Melody Madhavan is a History major from the Class of 2017. Since graduating, she has worked with L'Oreal, the Rémy Cointreau Group and Burger King in Tokyo, Japan. While in Tokyo, she volunteered with Tokyo Spring, which runs patrols for homeless communities across the city. She is now pursuing double Master's programmes in Business Administration at Kyoto University and Hospitality Management at Cornell University. This interview was conducted in August 2022, before she relocated to Ithaca, New York.
Hi Melody! When you were in Yale-NUS, were there any social impact activities that you were part of?
When I was in Yale-NUS, I helped out with some free Model United Nations (UN) classes for less privileged students. I also volunteered with Habitat for Humanity a few times: we cleaned houses which was really interesting because it was my first time seeing the rental apartments in Singapore. One of the two houses belonged to an old lady who was a hoarder, so we helped her sort through and throw away many of the items she had accumulated.
At the end of senior year, I worked with Beyond Social Services, a charity in Singapore which focuses on youth from less privileged families. They go beyond offering social services, to provide education, community leadership, and so on. One of the initiatives they run is a camp to keep youth active, draw them away from other "less productive" activities, and to give them a safe space and community. I supported the organisation by interviewing youth and creating a video that showcased their stories. That was screened at the Annual General Meeting. That was very minor, and I wish I could have done more.
You're doing a lot more in Japan now, which I'll ask you about later. But before that, what have you been up to since graduating?
I have been living in Tokyo since graduation. I love Japan, and had studied there for my exchange semester. When I was there, I thought, "Tokyo is a place I want to try living in." So I moved here immediately after graduation and started an internship with L’Oreal Japan. The internship got me a visa, which helped me find a full-time job after that. I worked at Rémy Cointreau for three and a half years as a brand manager, and moved to Burger King, where I was also a brand manager and focused on data analysis. At that point, I had worked in marketing for almost five years. Then I left my job for graduate school, and I’m now doing a dual degree: an MBA at Kyoto University and a Master’s in Hospitality at Cornell University. I’ll be moving to Ithaca, New York in a few weeks.
Besides work, what else have you been doing in Japan?
I've always wanted to do something more non profit-oriented. I had some experience doing marketing internships, but it is not my passion.
I’ve been volunteering with a group called Tokyo Spring, led by an anarchist artist who has been doing this for about 10 years. He's a foreigner who lives in Japan and noticed the homeless problem. He started giving out food to the homeless in Japan, but didn’t have a lot of money, so he told his friends about what he was doing, and friends started chipping in and following him on what we call “patrols.”
What we have now is a very organic initiative, where a bunch of foreigners in Japan and a few Japanese come together to go on these patrols. Tokyo Spring does 3 patrols each week in Ueno, Shinjuku and recently, Yokohama. Ueno is a famous homeless encampment in Tokyo. It’s a big park, and the homeless have a small base there. Another base is Shinjuku, which is a “super-city” area – the homeless find places in the train station or under the many bridges to hide in.
Recently, a friend of the artist started a new patrol in the nearby port city of Yokohama. I didn’t think there were homeless people in Yokohama, because it’s further away from Tokyo, where I’d assumed most of the homeless are based. But we actually see more homeless on our Yokohama patrols than in Shinjuku.
How did you get involved with Tokyo Spring?
Whenever the team does a patrol, they post on Facebook, and share who participated, how many items were given out, and a lot of photos. Before I joined, I saw those photos, and thought, this is the easiest way for me to volunteer. But at the time, I lived quite far from the patrol locations, and sent monthly donations instead. I still felt like I wanted to do something more.
When I moved to a more central location in Tokyo, I went on my first patrol, and thought, “This is meaningful, it’s really fun, and it’s direct action.” Keeping people fed is such a direct, fundamental way of fighting poverty.
Keeping people fed is such a direct, fundamental way of fighting poverty.
Thankfully, because I speak Japanese, I’ve also been able to talk to the homeless people and get to know them more. That's been really, really meaningful for me. On weekdays, I make money for big companies, but on Sunday when I do the patrols, I get to do something more meaningful.
Earlier you said that you didn't think that there were many homeless people in Yokohama. I think it’s quite common that Singaporeans and other foreigners who travel or move to Japan don’t think about the social issues they face. To let other people know more about what you’ve learned, can you tell us a bit more about the homeless problem in Japan or Tokyo?
