In the early morning hours of Nov. 16, a 46-year-old man allegedly struck a 64-year-old woman sitting in a Tokyo bus shelter in the head with a bag of rocks, killing her. On Nov. 21, the man, accompanied by his mother, turned himself in to the police, who charged him with inflicting a fatal injury. The man said his intent was not to kill the woman, but rather to cause pain so that she would leave the bus shelter, where she often spent the night. The woman, identified as Misako Obayashi, was apparently homeless. The suspect also said that the day before the attack he offered her money to go away. When she refused the offer he said he became angry.
Such incidents tend to inspire articles that explore how cruel society has become toward its most vulnerable members, especially now during a pandemic, when even more people are vulnerable.
Separators are often added to benches in public spaces in Japan to prevent the homeless from lying down on them to sleep. | GETTY IMAGES
However, there’s something different about the disappointment expressed in the articles about Obayashi. Not much is known about her circumstances. She worked at a supermarket until February. On her person police found ¥8, a dead mobile phone and a piece of paper with several individuals’ contact information. Her younger brother, who lives in Saitama, north of Tokyo, told reporters he hadn’t been in touch with his sister for years, although he did receive a Christmas card from her in 2019 and was shocked to learn she lived on the streets.
So there isn’t much to discuss with regard to how someone like Misako Obayashi ended up homeless. Most of the articles focused not on her life, but on her death.
Tomoshi Okuda, a clergyman, wrote on Asahi Shimbun’s Ronza website that he has attended to homeless people for 30 years, and believes the average person doesn’t understand what it’s like to live rough. A homeless man once told him that he prays every night before going to sleep, and Okuda asked if he was Christian. The man said he didn’t pray to God — he just prayed that he wouldn’t wake up.
But the most potent image from Okuda’s essay is the bench on which Obayashi was sitting when she was struck. To Okuda, the bench symbolizes and exacerbates the heartlessness of the crime, since its role in the incident extends beyond the actions of the suspect. It’s small and narrow, made for two people and bisected by a metal rail, the purpose of which is to discourage anyone from lying down.
“It is the ugliest bench you can imagine,” wrote Okuda, “because it is designed to exclude people.” The bench implies that society is no more caring of Obayashi than the suspect, who didn’t see her as a human being, but as a “stray dog” that had to be chased away.
Obayashi apparently understood this sentiment. Local residents say she always arrived at the bus stop around 1 a.m., long after the last bus had left, and departed at around 5 a.m., well before the first bus arrived. She obviously did not want to be seen, much less bother anyone with her presence. She knew what society thought of her. The suspect, who lived nearby, did see her, and didn’t like what he saw. The bench conveyed something similar to Okuda.
In an article that appeared on the website Aera Dot, a reporter visits the scene of the crime at night in order to get some feeling for the situation. He sits down on the bench, which is only 22 centimeters wide. It is cold and hard, and he cannot lean back against the wall of the enclosure, which means Obayashi would have had to sleep sitting upright. The reporter stays one hour and then leaves. It is too painful to sit there any longer.
The bench is an example of hostile architecture, an urban design idea that has been around for centuries, though it seems to have been put to more creative use in recent decades as homelessness has become more visible. In his essay, Okuda wrote about how train and bus station seats have been moved to areas only accessible by paying passengers.
In a recent discussion of the killing, the web program No Hate TV mentioned hostile architecture in the basement walkways surrounding Shinjuku Station, where more than 20 years ago there was an ongoing conflict between local police and an underground “cardboard village” of homeless people that was forced to change location several times before and after the Tokyo Metropolitan Government moved its offices from Marunouchi to Shinjuku. In the place where the village used to be the authorities installed rows of squat pillars that they dubbed “art.”
No Hate TV argues that the homeless in Japan are perennial objects of hate. Like Okuda, the program’s hosts, Yasumichi Noma and Koichi Yasuda, see the bench where Obayashi died as a symbol of this hatred and derided an Asahi Shimbun reporter who revealed his ignorance when he tweeted that he didn’t know about haijo (exclusion) design, which is a universal idea. However, some citizens in Europe and the United States protest when the authorities install hostile design functions. In Japan, Noma pointed out, no one says anything. Either people don’t know, or they don’t care.
Sachiyo Ikeda, a longtime advocate for the welfare of homeless people who was part of the No Hate TV discussion, wrote a series of tweets on Nov. 23 that countered the common belief that people are homeless because they want to be, a notion that intensifies resentment toward them.
In the age of COVID-19, Ikeda wants us to understand that more people cannot get by through their own efforts alone, that homelessness is the result of political choices and there is no effective support structure in place to help individuals when personal catastrophe strikes.
In a column about Obayashi’s killing in Magazine 9, writer Karin Amamiya, who specializes in poverty issues, suggested that there should be a course in public schools to teach children how to “rebuild their lives” in case something unexpectedly terrible happens to them, because neither their fellow citizens nor the authorities are likely to be there for them when they fall through the cracks.