When Doctors of the World USA Meets Doctors of the World Japan

Noah A. Barth, Program Coordinator at Doctors of the World USA, recently visited Doctors of the World’s chapter in Japan and shares his experience.

While on vacation in Tokyo I had the good fortune to meet my Japanese colleagues.  Program Coordinator Azusa Nakamura brought me to their bakery project where a group of homeless or formerly homeless men spent the afternoon making bread.  They graciously welcomed me into their small community and showed me the proper way to prepare and handle the roughly 300 buns that were being baked that day.  There was a strong sense of camaraderie in the room as the men joked and sipped tea as they waited for each batch to finish in the oven.  Then, a surge of concentrated energy as each took positions, carefully removing the baking sheets, swiftly but gently scraping each bun from the pan then setting each delicately in a covered basket to cool slowly.  It occurred to me that while this program gives its participants a chance to learn a trade its true importance is the provision of a sense of community and utility.

My next stop was Doctors of the World Japan headquarters where I met Executive Director Nao Kuroyanagi and her team.  I learned more about their intensive efforts to combat homeless in Tokyo as well as other projects throughout Japan including work in the Fukishima region and their projects abroad.  I was particularly pleased by the Japanese team’s interest in the Doctors of the World Rockaways Free Clinic.  I shared pictures and video of the clinic and discussed at length the particular challenges that Rockaways residents face.

After dinner, Azusa and I travelled to Ikebukuro, Tokyo’s second busiest subway station.  One thing worth explaining here: when discussing size and traffic of a Tokyo train station there is little comparison to the United States.  Ikebukaro sees over 2.7 million riders a day (in comparison, Times Square in NYC sees about 195,500).  At a small park adjoining the station we met a team of 30 or so volunteers including some of the same men who were baking earlier in the day.  They were distributing the buns we made along with other food items to the hungry.  From there we fanned out in small groups across the station’s three floors and surrounding streets, distributing food and checking if those we encountered had other needs.  Amongst the volunteers were three doctors and two social workers, ready in the event that they could be of further service.

This is where I came to realize the profundity of the bakery program.  In distributing the food they had made to individuals in similar positions to where they had been a renewed sense of human dignity was created for participants.  Homelessness is a stigmatized state throughout the world but it is especially so in Japan.  They are officially viewed as a public nuisance and owing to social mores about shame, modesty and maintaining a reserved nature; the homeless keep a very low profile- public begging is extremely rare.  This lack of visibility makes Japan’s homeless all the more vulnerable and it is in the service of such marginalized groups that Doctors of the World works.

By not only treating the symptoms of homeless- hunger, housing, health needs, etc- but going to the core of one’s vulnerability we are able to help restore the individual.  With your support we will continue to do so, both at home and abroad.

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