Tokyo’s dark underbelly: The poor. The drunk. The destitute.

There are many popular images of Tokyo, but extreme poverty generally isn’t one of them. In the east of the capital, however, in an area once known as Sanya, that’s exactly what you see.

Tokyo poor and homeless in Sanya

Photographs from Sanya have appeared on Tokyo Times before, but at the time I was under the impression that it was home to a large population of day labourers and the desperately poor. An equally destitute little sister of sorts to Osaka’s much larger, Kamagasaki district.

But I was wrong, at least in regards the work aspect, as it seems there simply aren’t any jobs to be had anymore. The gradual ageing of those who scratch out an existence in the area means there’s not much they can physically do, so instead the men must attempt to get by with what little money they may be entitled to — or at worst with whatever handouts are available.

Thankfully there is at least a small clinic run by an NPO. A place where the men can get help, as well as help out.

Tokyo poor and homeless in Sanya

For those with the means, cheap accommodation can also be acquired. Wretched looking rooming houses that despite their obvious squalor, are clearly a blessing for those who stay in them.

Tokyo poor and homeless in Sanya

Also there are some cheap and basic facilities dotted about.

Tokyo poor and homeless in Sanya

But primarily it’s a life lived — in one form or another — on the street.

Tokyo poor and homeless in Sanya

Tokyo poor and homeless in Sanya

And quite understandably, drink is the only real means of escape. The cheaper and stronger it is the better. A road to oblivion that starts early.

Tokyo poor and homeless in Sanya

Tokyo poor and homeless in Sanya

Meaning that by the time noon rears its heavy head, things are already getting ugly. Resulting in scenes that in Tokyo, during the middle of the day, are really quite shocking.

Tokyo poor and homeless in Sanya

Tokyo poor and homeless in Sanya

Tokyo poor and homeless in Sanya

Yet such episodes sadly aren’t unusual in Sanya. Quite the opposite in fact. An element I’ve tried to capture by taking the photos on just a regular, random day. All of them shot within an hour, within an equally narrow radius. Not as a means to preach. Or to judge. But simply to document.


    • says

      It’s Taito-ku. Simply head south from Minami Senju station, and you’ll hit Sanya. You won’t miss it.

  1. Marc says

    I think this is near University of Tokyo. I recall riding through this area a few years ago. Similar area just about 1/2 mile west of the main train station in Nagoya.

    • says

      When I went to Japan, I explored Nagoya when I had some free time. I came across sectioned off areas with some form of street barricades which seemed to seclude junk from other areas, but upon closer inspection there was old bedding and clothing laying around, and a few people sleeping there. I really had never seen anything like it before.

      • says

        There are quite a lot of sights like that these days. At least in Tokyo anyway.

        Not really near the University of Tokyo Marc. Or a least I don’t think so. It’s not far from Minami Senju station.

  2. says

    Impressive work Lee; quite shocking too as it is so different from the image of Tokyo most of my friends have. I cannot help and compare this reportage with the photo of the extravagant Skytree of your previous blog post. As I understood it, the Skytree is meant to revive the poorer areas of Tokyo. I wonder if all that tax money spent on it will ever reach areas like Sanya.

    • says

      Thank you.

      Yes, it’s a world away from the usual images of Japan. Even though I know what to expect now, the place still shocks me. It doesn’t just feel like another city, but another world almost.

      As for Sky Tree, I reckon very little of the surrounding area will benefit. As I alluded to in the post, most people will probably visit the tower and its many attractions, and then simply leave. It’s hard to imagine many of them spending any time, and more importantly money, outside the confines of the tower.

      • jb says

        Just want to remind everyone here that just because there is a Sky Tree…doesn’t mean that it comes at the expense of others. The economy isn’t a pie. Ones wealth doesnt hurt another. Rather wealth means that person served more/better.

  3. says

    Quite shocking indeed. I’ve been to Tokyo a few times, but never really found myself facing this kind of situation. What are those two guys doing to the old man? As far as I could tell by looking at the pictures, are they stealing from him?

    • says

      It is. There are an increasing number of homeless in Tokyo, but certainly sights like this aren’t what visitors usually see. Or what most Tokyoites see to be honest.

      Nah, they were dragging him out of a bar because he was too drunk and aggressive. We walked past later and he was back inside, but asleep on the floor…

  4. Emily Marilyn says

    I lived in Fukuoka for almost 5 years and never saw homeless until I visited Osaka yet only noticed a handful in a main subway underground. It’s not the typical Japan one thinks of. Curious, what is happening to the elderly man on the last few photos? Stuff like that just breaks my heart.

    • says

      It’s not, but it’s definitely there, especially in Tokyo and Osaka. A situation that’s clearly getting worse too. I’ve noticed a marked increase in the number of homeless over the last decade or so.

      The old man was being dragged out of a bar. He’d had way too much to drink, and was also very aggressive. An especially grim sight at lunch time…

  5. Don says

    It’s really strange, we were there 16 days and spent time in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Takayama and Ito – and I saw less than a handful of homeless and never anything like you’ve documented here. What I did see, is a lot of the signs of the problem, just not the people. Much like Austin, it appeared a good number of the people in this position were being discreet for one reason or another. Around here, it occasionally seems to be embarrassment, but more often seems to be about privacy and protecting their meager situation.

    The end result in both places seems to be that we lose awareness and any respect for the human condition – we become complicit in perpetuating the problem. It’s hard to know what we need to do culturally, but we have to figure it out and take action or it’s going to get worse.

