Current Institutional Affiliation
Professor, International Studies, Meiji Gakuin University

Award Information

Abe Fellowship 2005
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Associate Professor, International Studies, Meiji Gakuin University
Responses to Homelessness in Japan, the United States and Britain - an Anthropological Approach

Homelessness is widely recognized as a critical social policy issue for industrial societies. In Japan, the most recent national government survey (January 2003) produced a street homeless population figure of 25,296, though most people familiar with the issue argue that the true figure is much higher, perhaps double the official figure. These are shocking numbers for Japanese policy-makers and have prompted new legislation and increased budgets to tackle the problem. Even so, the numbers remain far smaller then in the US, where a large street homeless population coexists with an even larger population of 'sheltered homeless,' living ad hoc lives in homeless shelters. Britain offers an interesting third case: the Blair government claims to have virtually eliminated street homelessness, releasing annual numbers of less than 1,000 for the whole of the country, but this has been achieved with the spending of far more government money per capita than in Japan or the US, and has created a massive homeless support industry that is sometimes accused of encouraging greater institutional dependence among its clients. This project is designed to apply my training and experience as a social anthropologist to a micro-level study of homelessness in these three countries. In particular, I propose to focus on homeless shelters: staying for periods of several weeks at shelters in the US, Japan and Britain, living with homeless people in and around shelters, and seeking to understand these institutions as experienced by those who use them as well as those who run them. I hope to generate the kind of highly-detailed ethnographic material often lacking in studies of homeless people, and show how the experiences of people in different cities and countries may be mutually relevant.This project will build on work I have done with casual laborers and homeless people during 17 years residing in Japan, along with the fruits of a pilot study conducted in 2003-4, involving brief field trips to homeless shelters in Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, Los Angeles, New Haven, London and Liverpool. It will make full use of the massive literature on homelessness that already exists in English and Japanese, but will add fieldwork-based primary research that focuses on the circumstances, opinions and needs of individual homeless people, and a thoroughgoing comparative approach that has not been applied hitherto to this problem. My research to date has led me to reject attempts to explain differences in welfare systems in terms of 'national character,' identifying important differences in the culture of homeless provision between cities in the same country and even between institutions in the same city. Hence I have a two-fold objective. I hope this study will generate insights into the specific problem of homelessness that may lead ultimately to social policy recommendations; at the same time I believe that comparative fieldwork will generate theoretical insights into how national, city and institutional cultures affect individuals when they encounter post-industrial social welfare systems.