Homelessness, Architecture, and Liminality in Japan

I first encountered the architecture of Japan’s homeless while I was there in 2010. Even then, before I knew anything about it, I was struck by how thoughtfully built these shelters were. Unfortunately, I didn’t plan ahead, so none of theses photos are mine.

Home Is Where the Heart Is: Homelessness, Architecture, and Liminality in Japan


Homeless home in Yoyogi Park, Tokyo. Photo by Tokyo Memoir

Homelessness in Japan

Homelessness is not something Westerners often associate with Japan. In our minds, Japan is generally believed to be as a hard-working and well-run, if slightly neurotic, country with a propensity for vending machines, rock gardens, and school uniforms. To be fair, it’s not something that Japan usually associates with itself either since, as a phenomenon, mass homelessness is relatively new. It didn’t become a serious issue until the early 1990s, when, in 1991, Japan suffered an economic collapse, which lead to nearly twenty years of economic stagnation, now known as the “lost decades.”

Actual statistics on homelessness in Japan are difficult to find as government censuses are often unthorough and disregard demographics that, in other countries, would be included. However, according to official numbers there are approximately 25,000 homeless in Japan; about 5,000 in Tokyo, and 15,000 in Osaka. 95% of this population is men over the age of 40 as Japanese companies often pass over older or single men for young men with wives and children, believing that having a family will induce men to work harder.

The homeless population of Japan tends towards one of three living arrangements. The first is flophouses in seedy neighbourhoods such as Sanyo in Tokyo or Kamagasaki in Osaka. However, these neighbourhoods are also home to the Yakuza who, it’s been rumoured, have been hiring elderly homeless men to fill government contracts to clean up Fukushima. Conversely, living in Sanyo also means having a real roof over your head, not to mention access to the many NGOs that operate out of these neighbourhoods, providing a limited number of free beds, as well as food and healthcare.

After Sanyo there are the “tent districts,” most commonly found along rivers or in large parks such as Ueno and Yoyogi in Tokyo. Here, the homeless establish communities with communal spaces for cooking and cleaning. Some tent districts are so well organised that they have shared meals, volunteer security patrols, and community vegetable gardens; more importantly, they also foster much-needed personal interaction.


Inhabitants make sure to take their shoes off before entering. Photo by David Derrick

Lastly, there are the box cities that appear nightly inside subway stations and along indoor walkways. Made of deconstructed cardboard boxes, these homes provide little more than the merest semblance of privacy. However, they do offer their inhabitants a modicum of dignity and the reassurance of ritual, things which are hard to come by when living on the street. The main drawback to both the tent districts and the box cities is that, in order to be eligible for welfare or apply for jobs in Japan, you need a permanent address, which neither of these supply.


Potted gardens brighten up tents. Photo by Sakaguchi Kyohei

However, despite this, the “informal” homes of the tent districts and box cities are often ingenious and beautiful works of architecture that adhere to traditional Japanese aesthetics, following Buddhist and Shinto aesthetic ideals such as imperfection and impermanence. Imperfection and impermanence are, after all, remarkably well-suited to homeless architecture, which is built from scrap material and designed to be disassembled at a moment’s notice.

Aesthetics and Architecture


Salvaged panelling mimcis traditional Japanese restaurant exterior. Photo by Sakaguchi Kyohei

Traditional Japanese aesthetics are largely derived from Buddhist and Shinto spiritual values. Shinto in particular embraces the natural world and its transient beauty. Impermanence is also central to Buddhism, which believes this is but one life of many. Paramount in traditional Japanese customs, from fine art to tea ceremonies to pass times, are concepts such as mono no aware (the melancholic beauty of fragility and transience) and wabi sabi (literally “wretched and desolate beauty”). Artwork and architecture that embrace wabi sabi, aspire to portray simplicity, imperfection, and the “palpable passing of time” (Park 6). A beautiful example of this attitude is kintsugi – when broken pottery is repaired using gold, silver, or platinum dust in the seams of the breakage in order to honour the object’s history instead of disguise it. Despite Japan’s accelerated ascent to modernity, these values remain culturally relevant today – as can be seen in the enormous popularity of hanami, or blossom-viewing festivals, which see literal millions descend on city parks across the country as early as February to take in the cherry blossoms before they fall.


