Trigger Warning: this article will discuss discrimination and hate crimes, including murder. Reader discretion is advised.
Back in early August, well-known YouTuber DaiGo of channel “Mentalist DaiGo” made some inflammatory statements about the homeless and welfare recipients during a livestream. The title of the offending video was preemptively titled “Super Spicy Q&A for People Who Want to be Crushed Scientifically”; somehow, this now appears a massive understatement in hindsight. In the days that followed this controversy, many Japanese netizens would even go so far as to argue that his comments were eugenicist.
Eugenics is the practice or advocacy of controlled selective breeding of human populations (as by sterilization) to improve the population’s genetic composition. To put it simply, it is a form of discrimination hidden behind a facade of applied science that has served as a basis for many human rights atrocities throughout history. Japan’s own history is no exception.
DaiGo’s comments serve as a springboard from which to discuss some aspects of Japanese society; aspects which allow him and similar-minded individuals to feel comfortable enough to freely dehumanize the unhoused. The discussion you’re currently reading will involved some personal opinions. However, due to the nature of this topic, pure neutrality would only lend itself to complacency.
During the aforementioned livestream, DaiGo made the following statement:
“I don’t pay taxes for it to go to paying for people on welfare. If we have money to feed people on welfare, I want them to use it to save cats. The lives of humans and the lives of cats; I don’t think human lives are more valuable at all. For me, unnecessary lives aren’t worth much. So I think the lives of homeless people are just, whatever.”
These comments are shocking. Yet DaiGo’s words pale in comparison to more active forms of violence against the homeless in Japan. As far back as 2003, if not earlier, hates crimes targeting the homeless have been a huge issue. These unprovoked attacks on the homeless are mostly perpetrated by “young men and boys.” When approached by the police, assailants are often heard to explain away their crimes as “disposing of society’s trash.”
The most jarring factor about those who attack the homeless is that, at least on paper, they present as average members of society. They don’t seem to be part of any street gangs or other illicit groups. This, in turn, is what makes these sentiments towards the unhoused so insidious and dangerous.
Japanese society is known to be conformist; anyone who falls out of mainline society is naturally ostracized or worse, antagonized. And Being unhoused is often seen as the farthest one can fall from the mainstream lifestyle:
“Words like ‘homeless people’s lives are just, whatever’ could spark hate crimes. The thought that denies the right to exist to people you can’t empathize with could incite violence and perpetuate discrimination against people in a weak position. All of society needs to show that they think this is unacceptable.”-Inaba Tsuyoshi, representative director of the Tsukuroi Tokyo Fund, as quoted by The Mainichi.
The Reality of Homelessness in Japan
It’s not uncommon to hear foreign visitors to Japan praise Tokyo as “clean,” and remark on how there’s not a homeless person to be seen in the giant megalopolis. However, not noticing the homeless in Japan’s great cities requires a certain purposeful obscuring of one’s surroundings. Like essentially everywhere on earth, homelessness is a problem in Japan. From the great poverty of the early 20th century to the mass homelessness created by bombings and the fall of Japan’s imperial empire at the end of WWII, the unhoused have always existed amongst Japanese cityscapes.
The Economic Miracle that began in the 1950s helped curb rampant post-war homelessness. When the bubble burst in the early 1990s, the trend reversed; the following “lost decade” left tens of thousands unhoused. These days, the vast majority of homeless people on the streets are middle-aged and elderly men (with an average age of 57.5). In 2019, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government claimed a population of 5,126 unhoused persons; the majority, however, spent most nights out of sight in cheap internet and manga cafes. The term for such unhoused is “net cafe refugees (ネットカフェ難民) or cyber-homeless (サイバーホームレス). Only around 1000 of those counted were rough-sleepers, meaning homelessness is often less obviously visible in Japan. The COVID crisis, however, has closed many of these cafes and further reduced employment, sending more people onto the streets.
As in many countries, once unhoused, it can be difficult to gain enough savings to find new housing. Landlords in Japan often ask for key money (reikin, 礼金), a non-refundable gift that is usually equivalent to three month’s rent. Such funds can be very difficult to obtain while unhoused, even with minimum-wage temp work. Shame and derision are aimed at the homeless; they’re often seen as failures and an embarrassing drain on society. Thus, DaiGo’s comments are sadly in line with common prejudices.
Diago initially eschewed responsibility for his comments, stating that because he was an individual he had nothing to apologize for. He even claimed that his personal feelings on the homeless should not be shared by society as a whole; if he “tried to make those views common in society, it would be… not good and like the Nazis.” With these excuses failing to get him out of the hot water of internet commentary, DaiGo finally apologized on August 13th.
His brother, TV personality Matsumaru Hyogo, also slammed his comments, stating that it was wrong to “say things that make light of human life.” The Ministry of Health and Welfare also stepped in via Twitter, declaring that “applying for public assistance is the right of citizens.”
Considering that Mentalist DaiGo touts himself as someone who can read minds and understand human psychology, it was tactless of him to not be more mindful of his comments, especially with as large of a following as he has on his YouTube channel. Though organizations such as the Tsukuroi Tokyo Fund can mitigate the struggles that the homeless have to face, it is still important that we do not allow beliefs such as his, or the actions of hate crime perpetrators to go unchallenged — especially in a society that renders its outcasts invisible and unwanted.