Thursday, July 14, 2005


The Box People of Niigata Station

(The following essay was origionally posted at an earlier date. As of July 2008, the "box people of Niigata station" are no longer there. I dont' know if this is a temporary development or why they're no longer there. None the less, I'll leave this post up as I beleive the issues addressed are still relevant).

In the city up the road from where I live there’s a small group of homeless people living in cardboard boxes in a hallway leading into the train station. Adhering to Japanese standards of civility, their dwellings are rather neat and unobtrusive. None of them panhandles, as you would find in places like Boulder Colorado where I lived before coming to Japan (those “homeless people” were both annoying and obtrusive). Although Niigata’s homeless people might be used as poster children for the socialist worldview, their essential nature doesn’t appear very different from the other people who populate the planet. Some are clearly neater than others. Some box-homes have little “garages” with cardboard shelves and collections of shoes and umbrellas – some don’t.

Japan’s economy has been rather stagnant for some time now. For most Japanese, this hasn’t altered their middle class lifestyle in the slightest. I’m not so sure that devoting all of one’s political energy to destroying a relatively free system would much improve the box people’s circumstance, and I’m not sure that dragging others down to their economic level is sound policy either – the North Korean model.

A British expat (a scholarly socialist) once rhetorically asked me why people are homeless… “Is it because they’re lazy!?” Of course, this is the answer he wanted to hear because it would confirm for him that all people who believe in freedom and the free market are cruel, selfish, and uninformed. Realistically, there are a variety of reasons a person may become homeless. … “Should they be shipped off to concentration camps?” Another classic Leftist rhetorical “question.”

Most of us over the age of 30 have probably experienced a period in our lives where we would have been homeless if not for the sympathy or good grace of family and friends. Divorce, drugs, alcoholism, inept economic planning and even – sometimes – “laziness” can all lead to homelessness (that’s the short list of possibilities). In eras past, last recourse could be found in the goodness of private volunteer organizations (i.e. churches). Now, the state “steps in” (on?) and, with stolen funds, accomplishes the same or less for those considered to be down and out.

In a socialist’s eyes, one either supports more confiscation of funds for “social programs” (or outright handouts), or one wants to “ship people to concentration camps” – the “free market is Fascism” argument. Such predictable statements clearly overlook the fact that both Nazi’s and Fascists were (and are) essentially collectivist in their philosophies. There are plenty of quotations by both Hitler, and Mussolini that indicate their hatred of capitalism. (Yes I know, private property was permitted to some degree under their socialist governments).

The left’s take on homelessness is something like, “It’s a crime that ‘the system’ [capitalism] has made these people live this way.” Of course, a free market has caused no such thing, anymore than freedom causes some to be store clerks and others to be doctors.

The left always frames the homeless issue as two simple choices; one must either support the “intervention” of government agencies or acknowledge one’s role as evil incarnate for opposing further expansion of the socialist vision.

It is certainly reasonable to show pity to those less blessed, even more commendable to actually devote one’s own time or money to such people, but simply using homelessness as another excuse for enacting socialist control is pathetic.

Over the last couple of years I’ve watched the few box/homes of Niigata station evolve from simple small boxes, to variations in size, status, and quality. A kind of low-key evolution of a social fractal – a neighborhood of “inequality” even amongst the “homeless.” I suppose one could accuse the guy with the bigger box and larger umbrella collection of being “greedy, selfish,” or “materialistic.” Actually, I think he just prefers, and has been able to obtain, a larger living space and fancier umbrellas.

If we just stole some more money from, “The rich” or passed some more regulations to rein in personal striving, maybe we could end the simple lifestyle of the box people – but, probably not.

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