Traditional Japanese rooms with sliding rice paper walls and tatami floors. Photo by Michi.

In architectural terms, these ideals translate into clean, simple lines and a preference for natural materials such as wood and rice paper, resulting in grid-based buildings with large, open rooms full of natural light, as well as a desire for adaptable, multi-purpose spaces – also a practicality in a country with limited acreage. Thus, the inside of a Japanese house is not static, but mutable: walls become doors or windows, one room becomes several, or vice versa. Finally, buildings are often either incorporated into their natural surroundings, or seek to incorporate nature into themselves through gardens, potted plants, murals, or simple positioning. In modern Japan, this emphasis on environment is all the more important as it eases the strain of living in such close quarters. In sum, Japanese architecture strives to give form to what is fleeting and make beautiful what is functional.


Ethnographer Arnold van Gennep first coined the term “liminality” drawing from the Latin word for “threshold.” Later, the concept was further developped by anthropologist Victor Turner in his study of rituals. Since then, it has become popular in fairy tale scholarship as fairy stories abound with liminal spaces and states such as wells, forests, unnatural sleeps, and years spent as animals. At its most basic, liminality is the transitional period of a three-part process in which the subject leaves one state (for example, childhood) and enters another (adulthood). Liminal transition is period in which you belong to neither the old world nor to the new and the physical space in which this transition happens is called liminal space.

Usually, liminal space is presented as a place of opportunity where you can slough off your old self and reflect on who and what you are. It’s a neutral space where the rules of structured society don’t apply. Historically, people undergoing a liminal transition were, for all intents and purposes, invisible to their society, which allowed them to embrace their creativity without fear. However, like any creative, free-form spaces it has a dark side as well. If the ritual isn’t completed, and you remain in the liminal space, your ability to successfully rejoin society fades and you are pushed to the fringes, marginalised and unable to participate in the society around you, which is often what occurs to the homeless, not only in Japan but the world often.

While liminal space were originally highly ritualised and often sacred places, in modern art and thought they’re often very commonplace. For instance, all the spaces in which the homeless eke out their existence – subway stations, stairwells, doorways, etc. – are public spaces of transience and symbols of liminality. These spaces are, after all, the border between one place and the next.

Perfectly Imperfect Architecture


Blue tarps and woven mats allow light to enter. Photo by David Derrick

When you compare examples of “formal” Japanese architecture to “informal”or homeless architecure, the similarities aren’t difficult to see. Both use square, grid-based forms that result in simple, elegant shapes – even when they’re covered in tarps. As well, there is a marked preference for natural materials such as wood and, in the case of informal houses, cardboard and even comic books. As rice paper isn’t so easy to find on the streets, informal homes often use blue tarps to mimic the open, airy feel of traditional Japanese spaces – they allow light to enter, with the added advantages of being easy to bundle away and transport.


A staircase used to separate different “floors” of the house. Photo by Sakaguchi Kyohei

In both cases space is maximised and is highly functional, well-organised, and, particularly in informal houses, creatively constructed. In formal houses sliding panels or partial walls demarcate space, informal housing makes use of shelves, screens, cupboards,  and even stairs to delineate between areas, most of which can be rearranged as needed. Informal housing excels at the transformation of space and their boundaries often shift, with walls that roll back or roofs that open, so that the outside may be incorporated into the inside, and vice versa.


Modern Japanese home incorporating bamboo gardens. Photo by Studio Aiko

By blurring the boundaries between the natural and constructed worlds, both formal and informal architecture attempt to incorporate themselves into their environment. However, this attitude is more pronounced in informal houses as they need to fit under overpasses, onto sidewalks, or into wooded parks. Gardens, particularly potted ones, are also a regular feature of informal housing, often almost obscuring the house from view – thus providing both beauty and privacy.


