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Trash as a Means to Survive

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Matt Wickens


Scavenging among Homeless Men in Tokyo, Japan

Since the end of World War II, Japanese society has considered itself a classless society and one where family members care for elders. The presence of older men, approaching or past retirement age, living in blue tents and on park benches, challenges this assumption. Clearly, the sizeable elderly homeless population in Tokyo shows that a third class in Japan exists along with the dominant middle class and the elite wealthy class. Because very few women become homeless, nearly all the homeless are men.

How do they survive? While the government provides welfare, homeless men often do not to apply because they know they will get rejected, do not want to risk a family member learning from a caseworker that they are homeless, or their pride prevents them from applying. They feel ashamed to be homeless. So, some men turn to day laboring but many men earn a living by scavenging for aluminum cans, newspapers, magazines, copper wiring, or other scrap metals. Scavenging, especially for aluminum cans, is by far the most popular type of work and provides a steady income for some men.

Types of Scavenging

In my ethnographic research with these men from March 2008 to spring 2009, I documented two patterns of scavenging. The most common one involved rising early around sunrise or even earlier and taking aluminum cans from neighborhood recycling bins. The second pattern involved gathering cans from the same bins in the evening and at other places, such as hotels, outside restaurants or vending machines. After the men gather the cans, almost all of them would crush the cans before selling them. After they empty any remaining liquid, they stomp on the cans. A few men use a jackibase (a Japanese sledgehammer) to crush their cans. A jackibase is similar to a sledgehammer and weighs a little more than seven pounds. Men who used it developed should and back pain. The final step is selling the cans. Most men sold their cans two or three times a week when a scrap metal buyer comes to the neighborhood in northeast Tokyo for two hours.

Many scavengers approach their work as a way to make life better. For example, one homeless man said his reason for scavenging for aluminum cans is to buy cigarettes. He explained that he can find food or get it at a soup line, but he needs cash to buy cigarettes. He said simply, “Without gathering cans, I can’t smoke.” Another man, Suzuki-san, did his best to gather as many cans as he could. He too got food at soup lines. While he spent some money on food, he and his partner bought a Sudoku book to help pass the time. He also relaxed almost every week by going to the off-track betting facility to place small bets on the weekly horse races.

Limits to Trash as a Survival Strategy

Although collecting cans helps many homeless men survive and even have moments of relaxation drinking with friends or playing pachinko (Japanese pinball), it has several drawbacks. First, it is a game of chance. Scavengers depend on people in the neighborhood to drink aluminum cans and recycle them. Additionally, since many scavengers work the same neighborhoods, a competitor could get the cans moments before a scavenger arrives at the recycling bin. This difference could be significant as large apartment buildings and condominiums may have a bag of twenty cans. Second, the work is mind numbing and exhausting. It requires some local knowledge such as which neighborhood has the recycling pick-up and when and where to sell the cans. Scavengers walk the neighborhoods looking for cans. One neighborhood is three train stops from their homes and another is five stops away, a little more than a two and a half mile walk, so the men cover a large distance to collect aluminum cans. Third, scavengers face humiliation for gathering cans and occasionally hostility from the public. Fukuda-san, a homeless man who had two cancer surgeries the previous summer, recalled a man, referring to a city ordinance against taking recyclables, told him “tocha dame desu yo” (You cannot take these cans.). Fukuda-san apologized and took the cans anyway.

The weather and the policing presence of park officials affect the successfulness of scavenging as a source of income and a means of day-to-day survival. While some men will gather cans in the rain or snow, the number of cans they can gather decreases, if it rained the previous evening. Suzuki-san explained, “If it rains, no one drinks outside. They go home to drink and there are no cans for us.” Extreme weather such as a heat wave, snow storm, or typhoon prevents men from gathering cans and earning money. Finally, city officials inspect their tents monthly, and the men must be present for the inspection so they cannot gather cans that day. Losing a day’s pay is significant as most men have few savings. Since they cannot leave their belongings, they cannot attend a nearby soup line, so they must spend money for food.

While it is a localized practice, scavenging is also shaped by the fluctuations of national and global economies. The price for aluminum did not change significantly during the first half of my fieldwork, which most men attributed to China’s need for metal to build facilities for the 2008 Olympics. However, the price remained stable after the Olympics until the Lehman Brothers collapsed and the ensuing economic recession. The price of 160 yen a kilogram fell to around fifty yen a kilogram. This two-thirds drop in price crushed the spirit of many men and they desperately tried to survive the pay cut that was far beyond their control. Their income from before the drop in price did not permit much savings. Otani-san, a scavenger in is sixties, lamented, “The hardest part of the drop in price is the constant mental calculations. I have to always think they I must get by with two-thirds less than I had before.”

Their work, their pay and their powerlessness over their poverty demonstrates the scale of their lives and the immense inequality they embody. Their work shows how for them small amounts make a big difference. For example, when I was collecting cans with Takayama-san, he found a bag of cans, smiled, and said, “There are more than I thought!” He was expecting none or maybe one or two cans, but this time he grabbed five or six cans. Another example is their effort and time spent crushing the cans. They crush them so they can save money on garbage bags.

Their pay for the cans amounted to enough money to buy food and have enough left for small distractions, but with the drop in price, they cannot even afford food. Common descriptions of the new reality included “It is the worst” and “The worst ever.” They had few options to increase their pay. No one suggested bargaining with the scrap metal buyers. In fact, quite a few men simply stopped selling because it was not worth the effort at fifty yen per kilogram. Others looked for the buyer that paid five yen more per kilogram.

Many men felt powerless to do anything about their drop in pay. Some men experimented with scavenging newspapers, but the price of newspapers dropped and required more work. They are heavier, which would mean frequent trips to the recycling center. Others explored ways to spend less money. Since they already shopped at the cheapest supermarkets and 100-yen shop, their options for spending less were severally limited. A few men attended more soup lines. Before the drop in price, many men often proudly said they did not need to attend because they earn enough money, but now more men attended.

While the homeless population has decreased since my fieldwork, according to Reuters, the percentage of men over fifty-five has increased 73.5 percent (March 1, 2013). Given that Japanese society is rapidly aging, these percentages are troubling and indicate a need for additional services for the elderly, especially the poor and vulnerable. While the economy has recovered somewhat, the many homeless scavengers continue to be vulnerable to another recession.

Matt Wickens is a recent graduate of American University. His dissertation research in Tokyo, Japan focused on homeless men and their relationships with their families, survival strategies, and paths to homelessness. He currently teaches at Kanda University of International Studies and is preparing to publish his dissertation.

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