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Different Kind of Homeless

Posted by Dave Bull at 10:12 PM, September 4, 1994

For some years now, the newspapers have regularly carried stories about growing numbers of 'homeless' people, at first mostly datelined from America and Europe, but more recently from here in Japan as well. At the moment I don't want to get into whether this problem is a 'personal' one, caused by individual irresponsibility, or evidence of a wider, more general, social malaise. It's a different kind of 'homelessness' that's been concerning me recently - my own. Now should any of those people actually living out on the street happen to read this, they may perhaps take offense at use of the word 'homeless' by a person such as myself, who has a quite comfortable apartment, fully stocked with a big pile of warm futons. But the word 'home' does have a couple of meanings ... not only that building where we happen to be 'parking' our bodies every night ... but also that place where we consider our roots to be.

With many people, these two concepts may be rolled together into one particular location, but for many others, they are quite separate. I suppose in times gone by, when people were much less mobile than now, it was the norm to be living either at, or at least near, ones ancestral home, but patterns of life in the last half of the 20th century are obviously different. It is not merely that I and my compatriot baby-boomers are very mobile people, but that our parents were also. My own experience is, I think, not atypical: as I was growing up, we moved house frequently, never staying long enough in any given place to put down many roots. Even after we children left home, my parents continued this pattern, even up to last year, when they sold yet another house, and moved into rented accommodation. So for myself, my brother, and my sister, there is no place on this earth that could possibly represent 'home', other than our current residences. But in my mind at least (and I suspect theirs too), my present address just is not the kind of place that I could call 'home' in that deeper sense. It is a rented concrete building on a noisy main road, surrounded by automobile parking lots. "Home?" No way. It's just a roof to keep the rain off.

When I first moved here, such thoughts as this didn't bother me. I guess I just assumed that I'd be 'moving on' fairly soon anyway, and this place would just be another in a long sequence of short-term accommodations. But things didn't work out quite that way. I became settled into a steady line of work (my woodblock printmaking), my kids became settled in school, and we all developed quite an affection for our local community. (Despite my disparaging remarks about our building, Hamura City is a very liveable place.) So one year became two ... and then three ... and now I find that more than eight years have gone by ... in temporary accommodation. It is an acceptable home, but it is not a 'home', and I am missing that latter feeling ...

This lack was exacerbated last year with the breakup of the relationship with my wife, and her departure from our home. Her family, in complete contrast to mine, had been for generations very much rooted in one place. During the course of our fourteen years together, we spent a lot of time visiting her old 'home', and spent many long happy summers there. Over the years, without my even realizing it, I gradually developed quite an affection for the place. I was 'adopting' a 'home'.

The shock and pain of our separation was thus multiplied by these feelings. I hadn't just lost a long-time partner, I had lost a home. During the year since our divorce, I have become pretty much reconciled to life as a single man again (the process has been mitigated a lot by the companionship of my two daughters), but I have to admit that I am far from settled with respect to my feelings about a home. I miss that place very much.

So more and more, my thoughts return to this question, and it seems to me that the answer is on the face of it, quite simple - find a place I like, move there, and then spend years settling in and developing a feeling that it is my 'home'. In other words, build one for myself, rather than searching for a non-existent 'family home'. Make that move my last move. I am still only 42, and have many years left in which I could put down quite extensive roots. This is all very easy to say, but somewhat more difficult to put into practice. The problem is simply stated. Where?

I don't mean "Japan or Canada?" That was settled in my mind some time ago. Canada exerts no pull on me at all, and I think I will be quite content to live out my life in this country. But where then, in Japan? On the surface, my present town of Hamura seems like a good choice, with good neighbours, excellent community facilities, good access to basic necessities, and of course after eight years here, the three of us are well on the way to developing strong connections with this place. But counterbalancing all these 'pluses', is one huge 'minus'. Not if I live to be a hundred years old will I ever be able to afford to buy a piece of land here adequate for building a comfortable house. I don't want a palace, but I do want somewhat more space than these tiny houses and apartments provide. I would like to be able to walk through my house without banging into things all the time. The cost though, is so astronomical, that urban Tokyo is just not a practical option.

What then of the other obvious choice, a place out in the countryside? In this age of rural depopulation, certainly there are no shortage of potential places in every corner of Japan. That's true, and if it were only up to me, this is the route I would probably choose. But of course, it is not only up to me. I must also think about those two little girls who will be in my care for yet another ten years or so. How would they fare in such an environment? In this case also, I have mixed feelings. (Why is it that nothing is black and white anymore ... like everything was back when I was 20?) Although my general impressions of rural life are positive - living at a slower pace, surrounded by greenery, in a more 'natural' environment, there are negatives. That ongoing rural depopulation has taken a severe toll on the level of amenities available to country dwellers, and access to shopping, medical facilities, and of course schools, becomes quite a big problem for a family such as mine.

Given all these conflicting viewpoints on the matter, it's just as well that my financial resources are still far short of a level that would permit any decisive action on this. And as the girls seem very happy just where they are, with plenty of friends, activities, and community entanglements, it would not be fair to pull them away, just to cater to a whim of mine. Whether or not our current residence feels like 'home' to me, I have to admit that it almost certainly is 'home' to them. Indeed, they know no other.

So I guess I'll simply bide my time. I'll keep my eyes open for information on suitable locations, and in the meantime will try and save up as much as I can, in order to be ready when the time finally arrives. It should be an interesting process - instead of looking back to an old ancestral family home, I'll look forward to building a new one for myself. A 'made-to-order' solution for my own 'homeless' problem!

(September 1994)


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