P.S. On Homelessness03.01.11

I finally got around to grading all the essays on homelessness. What great students! Of course, here and there were some pretty awkward sentences, but overall I was awed by how seriously the students had taken the assignment. To be able to write clearly, one needs a grasp of key issues and how these relate to each other.  When writing in a second language about a topic not part of one’s life experience, the amount of energy and thinking required to produce a coherent and effective essay is tremendous. (A few of you know this from experience…)

Why was I awed? There was much evidence of this energy outlay in both the structure of the essays and the support and detail provided. In addition to sources introduced in class, many students used information which they had found and researched on their own, and this added a unique flair to each. A few mentioned Hiroshi Tamura, a comedian who became homeless while in junior high when his father lost his job. Several students had taken the time to look into Japanese labor laws and the welfare system. Others highlighted government initiatives which are currently inadequate to deal with the root causes of the homeless problem, and many wrote of the not-infrequent violence against homeless people by youth.

One student commented that perhaps the biggest problem is that the homeless in Japan sense that they are viewed as less than human by much of the rest of society, and seem ashamed or embarrassed of their own existence. She suggested that this thinking might be a holdover of the caste system put in place during the Edo period, where there were four recognized classes of people- plus a group of “others” who were not quite considered human by the rest of society. (This class system does not officially exist any longer, but vestiges live on.) This idea dovetailed very closely with the observation of several writers that what homeless lack most  (besides housing) is perhaps human connection and hope.

One aspect of almost all the essays which reminded me that I am in Japan is the assumption that society should be good, tidy, organized, and that all members of society have an obligation to work hard to “not make other people feel uncomfortable.” For one student, this assumption led her to the conclusion that those who are unable or refuse to do what it takes to be part of this harmonious society have forfeited their right to be treated with respect or concern. However, for the vast majority of these students, their encounter with homelessness- however limited- led them to conclude that homelessness is the result of many complicated societal issues. These include globalization, changes in labor laws, corporate restructuring, a weak economy, the loss of traditional support systems, mental illness, alcoholism, and sometimes, just bad luck. And since it isn’t always that one person’s fault, it could happen to anybody, anytime. Therefore, each homeless person is not just a weak link in the chain, but someone deserving of dignity and help to get up again. Interestingly, as members of Japanese society, most of the students saw it as their responsibility to do what they can to restore human dignity and work towards a harmonious society for all. That’s rather heartening and refreshing, isn’t it?

(Photo from tokyotimes.org)

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Posted by Andrea Johnson under Uncategorized.

2 Responses to “P.S. On Homelessness”

  1. Wow. Good for your students. I truly believe the youth of this era have the insight and capacity to make society a better place to live. Andy, you are creating a vital educational opportunity for them to explore their world and to help them Be the Change they wish to see in their world. What an honor to be your friend.

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    Posted by Julie on 12/13/09 March 1st, 2011 at 4:33 PMReply

  2. Thanks for the follow-up. After your first post on this, I was anxious to hear more! Thank you for your insights into the youth of Japan and their views on society. This is refreshing, indeed.

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    Posted by Sonja Anderson on 12/13/09 March 11th, 2011 at 5:28 PMReply

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