Tokyo, Japan - Minoru Ebata's living quarters stand out in the upscale Tokyo neighbourhood of Shinjuku. The 64-year-old sleeps on a makeshift bed on the pavement off busy Koen Dori (Park Street), a pedestrian overpass somewhat protecting him and a few piles of his possessions from a cool autumn drizzle.

"It's hardest when it's raining," he explained about his two years of living outdoors.

A short walk down the street, beneath the next overpass, finds Kazuo Oka, who makes about 3,000 yen (US$28) a day collecting recyclable cans, and is proud of the kerb-side dinners he makes on a portable stove.

The cheery 70-year-old smiles at passersby, but his face turns sour when the subject of government assistance comes up.

Kazuo Oka, 70, collects recyclable cans to support his life on the streets of Tokyo [Sneha Bhavaraju/Al Jazeera]

"There's not enough help," he said. "Because we're old, the government doesn't want to help us get jobs."

A newly released government survey found that Tokyo's homeless population has reached an all-time low. The headline creates a welcome image for a country still trying to resurrect itself after two decades of economic stagflation.

But critics call the survey incomplete and misleading, and yet another effort to look past a population that is contending with growing economic disparity, sometimes exploited for cheap labour, and subject to random street violence.

"I'm just sceptical about that claim," said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan"The notion that suddenly everything is getting rosier sets my alarm bells off."

Voluntary homelessness?

The survey has Tokyoites debating the severity of homelessness, a problem that was largely unknown until the economic bubble burst in the early 1990s and unemployment rose sharply.

Tokyo Governor Yoichi Masuzoe said in an interview that homelessness is a complicated issue driven by many factors such as unemployment. But government outreach efforts to help the unemployed find employment are often unsuccessful, he said, with social benefits such as free-food programmes for the poor making voluntary homelessness an option.

"We can propose many, many jobs, we can propose housing," said Masuzoe, "but as far as they say 'No, this is my intention to stay here' … they don't come."

Non-profit organisations that deal directly with Tokyo's street people can't agree on whether homeless numbers are up or down.

"We don't think the number is decreasing dramatically," said Miku Sano, a managing director of the homeless street newspaper The Big Issue Japan. "I don't think the [survey] number reflects the reality."

Charles E McJilton, executive director of the food bank Second Harvest Japan, said he believes actual homeless numbers in Tokyo are down, but the numbers fail to take into account the larger issue of poverty and economic insecurity. "It has always been a misunderstanding in the media that poverty in Japan is represented by the homeless," he said.

More and more people are finding themselves in economic distress because of the changing economic paradigm.

- Jeff Kingston, Temple University Japan

The survey, conducted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, found homelessness in the megalopolis hit a record low of 1,697 this August, down from 1,877 last year. That number compares with a high of 6,731 homeless people reported in the city in 2004.

Government efforts including housing assistance, employment counselling, job training, and life coaching have helped bring down homeless numbers, said Hiroshi Ito of the metropolitan government's Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health.

The survey was compiled by city staff members who were asked to tally the number of homeless over the course of an August day in public parks, streets, and riverbeds, Ito said. Individuals were not interviewed to confirm their status as homeless, he said.

Dire straits

The survey fails to take into account people without a permanent residence who may be sleeping in internet cafes, fast-food restaurants, or cars, Ito acknowledged, adding he has no idea what that number might be.

"The true figure is much higher than the government figure, maybe double as a semi-informed guess. But no one can know for sure," said Tom Gill, a professor of social anthropology at Meiji Gakuin University who writes on the lives of underclass men in urban Japan.

Japan's homeless population excludes a number of population groups that would be included in other countries, Gill said. There are relatively few homeless people with drug addictions since illegal drugs are largely unavailable in Japan; there are few if any military veterans because post-war Japan has had almost no military adventures abroad; and many people with mental illness are institutionalised, Gill said.

Gill said an overall downward trend in homeless numbers in Tokyo is accurate, but the larger problem is the growing number of people in dire straits.

"You can argue it's a bad thing that there are more and more people who need livelihood protection," he said.

Many Japanese living on the economic fringe apply for assistance under Japan's livelihood protection law - seikatsu hogo - which guarantees a basic standard of living. The problem, Gill said, is the sharply increasing number of applications for the generous welfare benefit, and its worsening impact on the national debt, the largest in the developed world.

An actual drop in the number of so-called "rough sleepers" living outdoors in public spaces would fail to reflect a sharp increase in the "precariat" - "precarious proletariat", or workers without full employment or job security - said Kingston of Temple University Japan. The percentage of workers with precarious employment rose from 15 percent of the Japanese workforce in the late 1980s to 38 percent, he said.

Japan's homeless population excludes a number of groups that other countries  include [Sneha Bhavaraju/Al Jazeera]

"It may be true they're not as visible in Tokyo, but that doesn't mean they're gone," Kingston said. "In fact, more and more people are finding themselves in economic distress because of the changing economic paradigm."

'It's gotten worse'

Kingston calls the homeless count "one of those whack-a-mole things. You push it out of Tokyo and it pops up somewhere outside of Tokyo".

That view is shared by a homeless man who camps out on a pedestrian plaza outside Ueno Station. The 61-year-old, who asked not to be named, said: "People spread out and move around to other neighbourhoods, but they're still out there. I don't think it's changed, if anything it's gotten worse."

A number of Japanese cultural factors are at play, including a reluctance among many Japanese employers to hire unmarried or elderly men. Another is a traditional belief in family responsibility for individual welfare, said Yoshihiro Okamoto of the School of Business and Public Policies, Chukyo University, Nagoya, Japan. 

Some homeless in Tokyo have been subject to random attacks by youth gangs over the past year. According to news broadcaster NHK, a survey of 300 homeless people in Tokyo showed about 40 percent had been violently attacked by young gang members.

In December, Reuters news agency reported that homeless Japanese people were being recruited, reportedly at the direction of Japanese gangsters, to take low-paying jobs to clean up radioactive fallout from the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

With elderly men making up a large proportion of Japan's homeless population, the competition for day labour jobs with younger workers has some resigned to living outdoors and collecting recyclable cans for the rest of their lives. 

A former construction worker in his 60s sat on a cardboard pile outside of Ueno Station, surveying his homeless neighbours camped out on the pavement. "It's hard," he said, "but there's nothing we can do".

Sneha Bhavaraju and Toshikazu Aizawa contributed to this report. 

Follow Tom Benner on Twitter: @tgbenner 

Source: Al Jazeera