I wouldn’t say the homeless problem is as huge as cities like Los Angeles and New York City, but it still exists. You do see homeless people sleeping on the streets in Shibuya and Shinjuku.
With the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, the government gentrified a lot of areas, and razed down areas in Shibuya, where the homeless camped out, for more upscale developments. This pushed the homeless out to different areas, such as Shinjuku, Ueno and even Yokohama.
Official estimates put the number of homeless across Japan at 3,000-4,000. I don’t think it’s actually that low. In Yokohama alone, we have about 200 people show up to our patrols. So it’s definitely more than that. I think under-reporting happens – and it’s the same in Singapore – because of a ‘face’ issue, people don't want to talk about the problem.
Some homeless will also pretend not to be homeless because they don't want to be seen in a bad light. And of course, they only come out at night, because a lot of them do have jobs. 60-70% of them do some work during the day. That's why all our patrols are at night, because that's when they head to the station or elsewhere to sleep.
In Tokyo, I really can't give you a number. But at least for Shinjuku, on bad days, we’ve seen 120-140 people sleeping in the station. Shinjuku station allows homeless people to sleep in the concourse area, but only from 11pm. They can come in at 10pm, and start laying out their stuff around 10.30-11pm. And then they can stay there until 4-5am, when they get kicked out. At least there's shelter, especially during the hot summer months.
In Japan, older single men are the majority of the homeless population. And this is a symptom of a vicious cycle: If you're an old man, in your 60s or 70s, it's very hard to rent a house. Landlords are afraid that they will run away, or that they will die in the house alone. These older men face a lot of discrimination, especially if they don’t have an official job. People have to pick up jobs that undercut them and pay in cash, as if they are homeless, they don’t have an address which is required to open a bank account. This allows employers to exploit them. The yakuza, or Japanese mafia, try to recruit them. In fact, there is a recruiter that hangs around the train station and hires homeless people to do dodgy stuff.
Here, you need identification and official records to prove who you are – the homeless aren’t able to do that. That creates a lot of real challenges and problems. It’s kind of like being undocumented in the US, except that these people are Japanese citizens. That's why homelessness is a very complicated problem.
Earlier, I mentioned one of the men who volunteers with us. He’s been homeless for 25 years, and it’s hard for him to even think about living in a house. Recently, an opportunity came up to move into a room. But he’s kind of terrified, and isn’t ready to move into a room and live with other people. Naturally, concerns about safety will come up. He’s still considering it, but we haven’t pushed him. When he’s lived in an area and relied on this community of people for over 20 years, and then to move to a place where you don’t know anyone else can be really scary. Providing housing is about community. It's also about mental health. It's about making these people who have been marginalised all their lives feel safe. There's a big psychological aspect to solving homelessness that I feel is not really addressed.
Providing housing is about community. It's also about mental health. It's about making these people who have been marginalised all their lives feel safe. There's a big psychological aspect to solving homelessness that I feel is not really addressed.
How are these patrols organised?
We have a Facebook group for volunteers. Each month, slots on a timesheet open, and volunteers put their name for certain slots. Volunteers can commit to making food – anything from yakisoba to sandwiches, to onigiri – that is easy for the homeless to eat. We also have an Amazon wish list of items such as canned food, batteries, and in the summer, t-shirts for the hot weather. People send us donations or directly buy and send us those items.
We work together with two really interesting locals – one is an ex-homeless guy who has been housed. Another is an old man who is currently homeless; we give him some money to help on our patrols.
One more thing that we've been working on, which draws on my marketing skills, is a series of interviews with the homeless. Kind of like ‘Homeless of Tokyo’ profiles. We've interviewed three people so far, of course, only speaking to those that want to speak to us. We took some great photos, listened to their stories, and will share these profiles on social media to raise awareness of the homeless problem among the Japanese. We’re hoping this will also get us more donations.
What is the level of awareness of homelessness in Tokyo?
I think Japanese people have a pre-conceived notion of homeless people: they're either lazy or crazy. My hope is that when people read the interviews, they will learn that many of the homeless people are in fact very hardworking. We interviewed one guy who works pretty much everyday. He doesn't take any days off. This disadvantages him, as being homeless, people who employ him can get away with paying him very little because of his precarious position.
Another person we talked to had run away from an abusive household. He said he couldn’t seek help from the government as they might ask for documentation of his family and contact them. We talked to another man who became homeless a month ago. His was just a sad situation of losing his job, running out of money, and ending up on the streets. Simple and clear cut. He has gone to the government for help, but hasn’t been able to get a house yet.
