Sano-san -- A Man with a Vision

The Big Issue Japan takes on the bigger issue of Japanese homelessness.
Emily Kubo

Our map leads us to an unassuming residential apartment building, tucked away in a quiet side street in Takadanobaba. Unsure of ourselves, Endo-san, our photographer, finds a small sign on a rusted mailbox and we hesitantly knock on the door. Entering the tiny one-room studio, we are immediately confronted with boxes of magazines and marketing materials. A young man in his late 20s sporting a Big Issue Japan T-shirt, jeans and house slippers greets us sheepishly and invites us to sit on metal chairs around a diminutive square table. An exceptionally tall and attractive young woman soon enters the room and makes us tea as we await their boss.

Ten minutes later we are greeted with traditional bowing and a business card exchange by the man that we came to meet -- Shoji Sano, publisher of The Big Issue Japan, a street magazine sold by homeless people in the UK, Australia, South Africa, and most recently, Japan. As Sano joins us at our table, the young staffers retreat to the other end of the room (albeit just a feet away). They sit at their conjoining desks and plug away at their computers. We later find out that the young man by the name of Tsuyoshi Katori was previously Music Editor at the popular Tokyo Walker magazine. The young woman, Mariko Ikeda, who has an interesting background of her own, is an ex-fashion model from Nagano who never saw a homeless person until she came to Tokyo. It is obvious that they work here not for any financial incentive or the glamour of it, but for the love of their jobs alone.

Shoji Sano, born and raised in Osaka, never imagined that one day he would travel to Tokyo once a month, at age 65, to begin his new life as an entrepreneur. But in fact, at an age when most would be enjoying retired life and a well-earned nenkin, or government pension, Sano spends his time traveling between two major cities as publisher of The Big Issue Japan. "I never imagined that I would work in Tokyo," says Sano, who has an articulate and commanding presence despite his small stature.

Sano was working as a researcher for urban planning in Osaka when he realized that he wanted to do something to solve the homeless problem in his city: "There was not a single day during my commute to work that I did not encounter a homeless person," he recalls. This is readily imaginable. According to government records, there are about 25,000 homeless people in Japan, with more than 10,000 "living" in Osaka (proper and prefecture). Osaka, with a population of 2.6 million, has more than one-third of the nation's homeless. "Because my job was city planning, my perspective was to approach homelessness as a city-wide and regional problem. The homeless are attracted to cities, and they are homeless in the cities. Therefore, I viewed the homeless as another urban problem that I must try to find solutions for."

At that time, there were no policies tackling the root of homelessness; existing government measures only dealt with the problem through welfare. Sano thought differently: "The fundamental solution is providing employment. The average age of a homeless person is about 56, which makes it difficult for them to find work." Lack of jobs for older citizens is indeed not just a social issue for homeless people. "If you are over 50 and do not have a job in Japan, you are out of the system. Of course, if you do not have a home and a family to support you, you can just imagine the hardships with getting back on your feet. That is why I thought if you do not combine welfare with job creation, you cannot solve the problem of homelessness."

Armed with this insight about five years ago, Sano approached the local city government with a proposal and a plan of action to reduce homelessness through job creation. But it was not met with enthusiasm: "Their response was that we cannot solve this problem at the local level. This is too big for us. It must be addressed at the national level." The government's fear was that its becoming the first local government with a job creation program would draw even more homeless people. "I thought it was actually a very good plan," Sano laughs, "but they basically said, 'No thank you!'"

Faced with rejection from the government, Sano then took his proposal to the private sector. His logic was that corporations should take some responsibility, since many of the homeless had been workers in their companies until the restructuring in the 1990s. In fact, unlike many of the homeless in the West, Japanese homeless in general do not suffer from psychological disorders or drug addiction, and have a genuine desire to work and get back on track. "But they said to me," recounts Sano, "'our company did not lay off anyone -- so why should we chip in and underwrite other companies' restructuring? This is not our problem.'"

