Address: “Cardboard Box 7, Nishinari Park”

The following is true.

The Osaka High Court on Tuesday overturned a lower court ruling that a park can be registered as an address of a homeless man.

Yuji Yamauchi, 56, has lived in a pegged tent in Ogimachi Park in Osaka City’s Kita Ward since around 1998 and received his mail there.

The ward office refused to register the park as his address in March 2004, prompting him to file the lawsuit with the Osaka District Court to demand the local government rescind the decision.

This is interesting on a number of levels.

In many parts of the US, you can register to vote without a proper street address. Usually, you do this by drawing a map showing the location of your home; this is not available on some state voter registration forms, but the federal Motor Voter Act form (which works in all states) has a space on it for map-drawing. This was intended to be used by people in really rural areas that lack house numbering, but it can also be used by homeless people. Indeed, homeless advocacy groups even help the homeless register to vote, using their shelter, park or refrigerator carton as their address.

The Osaka High Court proposes a remarkably different test for what can constitute a “residence.” The Japanese Asahi‘s treatment sheds some more light on it:

In Osaka City, which as of 2003 contained the largest homeless population in Japan (about 6,600), it has been revealed that many day-laborers had registered addresses in office buildings in Nishinari Ward. Work is also ongoing to forcibly evict the tents pitched in Nagai Park in Higashi-Sumiyoshi Ward. The High Court ruling seems likely to affect the city’s homeless policy.

…Like the decision below, handed down last January, this decision indicated that a “residence,” as provided in the Residential Basic Registration Act, “designates the center of [one’s] life, with the deepest relationship to [one’s] life.”

That said, to be recognized as a residence, a place will not suffice if it is merely where daily life takes place: rather, the court decided that “it is necessary for its form to meet the standards of a residence, as provided by sound conventional wisdom.”

The court then determined that Yamauchi’s tent “is simply constructed from square timbers and plastic sheeting, and can be easily removed or moved to a different place; it is not connected to the land.”

Some background on the Japanese law at play here:

The residential registration system, or juminhyo, is one of Japan’s three big people-counting systems (the others being the koseki and alien registration systems).

All three are remarkably byzantine in a number of ways. They don’t work together very well, for one thing. A person’s koseki can be in Okinawa (or Dokdo) while they’re living in Hokkaido. More importantly (for us), resident aliens are practically invisible in the other two systems, which leads to all sorts of problems for international families living in Japan (Japanese people married to aliens appear to be single, and their children appear to be bastards). The existence of registration is also Japan’s excuse for not subscribing to child abduction treaties (a fact you should be aware of if starting a family with a Japanese spouse).

As much as I dislike these systems, they are vital in the government’s current way of doing things. They are used to track inheritance, tax liability and property rights, among other things. The systems also allow the government to conduct a proper census every year without hiring additional census takers.

I’ve dealt with one court case involving a homeless man in Tokyo, and he kept the registered address of his family outside the city (despite the fact that his family had disowned him). Is that much better? What alternative does a homeless person in Japan have? It’s a pretty big hole in the social welfare net, and I hope the Supreme Court finds a good way to patch it when this case goes up for its final appeal.

7 thoughts on “Address: “Cardboard Box 7, Nishinari Park””

  1. The homeless can’t seem to catch a break in Japan these days, particularly in Osaka. Maybe if the authorities saw The Wire they’d figure out that the two sides can have a mutually beneficial relationship if they can just find some equilibrium where the authorities can look tough on vagrancy while not actually making a dent in the homeless people’s lives. Or is that exactly what they’ve had up till now?

  2. I think that US authorities should watch “The Wire” first….

    Do you know if it is out in Japan? A masterwork like that deserves as much play as it can get.

    Watching the third season of “The Wire” (about allowing a certain amount of illegal activity in one area and fostering cooperation between police and criminals to keep violence down) reminded me of the situation with Japan’s homeless but more clearly of the Yakuza (during the majority of the postwar period).

  3. Perhaps the Wire isn’t well-known in Japan, but one very relevant classic bit of American TV is: Sesame Street. And even then the authorities don’t seem to have taken one of its core lessons to heart, namely that some people do live in trash cans. Not only that, but the trashcan dwellers (or “grouches” if you will) are friends to the children. Homeless activists have realized this and recently have brought homeless men into the classroom. Why are the authorities so hard-hearted?

  4. Also, I don’t know whether homeless advocates exist in Japan.

    There’s actually a lot of pro-homeless judicial precedent in the US. American judges tend to recognize that homeless people don’t have many options when it comes to sleeping, cleaning up and taking a dump, and they have been quick to overrule city ordinances which unreasonably infringe on those activities. This is ntaurally due to some plucky attorneys who decided to challenge the law.

    Of course, courts in Japan don’t have nearly as much power to mess with the government, so the pressure would have to be on the legislative side, which I imagine would be much less responsive.

  5. OK, this is what I must have seen:

    A Tokyo dancer has put together a stage production involving 6 area homeless men. After practicing in schools and public gymnasiums for 6 months, the group will perform in public for the first time at a hall in Shinjuku Jan 23.

  6. There are certainly homeless advocates in Japan. I know people who have been active in building awareness of/protesting against the Nagai Park eviction, and the homeless are naturally being represented by pro bono attorneys who are supported by activists.

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