Informal home and dog house fit into hedge. Photo by teachmefinance.com

Privacy is a key issue for both the mainstream and the homeless populations of Japan. With such little space available and so many people in it, privacy becomes precious. Irrevocably bound up in the idea of privacy is, of course, dignity. In Japan, even more so than in Western societies, intimate acts such as bathing, grooming, or displays of affection done in public view are seen as vulgar for the witnesses and embarrassing, if not outright shameful, for the participant(s). The ability to hide your most private and intimate moments is crucial for saving face in Japan – a society so concerned with privacy, after all, that it invented a musical toilet.


An example of genkan in the the Shinjuku Subway Station in Tokyo. Photo by Michael Wolf.

In order keep privacy intact, there are many rituals that demarcate the public from the private. One of the most well-known examples of these is genkan, wherein shoes are replaced with slippers in an antechamber before entering a house. Genkan is both practical and symbolic as, not only does it keep the house from getting dirty, it marks the threshold between the dirty outside world and the clean and, more importantly, private inner world. In Japan, this separation of worlds is crucial to the maintaining of private life and one’s personal dignity – no matter where you live.


Part wall, part door, with shoes left outisde. Photo by Ulrike Myrzik & Manfred Jarisch

Accordingly, informal housing often maintains the outer/inner separation and the importance of demarcation remains strong despite the fact – or perhaps because of it – that, both physically and socially, the homeless occupy a space that is “borrowed” from the rest of society, and which exists in an undefined, nebulous fringe. Theirs is a liminal space consisting of stairways, sidewalks, bridges, overpasses, subway stations, and doorways. While the hope is, of course, that they will one day be reassimilated into mainstream society, the reality is that it is far more likely that they will remain in limbo permanently.

Liminality and Homelessness

Unfortunately for homeless the world over, theirs is not a spiritual liminality but an altogether physical one. Whether due to mental illness, job loss, or an inability to work within the structure of society, the homeless have been pushed from the mainstream and into the margins. While it is often assumed that, once they have addressed their issues, they will be “rehabilitated” and brought back into the fold, for many, this marginalised state is the end of the line. The ritual re-entering of the new world that comes after the liminal stage is unattained and often unattainable, leaving them in a permanent state of temporariness.

However, within their transient spaces, the homeless of Japan have created a remarkable architecture that is inspired, adaptable, and beautiful. They have taken literal garbage and transformed it into homes that reflect their creativity and craftsmanship. By creating temporary buildings in liminal spaces, they reach a kind of backwards equilibrium: one that is constantly shifting but never collapses. The informal houses of Japan’s homeless are not just shelters from the elements, but assertions of existence, humanity, and creativity. Moreover, they provide their owners with the dignity of a private space. After all, there is a certain respect inherent in taking off your shoes before entering a house – a respect for the home that is carried forward to its owner.

In 2006, Mr. Yamauchi, a 55 year old man in Osaka successfully petitioned the district court of Osaka to have his tent in a park declared a valid address. In their explanation of this decision, the court quoted the definition of a home address according to ward law, which is that it be the “center of that individual’s entire life and that which has the deepest relationship with that individual’s life.” The man had been living in that tent since 1998. Unfortunately, the Osaka Ward took the case to the supreme court, which, in 2007, ruled in their favour, arguing that, because his tent could be easily moved and was only built of bits of wood, it didn’t meet the standards of a home by “conventional wisdom.” So what, then, is a home? Can it be a piece of cardboard?

Some links you may like!

Kyohei Sakaguchi’s Zero Yen House
David Derrick’s article on homeless architecture in Japan, “The Toynbee Convector”
An article in the Japan Times about “Zen-inspired shanties”
A resume of Mr. Yamauchi’s struggle with Osaka
Brian Sinclair’s much more thorough analysis of homeless architecture in Japan: “Urban Japan: Considering Homelessness, Characterizing Shelter and Contemplating Culture”
A look at the homeless community in Yoyogi Park, circa 2008.
A short documentary on YouTube about the homeless in Tokyo, with lots of excellent examples of their houses: “Tokyo City Series: Homeless in Japan”
As well, the anime movie Tokyo Godfathers is a fictional account of a homeless “family” in Tokyo who discover an abandoned baby.


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