Media Mix, Dec. 13, 2020

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about Misako Obayashi, a homeless woman who was killed by a man who didn’t like her sleeping in a bus shelter near his home in Shibuya. As I wrote near the beginning of the piece, not much was really known about Obayashi’s living situation or how she became homeless. However, in the most recent issue of Aera there’s an article in which a former work colleague of Obayashi’s explains what she does know about the 64-year-old woman’s life. 

Initial news reports said that Obayashi was working at a supermarket until February. According to the acquaintance, she didn’t actually work for a particular supermarket, but instead was lent out by various temp companies to promote and give out samples of prepared foods inside supermarkets, and that she’d been doing this kind of work for a long time. Of course, once the coronavirus crisis hit last spring, supermarkets stopped giving out samples in-store, since the close contact and handling of foods involved in such work presents the risk of spreading the virus more readily. So that would likely explain why she stopped working in February. But as the unidentified woman points out, the kind of “day labor” that Obayashi was doing was already fraught with insecurity. She reckons that Obayashi made about ¥7,000 a day, and such work is never guaranteed. Often, in fact, assignments are cancelled at the last minute, and the worker receives no pay at all. The woman knows what she’s talking about because she worked for the same sort of temp company, doing the same sort of work, and that’s how she met Obayashi “about 10 years ago.”

She said also that Obayashi was good at her job, that she had a knack for salesmanship that the temp companies and their clients appreciated. Apparently, her sales experience went back further. Obayashi used to be a salesperson at a “major dapartment store.” What the woman wants the reporter to understand is that Obayashi was not some unskilled, useless layabout. She was a professional, but given the labor environment that has developed in recent years, she wasn’t treated as one. She was disposable. 

The woman remember Obayashi telling her a few years ago that she had received a bill for late tax payments. Because she mostly lived hand-to-mouth on her part-time wages, she had to pay the bill in piecemeal fashion over a period of months. Obayashi was always begging for work at the 3 temp companies where she was registered, and didn’t always get any. Eventually, she believes, Obayashi fell behind on her rent. She was living in one of those apartments that you rent by the day or week, places that are easy to move into because the management company doesn’t require deposits or guarantors. However, if you fail to pay your rent on time, you can be thrown out immediately, and apparently this is what happened 3 years ago. Obayashi came home and her key wouldn’t work. All her possessions had been removed and left on the street. 

The woman implies that Obayashi had probably been homeless ever since, and yet, whenever she saw her she was cheerful. She didn’t dwell on her misfortune, probably because she didn’t want to burden other people with bad feelings. However, such a living situation has to take its toll, and over time she noticed that Obayashi’s mental state became “unstable.” 

The woman had not seen Obayashi for many months, but she did stop by the bus shelter where she died to pray for her friend after she read about the killing. In a coda to the article, the reporter says that, statistically, the number of homeless in Japan is decreasing, but it’s probably because more homeless people are getting off the street and into shelters or paying for booths in internet cafes. In any case, almost all homeless people, contrary to common belief, work. It’s just that they don’t make enough to be able to move into a conventional rental unit due to prohibitive ancillary costs and conditions. This problem seems to affect women more seriously. Although women only account for 3 to 5 percent of street people, the percentage of women who have no fixed addresses is much greater, meaning they are either camping at internet cafes, sleeping on relatives’ floors, or paying on a daily basis for rooms in cheap hotels. According to Aera, “women’s poverty” is harder to see because it is “buried in the home,” meaning that women who may have been supported by a man and got divorced, or ran away from their homes due to domestic violence, are suddenly thrust into the work force without any preparation and resources. This may not have been the case for Obayashi, but for whatever reason she didn’t avail herself of the various public services and NPOs that are in place to help such women get back on their feet. Getting the word out is important, but, as the reporter says, many homeless people are too ashamed of their circumstances to ever seek that kind of help. 

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