JR Railway and Telephone Cards from Japan

In the 1990s, we spent three years in Japan and during that time, we often used prepaid JR railway cards and prepaid telephone cards. Now, 25 years later, I’m glad I kept them.


Kitakyushu University


Kokura Castle in Kitakyushu


Kitakyushu International Association


JR Kyushu Tobata Eki

Breakfast for a Homeless Japanese

Yesterday’s mail delivered two reminders about the old stigma that there is no poverty in Japan. One was the article  Japan tries to face up to growing poverty problem in the International Herald Tribune, the other came by e-mail from a friend in California who also mentioned my fondness for bums. Yes, that’s right. Bums, not buns.

While living in Kitakyushu/Japan, I found a new friend in the bum who used to live in the tunnel between Kokura station and the former Kitakyushu International Association (KIA).

Every Wednesday, on my way from the station to my volunteer job at KIA, I would first stop at the bakery to get some breakfast to go. Not for me, but for my friend who had been living in the tunnel for I-don’t-know how many years. I am pretty sure it must have been years as Japan offered almost no assistance, neither granted by the state nor its society, in support for sore sights such as the homeless.

Granted, many people rather turn a blind eye, but I found the Japanese to be even willfully blinder than the rest of us. In the early 90s, seeing a bum did not sit  well in their self-projected image of an affluent society.

My friend, whose name I will never know, must have been in his late 80s. I only saw him squatting down, a bony torso, lower limbs missing, and head always posed in shame.

I always greeted him and said a few words in Japanese, while putting down his breakfast. For the longest time, he never looked up, but he audibly came to know me as the strange person, speaking accented Japanese, who would bring breakfast on Wednesdays. Once, towards the end of our relationship, he looked up and I noticed his blank stare. Of all the things in the world, he was blind, too.

One Wednesday in late winter, he went missing. I took his breakfast with me to KIA and mentioned to my Californian friend  that the bum had not been there this morning. Strangely enough, she thought I had referred to my husband, which took a couple of minutes to clear up this misunderstanding.

I never saw him again and was unable to find out what happened. I can only guess that his lights had gone out. That same year, when he went to his creator, another little boy found his way into and under my heart. Our son Thomas was born the following winter.

Why do I like bums, you might ask. Whether they are homeless by choice or free will, they are people like you and me. And I would like to think that if any one of my children ever ended up living on the road, as a parent I would be happy to know that someone would be kind enough to share some food. Wouldn’t you?

The city of Frankfurt is home to 1800 homeless.