The Open Homeless

Interview by John Einarsen

Kojinguchi was one of eight gates that led inside the ancient walled city of Kyoto. Today its location is marked by a bridge that crosses the Kamo River — a concrete span that also serves as a roof overhead for Ryuta and Chieko Kobayashi. Over the past eight years, this married couple has resided in shelters made of cardboard and wood, crafted with their own hands. Wrapped in bright blue tarp to protect against wind and rain, their structures are tucked between the stone river embankment and the underside of the bridge. A picture hangs on the wall of one of the shelters: a reproduction of a dragon painted in sumi ink. Two pairs of sandals rest side by side at the foot of a small ladder that leads to their front door. An opening about the same size as the humble entrance to a traditional Japanese teahouse, this is where Ryuta often perches to survey the goings-on along the river. Daisuke, the couple’s big and friendly white mutt, is familiar to passersby. The Kamo, flowing below, drains the mountain ranges north of Kyoto, rolls through the heart of the city and empties into the Inland Sea. From its banks, the Kobayashis talked about their life.

Chieko: Daisuke was one of six puppies that were brought in by a guy who used to live next to us. We got Daisuke within a month of moving here.

Ryuta: We had been under the Marutamachi Bridge, and then the fellow with the puppies invited us to live with him under this bridge…

I got up in the middle of the night and sat down in my chair outside. And there in the riverbed under the bridge, staring right at me, was a samurai. When I got out of my chair to get a closer look, his figure disappeared. But when I sat back down, it reappeared. He had no feet.

Chieko: He had already been here for eight or nine years…

Ryuta: …but we soon found out that he was a bit funny in the head. Many people on the river had complaints about him. Finally we got into a fight with this man and he left. So now it is just the two of us; we don’t want any strange homeless folks coming around anymore. Some used to come up to us, but we got stuck feeding them…

 

Chieko: We are homeless too, but we choose to be different. We want to have good relations with ordinary people.

Ryuta: If we stay in one place and take care of it, then the officials from the Department of Public Works or the police won’t come around. We have to co-exist with others in society. I actually feel sorry for the people around us, because we are imposing by being here illegally. So we try to keep our place clean and neat and not interfere with the other people on the river.

Chieko: Since we understand that we are not supposed to be living here, we try to communicate with others. If we weren’t in this situation, we probably wouldn’t be conversing as much as we do.

Ryuta: We have to begin with ourselves. If we sat here with strange faces and said nothing, no one would want to pass by. So we want to be regarded as “open” homeless — to be part of society, and communicate with ordinary citizens.

Ryuta: Most homeless around here know me, so whenever something crops up, they come see me. One time we found a man who was living on a bench. We put him up in an empty shack under the Marutamachi Bridge. Then there was an older guy in a shack who we found dead. After an investigation and an autopsy, the authorities told us he had died of tuberculosis. They had to disinfect the entire site, so they came to tear down all the neighboring shacks, and left it to me to tell the other folks to leave. Now I know where to call if something happens…

Chieko: Whenever there is problem, the Office of Public Works asks us to talk to the troublemaker.

Ryuta: Once two people died here. Probably suicide.

Chieko: They were an old couple. They had crossed the river during the night, lain down just over there, and went to sleep…

Ryuta: …they died from the cold. It was winter.

Ryuta: What’s good about living here on the river? Nothing! Absolutely nothing.

Chieko: …at least there is a roof over our heads!

Ryuta: And we have met some nice people here. We have many acquaintances. That in itself is encouraging. Naturally, we like to talk to people! Even “good morning” or “good evening” is enough. Makes you happy, doesn’t it?

For instance, on a rainy day I might offer an umbrella to a passerby who doesn’t have one. Some clearly feel embarrassed borrowing an umbrella from a homeless person. You can see that they feel pressure to give me something in return. It’s awkward! But people who know us will ask for an umbrella without hesitation.

Chieko: In our position, we have to have extra consideration for others…

Ryuta: So when some people harass us, or throw cans or cigarette butts at our house…

Chieko: …we are the first to apologize for causing them trouble…

Ryuta: Once a kid threw a rock at us. We caught him, and told him that we hadn’t always lived like this. We once had friends and family and a house. He never did admit to throwing rocks, so I apologized for making a mistake. But it was obvious that he had done it, and I felt sorry for him.

Chieko: He was probably on his way to a cram school and full of stress. But he should have owned up to his behavior.

Chieko: A typhoon came through a couple of years ago and the Kamo rose really high, but we stayed put. We thought that if the water got even within a foot of our house, we would escape through our back door, which leads to the outside through Daisuke’s doghouse.

Ryuta: Everyone else lost their shacks. They all came here. Our house is built on higher ground, so we were okay.

Chieko: Collecting empty cans in summer we can make about thirty thousand yen a week; in winter we get about twenty or so. It’s enough money to live on.*

Ryuta: On Sundays we used to hold a barbecue for everyone and play soccer. But we’re getting too old for that now…

Ryuta: You can choose to believe this story or not, but I’ll tell it anyway. There are people who can see spirits, and people who cannot. I happen to be one who can, and have been since I was a child. Anyway, I began seeing an apparition on the night of August 16th of last year. It gets hot in summer and I often can’t sleep, or kids on the riverbanks are shooting off fireworks and messing around, and that keeps me awake. Anyhow, I got up in the middle of the night and sat down in my chair outside. And there in the riverbed under the bridge, staring right at me, was a samurai. When I got out of my chair to get a closer look, his figure disappeared. But when I sat back down, it reappeared. He had no feet. And then I noticed his wife in kimono and three children nearby…

Chieko: …supposedly there was an area for samurai houses near the imperial palace. No doubt something terrible happened to this family…

Ryuta: …and he pulled out his sword. Did that ever send shivers down my spine! I started fingering my juzu beads and prayed real hard. But then he put his sword back. He held up a tokkuri [sake bottle] and motioned to me to come over and have a drink. He was speaking to me, but I couldn’t hear a thing he was saying…

There is another apparition, a small girl of five or six, whom many people on the river have seen. I’ve seen her under the bridge and on the stepping-stones. I could see right through her…

Ryuta: Our hope is eventually to get the money paid back to us for some things we owned in a house in Tokyo. Since I had bad luck in business our house was repossessed and the local finance bureau is now selling off everything we once owned. When we get that money, we can live anywhere — Hokkaido, Yakushima, or Okinawa…

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Author

John Einarsen

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Photographs by John Einarsen

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KJ 94: Inspired by Kyoto