Scenes From Tokyo's Skid Row

As we wait with bated breath for the BoJ news this evening, and while the world stares in jealous amazement at the Japanese stock market’s gains and infers that things must be economically awesome in the island nation, the sad depressing truth is – things are worse, much worse, as this series of images from Sanya (or Tokyo’s skid row) indicates. The Sanya district in the north-east of Tokyo was taken off the map 40 years ago, but if you can find it you’ll discover many of the city’s 15,000 homeless people.


Homeless In Tokyo




Via Japan Sub-culture Research blog,

Scenes From A Tokyo Skid Row Clinic

You’ve probably never heard of Sanya. The Tokyo City Government doesn’t acknowledge its existence, and you won’t find it on any official maps. Sanya is more or less Tokyo’s skid row, where people, mostly men, end up when the other parts of this immense, gleaming city have stopped offering comfort and opportunity.

Sanya is where  the Japanese outcasts, food animal butchers, leather tanners, and other professions considered “unclean” by Japan’s traditionally Buddhist ruling class, aka the burakumin, or dowa, plied their trades for centuries. These tradesmen may mostly be gone, and the smell of the blood they spilled long-since drifted away, but the stigma of what Sanya once was remains, and it clings to the many of the people who live and work here.


Sanya is a blue-collar place, where an aging population of day laborers lingers on the fringe of Tokyo society. Many laborers have drinking problems, and they’ve ended up in Sanya to hide their abuses from their families. Sights like this fellow are pretty common, except in rainy weather.


And even then Sanya has a sh?tengai dotted with little bars and liquor stores.

And even then Sanya has a sh?tengai dotted with little bars and liquor stores.



For many men in Sanya, government welfare assistance is available but is a problematic thing. Applying for it requires identity verification by contacting an applicant’s family. Most Sanya men who have fallen on hard times and taken to excessive drinking don’t want this. They would rather their families not know where they are or how they live. Revealing this would mean bringing unbearable shame upon their loved ones.

So when you’re down in Sanya and public assistance isn’t an option for some reason, what do you do? You go private, to a small outfit like Sany?kai NPO, a non-religious non-profit organization. The Sany?kai NPO and the free medical clinic within it is run by a couple of foreign missionaries who have been doing charity work in Sanya since the early ‘80s.



Deacon Jean LeBeau, the director of Sany?kai NPO, is a French-Canadian Catholic with the Quebec Foreign Mission Society. Deacon Jean has been in Japan for 41 years, including 28 years in Sanya. He’s a humble, affable man, who would rather speak Japanese than either English or his native French.

Pic 5

Sister Rita Burdzy, head nurse of Sany?kai clinic, is an American from St. Louis, Missouri who came to Japan in 1981. She is a nun with the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic of Ossining, New York, a Roman Catholic order whose members devote their lives to service overseas in specialties such as medicine and agriculture. Sister Rita holds a Japanese nursing license and is the nurse in charge of most of the activities at the clinic.

Pic 6


It’s a small facility, with only two beds in the examination room. Hundreds of ailing men have passed through this place since it opened in 1984. And somehow it manages to keep doing the job.

Pic 7


In addition to Sister Rita, medical services are supplied by a volunteer roster of over 30 medical doctors and registered nurses. Doctor Kanade Hagiwara, an urologist at a general hospital in Tokyo, is one of those volunteers. She treats patients at the clinic on the fourth Saturday of each month. The NPO is not a religious organization, and therefore does not insist that either volunteers or clients adhere to any one faith, or have any religious faith at all.Pic 8

Within the clinic, the one concession to spiritual matters is this hand-made banner and the shrine beside it, which is dedicated to recently-departed clients and patients of the clinic.

Pic 9


Since Sanya does not officially exist, Sany?kai clinic has an address in Kiyokawa, in Taito-ku ward, on a small street that could easily pass for an alleyway. Outside the clinic, unless it is raining or bitterly cold, men in need of clinic services sit on benches and wait, often with Sister Rita and Deacon Jean (whose back is shown) somewhere nearby.

Pic 10


But the men who gather outside Sany?kai clinic tend to make it more of a social venue than the dreary medical waiting-room scene you might expect. They’re a diverse group, even though most are older day laborers who get less and less work as they age. The men in the middle and the right fall into that category. The guy on the left is a transplant from nearby Asakusa, whose reasons for ending up in Sanya are not entirely clear.

Pic 11


But this man, who died of a brain hemorrhage in June 2012, used to own a bar next to the clinic.

Pic 12


While this fellow is a professional cook who does not always get daily work.

If the men who frequent the Sany?kai clinic share one thing, it is a quality Sister Rita calls ningenkusai (?????), which she says “Is a quality of being very human, of smelling comfortably human. Of being full of human traits.” She adds that this is the best English translation she could offer for a concept that she says is uniquely Japanese.

With obvious fondness, Sister Rita goes on to say that despite their backgrounds and personal secrets, “These men have a purity of heart and are very charming. There is no guile in these men.” She sums things up by saying when men come to the clinic off of Sanya’s streets and ask for help “No questions are asked. We’re a family.”

And you can feel the truth of it when she says it.

So, there’s no crime story here, and no breaking scandal. It is surprising, and shameful, that a city like Tokyo has had a problem like this for so long. But at least the phenomenon of homeless and chronically drunk and unemployed street men isn’t being ignored. Good people are on the case. People like Sister Rita and Deacon Jean.

Reporting and photography for this story was done in April, 2012.

Author’s note: This is a condensed, reworked excerpt from my recent Amazon Kindle photo essay book “Ningenkusai: Part One of Tokyo Panic Stories”. You can buy a copy by following the appropriate link at Abiko Free Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.