MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — Japan is the only country that has a homeless population of nearly 0%. However, poverty issues, mental health reforms and housing improvements are still the focus of humanitarian efforts in Japan. Japan and the United States have similar poverty levels, yet Japan has a much lower homeless population than the US.
Demographics of Japan’s Homeless Population
In 2020, the Japanese government’s homeless count was 3,992, making up just .003% of Japan’s population. On the other hand, the United States has a homeless population of about .2%. Around 92% of the Japanese homeless are men older than 50. This is due to the strong gender norms that are prevalent in Japan. Women are supposed to be cared for, so it is not considered their fault if they end up homeless. They are more likely to receive assistance. Japanese gender norms assume that homeless men are irresponsible and drug users.
Why is Japan’s Homeless Population So Low?
Worldwide, homelessness results from many factors, including drug addiction, mental health, housing options, education and government decisions. Japan’s strict drug laws, mental health systems and housing options contribute to the countries low homeless population.
Tom Gill, a Japan-based social anthropologist, reported that Japan has a lower homeless population than the US and other countries because Japan has a much lower drug addiction problem. A 2014 study revealed that about 1.6% of the Japanese population tried drugs other than alcohol in their lifetime. Gill said that drugs other than alcohol are strictly illegal and usually only accessible through gangsters. Around 50% of drug users in Japan have gang connections. However, many of Japan’s homeless suffer from alcoholism.
A 67,500 person survey from the National Survey of Drug Use and Health In America showed that over 50% of the population in the US used some form of illegal drug in their lifetime. Drug addiction is one of the reasons for homelessness in America and can prevent people from finding homes and jobs due to a criminal record.
Karla Thennes, the director of a homeless organization called Porchlight in Madison, Wisconsin, described homeless shelters in Madison. Hundreds of people sleep on mats only inches apart with little sanitation. Madison and other cities across America need shelter reforms that are safer and more spacious.
Thennes explained to The Borgen Project that the homeless could not work past addiction in these shelter environments because of a failure to meet basic needs.“You can’t stay sober sleeping in a shelter,” Thennes said.
According to the Homeless Hub, 30-35% of all people who experience homelessness worldwide have a mental illness. In Japan, someone with a mental illness is typically placed into a mental health facility, sparing them from the streets. There are 269 psychiatric beds per 100,000 people in Japan, whereas, in the United States, the number is 25.
In fact, Japan has one of the most efficient health care systems in the world. However, a significant stigma revolves around mental health in Japan and the country sees one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Public insurance in Japan does not cover prescriptions for mental health medications such as antidepressants, and psychologists don’t always have enough training for their profession.
So while Japan’s mental health system ends up reducing the homeless population, their treatment of mentally ill people and available mental health resources struggle to meet an appropriate standard. “Japan has a conservative approach to the treatment of mentally ill people who are generally institutionalized,” reported Gill when he spoke to the Life Where I’m From Youtube channel.
Homeless shelters in the US rarely have space, while the homeless shelters in Japan are not close to capacity. This means that in Japan, if you are homeless and want help with housing, it is much easier to find an open shelter than in the US.
Japan’s low homeless population does not equate to having low poverty levels. Around 15.7% of Japan’s population is considered to be living in poverty, which is higher than the 13.7% of Americans who live in poverty.
Many areas of Japan have a high cost of living, making housing inaccessible to poorer Japanese people. Other than homeless shelters, many Japanese people who experience poverty live in districts called doya’gai, which translates to “flop house town.” These are low-cost, male-only areas of Japan. “It’s a town where people who are having difficulties live in a civilized society,” a nonprofit leader told Aljazeera. As homelessness in Japan decreases, those living in doya’gais have also decreased.
The Hidden Homeless
Some activists and research groups count a higher homeless population than what the government reports. The Advocacy Research Centre for Homelessness, an organization consisting of students and reporters, says that Japan may have a homeless population 2.7 times greater than the government’s statistics.
The difference in counts is because homelessness isn’t as noticeable in Japan. Most homeless people do not beg but may make extra money from recycling cans. Most homeless men lack connections with their families because of the shame attached to being homeless. Public restrooms and wash areas are widespread across Japan. Most homeless keep clean in an attempt not to look homeless.
Despite having a shockingly low homeless population, Japan needs poverty-reducing efforts to continue improving housing prices and accessibility.
– Sarah Eichstadt