Boxed clever;Big picture

3rd December 1999 at 00:00
(Photograph) - What is home? Does it need four walls? A roof? A family? Or is it "where the heart is"? When it's cold outside, is it warm inside? Is it where you are sure of being fed, welcomed, wanted?

For these men, some of the 400 homeless who live in Shinjuku station in Tokyo, cardboard boxes have been turned, with effort and imagination, into a cosy den. They have created homely order amid the commuter chaos - more than two million passengers pour past them each day, crowding into one of the world's busiest commuting networks.

Until recently, Japan's economy was the most successful in the world. These men are dining amid furniture, paintings, and carpet scavenged from Tokyo's famously lavish refuse - it's not unusual to find last year's stereo put out for the dustmen.

Homelessness, like unemployment, was something that happened in other countries. But since the crash of 1996-97, it has been growing in Japan. The unfortunate ones end up on the streets - or in the long passage on the west exit of Shinjuku station.

In January 1995, about 200 people were formally evicted from the passage in order to build a moving walkway for commuters. There was a public outcry, with one civic group accusing the government of violating human rights. Within a few months, the station's former inhabitants had returned. That is when the decorating of the boxes really took off, with a homeless artist involved in some of the more elaborate creations.

Some commuters, fortunate enough to have a job, are irritated by the homeless community. Others offer to help in any way they can. Does this situation say more about the human spirit and the universal desire to create a home, or about our economic system and its ruthless winnowing of those who fail to make the grade?

Picture by Michael Wolf


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