It sounds like you've learned a lot about Japan and the social issues that you don't really see on the surface. Do you think it’s changed how you relate to being in Japan as a foreigner?
I've learned a lot more about Japan through this patrolling with Tokyo Spring. Japan has really been very kind to me, for the most part. This is my way to give back.
As a foreigner, I didn't come in with the typical Japanese perspective. As a Japanese person, when you grow up, you're taught certain things, like everyone has a house and that's "normal", and anyone who doesn't have a house isn’t normal, and that the Japanese government is very good and strong, and you get lots of support, but that is not the reality. This happens with people everywhere I think, you take for granted the issues in your own backyard.
I think I've been really lucky to find this group and be able to help out, because there are lots of smaller Japanese organisations to volunteer at, which can be a little bit intimidating as a foreigner because of the language and cultural barriers.
Tokyo Spring is a bunch of foreigners that created a space that’s open and fluid. Of course, we have Japanese people who speak English, and are key members of the group. I like the fact that it's a very colourful community and a loose collective of people, which means we can adjust and adapt very easily. Whereas I feel like if it's a “more Japanese” organisation, it would be a lot more structured, with government reporting requirements and all.
Of course, the downside of being a collective is that we can’t get official government help. We have to rely a lot on private donors, which is why we come up with soft marketing solutions, to share stories and create publicity for what we do. Hopefully this helps us get more people on board, not just to donate, but also to help with the patrols.
There are also some really incredible people in the patrols: people who donate like crazy, organise the patrols, cook amazing restaurant-quality bentos for the homeless people.
Is the Japanese government trying to do anything to address poverty more structurally?
The thing about the government in Japan is that it's both efficient but extremely bureaucratic and rigid. When it comes to help from the state, a lot of things disqualify people from getting help. I mentioned the conundrum with the bank accounts earlier: people need an address to get a bank account, and people without an address can’t get a bank account, which they need to get money from the government
So in 2020, the government was giving out COVID-19 payouts of about $1,000 to everyone, and some of the homeless could not get the money because they didn’t have a bank account and/or an address!
For example, if you don’t have a good relationship with your family, or anyone that can vouch for you, then you might not be able to get aid, because the government requires you to have a guarantor. I feel that in Japan, there need to be more exceptions made, along with a bigger awareness that the homeless have a completely different reality from the “normal” middle-class.
I do think that the Japanese government is doing some things … During the Olympics, the homeless situation got really bad as the government gentrified certain neighbourhoods and razed down areas that the homeless were encamped in, but it was also good because it made them at least take a look at the homeless, and create ways for them to get some financial support. The good thing is that people get pensions in Japan. Some of the homeless do too, it’s just not enough. And sometimes if you receive the pension, you can’t qualify for other aid. The government is a big bureaucratic machine, and you have to fight it when you want something. And the homeless people don’t have the energy to fight sometimes. I also think that mental health support is lacking, and is a big reason why there are homeless people.
The government is a big bureaucratic machine, and you have to fight it when you want something. And the homeless people don’t have the energy to fight sometimes. I also think that mental health support is lacking, and is a big reason why there are homeless people.
In some countries, when an NGO is addressing an issue that the government doesn’t want to recognise, or admit how serious it is, there are clamp downs, or the government makes it hard to operate. Does the same thing happen in Tokyo, or do you have quite a lot of freedom to work with the homeless? Are there restrictions on the work you do?
Civil liberties are very strong in Japan. We’ve never been stopped by the government, at least not with Tokyo Spring. There have been calls for us to register as an organisation, but we don’t want to do that, first of all, because our leader is an anarchist. It’s hard to receive corporate donations, but we’re lucky to have a few places recognise we are doing great work, and have donated though we can’t give them official receipts. But other companies need to have donations channelled to an organisation, and have the proper paperwork to claim tax benefits. That’s the only thing that hinders us.
For us, in our current situation, the flexibility makes sense for us. Most of us are also foreigners, and rely on the government for our visas, which is why we focus on apolitical issues, like giving food.
How can readers support Tokyo Spring?
Thanks Melody. Do you have any thing else to share with our readers?
In many ways, my last message would be, wherever you are, look out in your local communities to see where you can help. Unfortunately, in Singapore, all I can do is donate and share, but even that is useful. Do whatever you can.