The Times June 11, 2005
Happiness is just a riverside shack for designer homeless
From Richard Lloyd Parry in Tokyo
FOR a working man of 60 who has never had a wife or family, Itsuo Nakamura does not have a bad life. He has an oil stove for cooking and warmth in the winter, and a shelf for food and for his collection of paperback thrillers. He has a mattress and blankets, and a miniature TV and radio powered by a solar panel.
A day of sunshine in the summer gives me enough to watch TV for six or seven hours, he says. I’ve got everything I need. My life is OK.
None of this would be remarkable, but for one fact: Mr Nakamura is technically homeless. For three years, he has lived with hundreds of other Japanese men in a makeshift community strung out along the banks of the Sumida River in central Tokyo.
He constructed his room out of cardboard, wood and tarpaulins, and from the outside it looks like a grim cube, 6ft long and 4ft high. Inside, like the other homes in this cardboard city, it is a masterpiece of improvisation, a triumph of ingenuity over deprivation.
Since the bursting of Japan’s economic bubble 15 years ago, homelessness in Japan has become a growing problem in 2003, the Government counted 25,296 homeless people and the true figure may be double that. But they represent a very different kind of problem from that of Western cities.
They are overwhelmingly well behaved, rather cowed men in their fifties and sixties. They are not associated with crime, drug use or prostitution. With their shy good manners and immaculate shelters, Japan’s homeless are the neatest, cleanest and most unobtrusive derelicts in the world. Now their achievements have been recognised in a book which treats them, not as society’s cast-offs, but as subconscious artists of the everyday.
Contemporary architects just make boxes to sell to people, says Kyohei Sakaguchi, a young architect and author of 0 Yen Houses. But a house should be a personal part of you, like your clothes or your hair. When you design your own house, and create it yourself, and make it your own,” that’s when it becomes alive.
Practical considerations determine the structure of these houses along the river. Occasionally the waters rise, so they are elevated on wooden pallets or on plastic beer crates. In dryer spots, such as parks, the homeless construct foundations of cardboard boxes and thick manga comic books retrieved from waste paper bins.
It is illegal to erect a structure on public land such as the Sumida riverbank, but those living there have nowhere left to go. The city government compromises by carrying out inspections, but notifies the homeless communities a week in advance. Before the inspectors arrive, Mr Nakamura carefully dismantles his home, solar panels and gadgets, and carries them up a ladder to the top of the river bank. Two hours later, after the inspectors have gone, he reassembles them.
As a consequence, it has to be readily collapsible an ingenious arrangement of canvas stretched over wooden posts attached with string and tape instead of nails. Before entering, he takes off his shoes as any Japanese householder would. Mr Nakamura works as a day labourer on construction sites and could afford a cheap room in a doss house if he wanted it. But I prefer it here, he says. Here, I have no worries.
Mr Sakaguchi’s researches have turned up even more extraordinary novelties. One man has a homemade two- storey house under an expressway with a karaoke system in his basement. Another lives in a shelter in a 5ft section of pipeline half-buried in the earth. A third built a cardboard house on wheels, which he simply pushes around the corner when the inspectors appear.
Some homeless communities have even organised themselves on communal lines, with a pooling of skills and expertise. If there is someone who used to be a carpenter, he will design the houses, says Mr Sakaguchi. In cities, these days, people don’t know what skills their neighbours have, but the people who live here have to.
He is presently negotiating with an art gallery in Canada to mount an exhibition of Japanese homeless architecture.
(that’s from an article, i saw the exibit at the vancouver art museum yesterday so cool)
btw. i’m gonna make one.. ><