This is a photo of a man living in a box, reading his daily newspaper. The box is in a small park in a lower-middle class neighborhood of Tokyo, not impoverished but working-class, where everyone has learned to look away and everyone fears this fate for him or herself. Everyone wishes the man would go to Ueno Park and join his brethren in their blue-tarped encampment or even farther out, under some railroad bridge crossing some many-fingered river. But he’s not going: he is probably a former resident of this neighborhood, and he is staying. He has not lost his skills; he even keeps up with the news. He is a reminder of how tough life can be, even in the third largest economy in the world. He is in a cardboard box, but represents the psychological box that is Japan.
Japanese has a word — kojiki — for the homeless, but many people prefer to foreignize the problem, calling them homuresu no hito, as if they were somehow an import from the English-speaking world. But they have been around for centuries. People land on the street by accident of birth, by inadvertently offending a boss or landlord, through illness or inherited debt, far more easily in the rest of the world than they do in the U.S.
I post this picture today because of my annoyance with U.S. economists and journalists, especially business writers. They tell us of the dangers of Japanese stimulus efforts, of how the European Union is crashing down. It’s a very myopic, self-centered view. The U.S. can issue billions in debt, but don’t you do it. I travel a bit, and the vast majority of Japanese are not involved in ‘cos play’ at Shinjuku Crossing, which is how American media see it — they are working their butts off. Despite the New York Times dire predictions, the E.U. looked pretty healthy to me last month, Greece has not caused its collapse, and the Euro is trading at $1.33 today. We live in a box too, made of newspapers rather than cardboard.