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Last Updated: Monday, 25 August, 2003, 00:48 GMT 01:48 UK
Big Issue heads for Japan
By Duncan Walker
BBC News Online

After more than a decade of fighting homelessness in Britain, the Big Issue magazine is preparing to introduce its radical solution to the problem in Japan.

It hopes to persuade the Japanese public that paying 200 yen (1.10) for a magazine could help end a growing crisis which many of them are reluctant to acknowledge.

Japanese homeless
Japanese homeless people are sceptical about the Big Issue

With an official homeless population of 25,700 and rising, the team behind the 11 September launch say the need for action is clear - but they concede success is far from guaranteed.

The idea that you should buy something from someone on the street - let alone one of the homeless - will take some getting used to, says editor Miku Sano.

It is a view shared by the Big Issue's editor-in-chief, John Bird, who says he expects "hard times" ahead as the Japanese get used to discussing a problem that barely existed a decade ago.

'Totally different idea'

The Japanese Big Issue will first appear on the streets of Tokyo and the second city, Osaka, with a print run of 30,000 - to be sold by about 200 vendors, who will keep 120 yen (64p).

John Bird
I think the first thing is to get the debate going around homelessness and to demonstrate that homeless people do have a road out
John Bird

It is hoped a further three editions will follow before the end of the year, with more frequent issues and an expansion to other cities planned for 2004.

Sharing articles with its British counterpart, as well as the Big Issue's other editions in Australia, South Africa and Namibia, quality content should not be a problem.

But despite their long hours and determination, staff are not convinced they can sell the "totally different idea" to the Japanese.

Many older Japanese people are hostile towards the homeless because they think are lazy, Miss Sano says.

And a look at the country's media suggests even more serious problems among some young people, with tales of murder and violence against homeless people so common they have earned the name homuresu-gari or "homeless hunting".

'Jobs for life'

The need to convince the homeless themselves that the Big Issue could help them is another challenge lying in wait.

Japanese homeless
Many homeless live in neat, well built shelters

Many are middle-aged men who found the 'jobs for life' culture collapsed when the economy did and have since struggled to find a way out of their situation.

Most try and avoid standing out, with extraordinarily neat, cardboard-built homes in stations and public parks often the only sign they are around.

"I think the vendors themselves are sceptical about whether it will work," Ms Sano said.

"Homeless people here are much older compared to homeless people in England and many said that selling is not for them.

"They don't think they could do it, especially because our target readers are younger."

'Motivational issues'

The long-term support the vendors will need if they are to regain their independence has also been on Mr Bird's mind.

While few have drink or drug problems many need help for mental health problems and "motivational" issues, he said.

Big Issue vendor
The magazine sells up to 300,000 copies a week in the UK

As in Britain, where up to 300,000 copies of the Big Issue are sold each week, Mr Bird wants the magazine to help people get off the streets.

"I think it's a suck it and see scenario," Mr Bird says.

"I think the first thing is to get the debate going around homelessness and to demonstrate that homeless people do have a road out and it's not just an extension of charity."

It is a debate Ms Sano says Japan needs to see, with the alternative the prospect of homelessness continuing for years to come.

"I'm not sure if people are going to welcome the idea, but obviously they can't just pretend there are no homeless people in Japan," she warns.

Japan's homeless demand help
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31 Aug 01  |  Business

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