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How Homeless People Survive the Winter in Japan

by Ewa Nowogorski

Maybe you’ve seen the documentaries of homeless people in different countries escaping to the underground sewers during the winter time in order to keep warm by huddling around warm water pipes. The homeless in America do this, so you tend to see far fewer people out on the streets during the cold months. There are, however, some people who brave the elements and just tough it out.

They are always in need of warm coats, shoes, long pants, hats, scarves, and gloves. Wearing layers is key. In America, winters can be very unforgiving, so it is essential to find ways to stay warm.

In Japan, and especially in Tokyo where most of the homeless population is concentrated, a series of different challenges are presented. It doesn’t get as cold here, with the lowest temperatures being maybe -3 or -4 degrees Celcius. But it is still a temperature low enough to kill people, so the homeless must find ways to stay warm. Staying warm always comes first. Homeless people in Japan don’t really have anywhere to crawl into during the winter, so they must remain on the surface.

Night time is the coldest, so they must sleep during the day in order to actively fight off the cold at night. Some people can only sleep for one or two hours at a time since the cold constantly wakes them up. Homeless people usually drink warm sake and rub their hands against hokkairo (a heat packet) for temporary relief. If they happen to come across some extra money, they can sleep in an internet cafe and get out of the cold.

Shinjuku Station is a popular sight for homeless people to sleep, and you will see the highest density of homeless people out in the stations. In particularly warm and inconspicuous places, small groups of homeless people will lay down cardboard mats with newspapers laid out on top for insulation, and cover themselves with more cardboard and blankets, essentially wrapping themselves like a roll of sushi, and stay warm that way.

Surviving in the winter is hard enough with a poorly insulated home, and it is only harder without a home. People do anything they can in adverse circumstances, and it is interesting to see what they manage to come up with.

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