:: Article

The Olympic threat to Tokyo’s ‘Citizens out of sight’

By Chris Low.

(with thanks to Elizabeth Hana Hayton)

As quickly as the bubbles went flat on the celebratory champagne toasting the news of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, doubts set in. Many Japanese believe the benefits will be negligent given the country’s recession-hit economy. Others are of the opinion that money invested in the games would be better spent aiding those whose lives were destroyed in the Fukushima disaster. Sadly, it seems like in other cities that have played host to the Olympics, those who will suffer first are those already at the very bottom of society. They are the most disenfranchised social group who would never reap any benefit from the tourism or injections of corporate sponsorship promised. In Tokyo, as everywhere else, this means the homeless.


Tokyo’s homeless population exist in limbo. They don’t seem to be vilified like the destitute and roofless in other countries, but an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude does prevail that forces them into living in shanty-town style encampments in woods and by rail-tracks. Often they live alone and isolated; in other instances they gather together in groups that delevop into small communities.

An example of this invisible underclass has lived for over a decade just a stone’s throw from the very centre of bustling Shibuya. Only a minute’s walk from the neon futureworld of Shibuya Scramble crossing and positioned between the shadow of the Rei Hotel and the Yamanote train line, a homeless camp has existed for years in Miyashita Park. It has become the epicentre of Shibuya’s itinerant community largely due to the way it’s aging residents have responded to the city’s ‘no begging’ laws by adopting a collectivized system by which funds and food are communally shared.

Whilst the existence of this homeless camp has been tolerated by the authorities, following an earlier attempt by Nike to drive out the homeless and rebrand the site “Nike Park”, their makeshift canvas homes are now threatened by the de facto social cleansing of encroaching Olympic developments. Much of the surrounding area now resembles to a building site from which, with typical Japanese efficiency, new concrete buildings are springing up at lightning speed.


The occupants of the camp, perhaps mindful of the tolerance they are shown by the police station visible from their tents or simply suspicious of press interest and misrepresentation have never spoken out before. With the cold now accompanying the uncertainty of where they will find shelter in the months to come, one of the oldest residents took time to show the camp and speak to myself and a friend who has helped and befriended those known as Shibuya’s ‘Citizens out of sight’.

Makoto is 72 and has been living at the Shibuya camp for ten years now. Before that he lived at the homeless camp in Shinjuku until it was knocked down to make way for an office development. The proximity of the Shibuya camp to numerous fast-food outlets ensures they can generally find left-overs from McDonalds or the countless noodle bars in the area.

Although he always makes an effort to be courteous and friendly to passers-by, most just treat him like he doesn’t exist. Some encounters can even be hostile. A business man attacked him once and hit him on the head with a beer can. However, he maintains that the camp’s residents have a good relationship with local businesses and the authorities as they keep the area (a busy thoroughfare between Shibuya Station and Crossing) clean and rubbish-free.

Even a promotional van blasting out a loop of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s Coca-Cola jingle parked at the end of the street fails to elicit any animosity towards his surroundings.


As begging is illegal in Tokyo, Makoto and the other residents survive by collecting discarded aluminium cans which they can sell by the weight (at 80 Yen – 50p or half a dollar – per kilo) to private recycling companies earning approx. £6 a week. All the residents of the camp collect the cans with the ‘leader’ of the camp (the best able to negotiate with recycling companies and local authorities) organising their sale and distributing the funds they receive equally amongst the residents. Even those too old and frail to collect cans themselves any more receive a share.

Once the camp is destroyed, Makoto can’t imagine where he will end up. Tragically he thinks “it can only be hell as surely noone who lives like he does would be allowed into Heaven” but on a more pragmatic note suggests his only option might be to find shelter wherever he can elsewhere in the city. At the age of 72, quite how will he cope on the streets without the security and community the Shibuya camp offers is something that fills him with a greater chill than the Tokyo winter ever could.

chris yakuza festival
Chris Low has taken photographs documenting his life and experiences from an early age. He first went to punk gigs in 1979 whilst only 10 years old. At 12 he started a fanzine, took up drumming and embraced the emerging ‘zine and band scene that would later come to be known as ‘anarcho-punk’. During the 1980s he drummed on records by The Apostles and Oi Polloi before turning to DJing. In recent years Chris returned to drumming and played for Portugese punks The Parkinsons, Billy Rath of Johnny Thunders fame, and reformed ‘seminal deathrock act’ PART1 as well as continuing to DJ throughout Japan, America and Europe. His first visit to Tokyo was in 2002 when be played at the Fuji Rock Festival when he “fell in love with Tokyo” and has subsequently visited over thirty times and lived for a period. He has written regularly for Vice amongst other magazines and sites and contributed to a number of books on the punk movement with a photography exhibition of the five years he spent documenting the Tokyo underground punk scene running at the Red Gallery, Shoreditch, in August.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 23rd, 2016.