Samurai Beneath Blue Tarps: Doing homelessness, rejecting marginality and preserving nation in Ueno Park (Japan)

Abby Rachael Margolis

PhD Thesis 2003

This dissertation examines how homeless persons do homelessness in Tokyo's Ueno Park and thereby challenge, accommodate, and engage with the current political economy, ideas of their social marginalization, and the crisis of identity in global Japan. Doing homelessness includes not only the work of such jobs as recycling, scavenging, and day labor, but also the proper disciplining of these jobs in ways that reflect samurai ethics of sincerity, honor, and obligations to others. I argue that it precisely through doing homelessness in ways which are culturally sanctioned and which draw on symbols of the Japanese nation, that homeless persons reject dominant representations of their cultural difference and marginality. Ideologically central ideals, thus, take on heightened meaning in homeless lifestyles. Because the homeless are popularly considered and officially treated as marginal, their reproduction of core cultural values forces a re-examination of ideas of marginality, resistance, and cultural norms.

This dissertation demonstrates that the margins are not necessarily the sites of resistant, non- hegemonic discourse, and that resistance itself needs not take only subversive forms. In doing so, it suggests new possobilities for both representations of Japanese identity and homelessness agency. In contrast to the Japanese ideals nurtured by those who are doing homelessness, homelessness itself offends popular and academic representations of Japanese identity and is therefore often neglected by both the state and scholarship on Japan. In fact, at the time of my research (1998-1999), Japan had yet to formulate a national policy for its 30,000 - 50,000 homeless. The homeless are similarly ignored by academic discourses that often privilege family, work, and marriage as the key loci of Japanese cultural and self identity. These social organizations are seen as the primary location of the Japanese self. An individual's position within these institutions (uchi) has been called the zero-point of entry in Japanese society, which suggests that the homeless, comprised mostly of single unemployed men, have no entryway. Yet, while popular and dicsplinary discourses suggest that homeless person s are disengaged from social norms, this dissertation demonstartes that the homeless in Ueno instead construct themselves as preserves of traditional Japanese ideals and cultural virtues.