    • says

      Yes, I’ve no idea what the solution is either, but like you say, it’s only going to get worse. Some parts of Tokyo are definitely worse than others, but over the last few years I’ve seen a growing number of homeless in all parts of the city, and not just places such as Sanya.

    • says

      Thanks a lot Emily. They certainly aren’t nice images, but I genuinely believe they should be seen, especially as it’s a side of Tokyo that rarely gets any coverage.

  6. says

    I stayed in Minamisenju for a little under a week last year, and remember passing by that place in the 6th picture with the men standing at the counter. Looks just like it did then, a bunch of men standing around, chairs and stools strewn around the street. Do you know what that place is? My first thought was a restaurant of some kind, but maybe not?

    • says

      It must have been a strange place to stay, but the cheap (at least for Tokyo) land prices makes sense for developers and tourists alike. It makes for a very unusual mix though that’s for sure. Did you know what to expect before you arrived?

      It’s a bar, basically. I think some small dishes are available, but cheap booze seems to be the main focus.

    • says

      I agree. And no, it’s not. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Probably not one Japan would want to be seen either. But however much it may be ignored, it’s a problem that sadly won’t go away.

  7. Willy says

    Heartbreaking indeed. I wish I had a solution. Or someone had one.
    Its everywhere, not just Japan.

    • says

      That’s very true. As shocking as these images are for Japan, the situation is a lot worse in many other cities…

  8. Jeffrey says

    Poverty and homelessness have become increasingly visible in Japan over the last 15-years or so. I think a while back on a related post I’d told you that I’d recently finished “San’ya Blues.” A fascinating but depressing book. The work is gone for these men and not likely to return.

    The Central Park area of my “home town,” Nagoya, is now full of blue tarp shelters. It was quite shocking to see the change over time. I don’t know of anywhere in Tokyo where it’s quite the same – so out in the open. Sakae is the main shopping district of Nagoya. Though no where as tony, imagine the same thing on the Ginza or even Shinjuku Gyoen.

    • says

      You did. A book I’ve still not got round to buying…

      Like you say, the number of homeless has noticeably increased over the last decade or so. A trend it’s very hard to see changing too.

      That is shocking about Nagoya. There are a visible number of homeless in the likes of Yoyogi Park, but not as obvious as the scene you describe. Very sad.

  9. says

    This is an impressive and very unusual slice of life from Japan , the last pictures are very heartbreaking , your text perfectly fit the whole reportage.

  10. robashito says

    As a kid growing up in Tokyo – born in 1968 and officially moved out in 1991 – you really didn’t see many “homeless drunks” out in the mass public….. but that totally changed once the bubble popped, ….dramatically. Don’t get me wrong, you always had your drunks during the wee hours of the night, train stations and seedy areas of the town but now it’s a sad new version of despair, loss and oblivion that can be found without much looking. Sadly, many comedians referred them as …”Reggae Oujisans”

    • says

      The numbers have noticeably increased in the time I’ve been here, so the difference from when you were growing up must be huge. There’s sadly still not much in the way of sympathy either…

  11. Bernat says

    I heard about Sanya before… but I didn’t know I’ve had my hotel in Tokyo for 2 weeks in there. It’s really depressing. My hotel was in front of a place where every morning it had a lot of people waiting for something… maybe it was Sanyukai? (after checking it, yes, I had Sanyukai in front of my hotel)
    I will always remember the sight of their eyes… empty eyes. Maybe they thought I was like going to the zoo, until they get used of me and saw I wasn’t judging them.
    Multiply the feeling you have seeing these shots by 2 or 3. Depressing doesn’t describe well the sight… Sanya should be the word used.

    • says

      Yeah, it’s a shocking place. Hard to imagine it’s in a city as prosperous as Tokyo, isn’t it? I can only imagine how strange a hotel it must have been to stay in…

  12. says

    The really is heartwrenching. When I went to visit my brother last year he took me to one of the streets where the very poor and homeless were, so I would know that there was a darker side to Tokyo. I’m not sure, but it may have been this place. Later inthe trip an older woman in very very dirty clothes (who most certainly looked like she was in need in some way) approached us on a train platform to say hi and that she used to work on an American military base and was wondering if we were American. Her spontaneous kindness was so genuine and warm. I wanted so badly to help her in some way, but was afraid I would offend her if I had offered unsolicited money or assistance. I’m so ashamed that I didn’t throw caution to the wind and asked her to come have a meal with us or at the very least given her some yen. Seeing your pictures reminded me of her and wondering where she is now and if she’s okay.

  13. Anonymous says

    I don’t think taking pictures of him like this would make things any better. If anything, it would humiliate him further. :\

  14. Hans Gruber says

    Actually, the poorest section of the big cities and even the countryside in Japan -including these pictures, are not what is normally defined as bad or poor sections by any standards. If you go to the United States, in any city one can see whole section of extreme poverty and social decay, not to mentioned that if one compares to 3rd world countries this place looks like a museum. If you think that I exaggerate just open a google street view and look and compare, contrast.

    • says

      That’s a fair shout. In comparison to some — or more accurately, many — countries, areas such as this are relatively ok. But relative to Japan, and in particular Tokyo, it’s bad. And even if the surroundings don’t appear too unpleasant (and to be honest they aren’t), people living on the street in abject poverty can can never be deemed acceptable. Something that is even more striking in a city as affluent as Tokyo.

  15. Martin Schroder says

    Quite enlightning. Iam planning to go to japan from N.Z. early next year so thought i would look more into the ‘other side of the tracks’ .Will try to seek out thesae parts so to show my children .

    • says

      It’s not a pleasant place to visit. Thoroughly depressing to be honest. But it is arguably just as much Tokyo as the bright lights and busy streets.

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