Life has returned to normal on the streets of Tokyo’s Asakusa district after one of the rare murder investigations started in the nation’s capital.
The slaying, apparently the result of a drunken fight between two homeless people, did not gain much news coverage. However, it did disrupt an unusual but peaceful coexistence between business operators in one of Tokyo’s most popular tourist spots and the destitute who have lost everything.
On April 23, a homeless man, 66, was fatally stabbed near the toilet southeast of Sensoji temple, a tourist destination that attracts 30 million visitors every year. The temple grounds are also home to about 10 homeless people, according to temple officials.
One of them, Hiroshi Ito, a 65-year-old with messy hair and a white moustache, has “lived” on the temple grounds for three years.
Ito recalled that on the night of the stabbing, he saw a group of men drinking and speaking loudly, but he did not know who they were.
Although he said he “doesn’t want to become involved” in the investigation, he has been questioned by police, and he did touch upon what might have been a factor in the slaying.
“It is against the rules to get together and mess around,” Ito said.
The unwritten guidelines in the area are that homeless people can stay there as long as they aren’t a nuisance.
Security guards patrol Sensoji temple every day. They issue warnings if they see homeless people boozing together or sleeping inside the temple grounds late at night, temple officials said.
“It is not desirable to have homeless people in a tourist site,” said Yujun Moriyama, an executive at the temple. “But they are a visible example of the contradiction and distortion in Japanese society. We do not want to expel them.”
A 39-year-old man who has operated a soba noodle shop near the temple for more than a decade said: “Homeless people are a common sight here. I cannot tell them to leave unless they are sleeping in front of my restaurant.”
According to the welfare ministry, the number of homeless people in the capital has dropped by about 60 percent over five years to 1,437 in January this year.
The number of homeless people in Taito Ward, where Sensoji temple is located, was 231, the most in the 23 wards of Tokyo.
The popularity of the temple and its surroundings is what attracts many homeless people to Asakusa.
Asked why he stays out in the open at crowded Sensoji temple, Ito looked at the passers-by coming and going and said, “I do not like getting together with others, but it is fun to see people, isn’t it? I have friends as well.”
Another homeless man at the temple said, “I look at tourists to pass the time away.”
Born in Hokkaido, Ito moved to Tokyo in his late 40s after the construction company he had been working for went bankrupt, he said.
He worked at various construction sites, but injured his leg about four years ago when he fell off his bicycle, and ended up living at the temple.
Ito sleeps under the Kaminarimon gate, the main gate of Sensoji, wakes up around 5 a.m. before tourists start to arrive, and sits on his favorite bench.
He collects change left in vending machines and receives his share of food and drink from acquaintances.
He drinks one-third of a 203-yen ($2.54) bottle of “shochu” distilled spirit, then he dilutes the remainder with tap water and sips it. In the evening, he returns to the Kaminarimon gate and goes to sleep.
During the Golden Week holiday period in early May, Ito had again found his favorite bench and watched hordes of families scooping up shaved ice while foreign tourists snapped photos of the temple’s five-story pagoda. Other homeless people had also returned to their usual spots, sitting in cardboard boxes next to shrubbery.
Tokyo police arrested a 64-year-old homeless man, who had been sleeping at the temple grounds for about eight years, on suspicion of murder.
Police said three or four homeless people were drinking on the night of April 23, when an argument ensued and became physical.
The suspect implied that he was trying to prevent trouble with the temple by enforcing the rule against gathering together for drinks.
“I tried scolding him so that the security guards wouldn’t get rid of us, but it ended up in a scuffle. I got mad and killed (him),” police quoted the suspect as saying.
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