perception.

The message coming strongly from the meetings this past fortnight is that people’s identity is about work in a way that is much stronger in Japan than in many other countries. ‘You have three things in your life’, one person explained. ‘Family, friends and job.’ And many people talked of ‘shakai-jin’ – literally meaning ‘society-people’. In Japan, you only really ‘belong’ to society if you are useful and have a job. This accounts for a number of homeless people genuinely choosing to live on the streets – not in the same way as many of the public think homelessness is a choice but consciously deciding to get out of the rigid system with its one-dimensional values. The policy-makers bring this up themselves in meetings and shrug as if to say, ‘well, if they choose to go on the streets…’.  It is clear from several meetings with local and national government that homelessness is seen as an individual issue rather than a society one.

The current arts and social/arts sector talks a great deal about work and values. They all want to use the arts to raise awareness of the true nature of homelessness and to encourage the public to engage with the issue and see homeless people as human beings with skills and talents and not just a set of problems. The tide could be turning in Japan, one sign of which is the steady growth in the disability arts sector over the past 20 years. As a result of the Paralympics, a top-down national strategy to expand the sector has seen huge investment. Every local council is funding arts/disability projects and most of the mainstream arts organisations are working in this field.

This is in stark contrast to the arts/homelessness movement which, like in most countries, is passionate but under-resourced and fragmented. It is interesting fact that none of the projects we met in the field has enough money to pay any staff. Everyone doing this work has other jobs and they use small local government and foundation grants to fund the project costs.

Drama workshops with newspapers with Arts Management Centre Fukuoka

An example is the Arts Management Centre Fukuoka (AMCF), set up by Yuko Itoyama, who saw homeless people every night when she left the theatre she was running. She has set up drama workshops in a shien centre and hopes to expand to neighbouring Kita-Kyushu through the Hobokukan homeless centre networks. The workshops are designed specifically to increase communication skills for homeless people as they prepare for the job market. AMCF’s dynamic drama leaders guide the participants through a fascinating process involving reading newspapers in small groups, selecting three favourite stories/adverts, finding connections between the stories, writing a poem to illustrate the connections, and then making a script which becomes a play that is acted out.

We also met projects in poor districts of Yokohama and Tokyo, with a similar density of day labourers and homeless people to Kamagasaki. For example, Sanyu-kai, a non-profit organisation in Sanya in Tokyo, runs projects that support homeless/ex-homeless people and connects them to each other and wider society. Over the past year it has launched a photography project in which participants are lent digital cameras to take photos of their neighbourhood and elsewhere in Tokyo. The photos are shared between participants at meetings and the organisers have already seen how this is beginning to lift confidence and communication skills. The next stage is to organise exhibitions to develop the programme.

Tokyo is also the home of the Big Issue and Big Issue Foundation Japan which is not only producing the magazine but also running programmes in sports and arts including a football team, supporting the Sokerissa programme, and poetry competitions. It has a system of part-funding projects where three or more vendors decide to start a group which could be anything from discussing trains to organising walking tours. Meanwhile, in Kotobuki in Yokohama, Kotobuki Creative Action (KCA) organises artistic programmes including artist residencies. This is, rather remarkably, partly organised by a city council official who is in charge of arts – he is a board member for KCA, doing it in his own time.

Although most mainstream arts organisations are concentrating on disability, there is a huge opportunity to forge relationships between them and the homeless sector. A particularly forward-thinking example is the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum which is one of nine large, public arts institutions around Ueno Park in Tokyo. The team there was not aware of the photography projects at Sanyu-kai which could be an ideal link – plus they run a training programme on arts for social agendas through the Tokyo University of the Arts, for which they have now committed to include homelessness for the first time. Ueno Park has long been the home of rough sleepers with many using the foyers of the cultural institutions to sit down and get warm. Like many cultural spaces around the world, they struggle to know what to do – not wanting to eject the homeless people but also not engaging with them. This is an ideal group of organisations to include into With One Voice’s Cultural Spaces Homelessness Strategy paper – a review of examples of how museums, libraries, galleries and venues are engaging with homeless people and to share practice between them. This paper will be launched at an international summit of arts and homelessness in 2018 – details to be announced soon.

At all of our meetings, and through a few discussion workshops we organised with the sector, policy makers and homeless people, we talked about the Olympics and whether the Tokyo 2020 Cultural Olympiad was a good opportunity for the arts/homelessness sector. There was almost unanimous agreement from all parties that what happened in London and Rio, in giving homeless people a creative platform, should happen for Tokyo 2020. Most people thought that it would be an effective way to educate the public and promote more positive understanding about homelessness and homeless people. This was even in spite of us meeting a group of artist activists who live in Yoyogi Park who are campaigning against the Olympics. Despite this, the overwhelming feeling was that the Olympics is a chance to show homeless people in a different light. The sector is dreaming big – and we will be there to support them.