Japan's Future: Jobless, Homeless ... Hopeless?

Retired Japanese policeman Yukio Shige dedicated four decades to keeping people from harming others. Now he's part of a patrol looking for people who want to harm themselves.

Shige, who retired in 2004, has been volunteering most of his days to patrol the stark, stone walls of the Tojinbo Cliffs in the northern part of central Japan for people who're considering jumping off the 82-foot cliffs and convince them to reconsider the decision to end their lives.

"More than 150 people try to jump each year," Shige, 65, said. "About 30 of them die and the rest of them survive but many of those who survive are seriously injured."

Shige said he has rescued at least 15 people this year, with about half of them showing up at the cliff and saying they had just been fired from their jobs and decided to end their lives.

"Those people usually have a will to live and to work," he said. "I have found help, a temporary place to live and even job prospects for all those people, but there is only so much I can do by myself."

At the root at Shige's anxiety are Japan's more than 190,000 temporary or contract workers who have lost their jobs in the past six months. As the world economy tumbles, even corporate giants like Toyota and Sony have been forced to slash jobs and costs to maintain their balance sheets. The sudden shift in the economy almost immediately resulted in the loss of jobs and, for some workers, even a loss of housing.

"The number of homeless people has been rising in our district," said Kuniko Karasawa of Tokyo's Shinjuku City Office, which provides assistance to homeless people. The office has been flooded by people from across Japan looking for help.

Hideki Matsuhashi is one of them.

Matsuhashi never felt more happy than the day he found a single available space in a temporary homeless shelter. "I thought luck was finally on my side," said Matsuhashi, 37, a contract worker who was laid off early this year.

A native of Akita in northern Japan, Matsuhashi was working at a factory in Aichi in western Japan making air filters for Toyota cars. "I moved to the west after I got divorced," Matsuhashi said. "I like cars so I thought it was cool to have a job that had something to do with Toyota cars."

Matsuhashi worked in the factory for a little more than three years. "I had a fresh start there. I rebuilt my life as I took this job, I got housing and I started to purchase household items one by one with each paycheck. But I had to leave all of them behind since I had no money and no place to move them to," said Matsuhashi, who has been carrying his belongings in two duffle bags.

All the money Matsuhashi had got him as far as Tokyo. "I lived in the park and on the street for a few weeks but I just could not continue that anymore," he said. "Had I not gotten help from the city shelter that day, I knew what I would have done, I would have killed myself."

Japanese Government Too Slow to Respond?

Such despair comes as no surprise to Karasawa of the Shinjuku City Office.

"Since companies started layoffs last fall, we have been seeing more young people, in their 30s or 40s," Karasawa said. "By the time we open our office at 9:00 a.m., people are lining up outside waiting to see us. But all the shelters in Tokyo are packed and we simply cannot accommodate every person who comes our way."

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