Sano's proposal was turned down by both local government and local companies. And so the buck was passed.

But like a true entrepreneur, Sano decided to tackle the problem from another angle. "Yes, I failed as a professional," he says. "So I started thinking, why not tackle this social problem from the grass-roots, as a private citizen?"

How It All Began
Sano started an Osaka study group for people with an equal interest in the problem. It was through this study group that he had a fateful encounter with the future co-founder of The Big Issue Japan, Yoko Mizukoshi, an energetic woman 10 years his junior who had heard about the success of street magazines sold by homeless people in London. Fascinated by the concept, she made a side trip to Scotland while in the UK on business, to meet with Mel Young, founder of The Big Issue Scotland. At the end of their three-hour conversation, Mizukoshi casually mentioned the actual number of homeless people in Osaka. "What? 10,000 people homeless just in Osaka!" Young exclaimed. "Then why aren't you starting this magazine there? I will help you if you do!"

Young had reason to be surprised. There are only around 600 - 700 homeless people in the entire UK. In Japan, there exists about 25,000 of what the government categorizes as "rough sleepers."

In fact, Mizukoshi did not meet with Young with the intention to launch The Big Issue Japan. But the more she learned from him, the more interested she became. When prompted by the Scotsman to do something for the homeless in her own city, Mizukoshi replied, mae muki kento shimasu ("We'll give it careful consideration"), a stock, if polite, formulation for turning down someone without a flat no. "Mizukoshi is not a typical Japanese," recalls Sano, "because when she said that, she was being sincere!"

Mizukoshi's enthusiasm was infectious. "When she first told me about it, I did not think it would work in Japan. However, I was persuaded by her youthful energy." So a business partnership formed. Next, Sano turned to friends in publishing for advice. "They all told me that the project was doomed to fail -- 'There is not even a 99% chance of failure but a 100% chance!' they said," laughs Sano.

There were indeed many reasons for their pessimism. First, there was the decline in readership of traditional print media in general, a decline especially true of the magazine's target demographic, people under 35, who would presumably be interested in its mix of current events, celebrity news, and social issues. "The young people today are more into reading on the Internet and on their mobile phones," Sano laments. "So my friends asked, 'Who is going to read the magazine?'" Moreover, there are also problems that are culture-specific. For example, there was no rationale for street sales of magazines in Japan; these days streets are awash with giveaway magazines and newspapers. "Why would people want to pay 200 yen to buy a magazine from a homeless person when they can get something similar for free?" Sano asks. Then there is the deep-seated Japanese prejudice against homeless people. "People associate the homeless with the '3 K's,' " says Sano. He holds up the corresponding number of fingers as he enumerates these. "One, they are kitanai [dirty]; two, they are kusai [smelly], and three, kowai [scary]," he says, adding, "With all these negatives, it was no wonder my professional friends were convinced the project would fail!" Sano would find that once again, it would ultimately be the average people, not the professionals, who would support his vision. He was especially encouraged by the young women he surveyed, who saw this project as an opportunity to solve a social problem. Again, energized by youth, The Big Issue Japan was born: "Over 65 percent of our readers are women, and most of them are in their 20s. They are the reason we've kept going for the past two years."

How does The Big Issue Work?
The company has a sales staff of four, two each in Tokyo and Osaka, who supply the magazine to salesmen and lend an ear to their problems. The magazine is sold mainly in the Kanto and Kansai regions, including Tokyo, Yokohama, Kawasaki, Chiba, Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe.

The Big Issue Japan's mission is to give the homeless a job and get them off the streets. From the 200 yen price, the salesman keeps 110 yen, with 90 yen going to the company to cover expenses. If he sells about 25-30 copies per day, he can earn about 3,000 yen, enough for three bento lunches from the convenience store and a night in a flophouse. This is the first step -- to sleep with a roof over his head.

Daily sales of about 40 copies will leave 1,000 yen in his pocket after the above expenses. That amounts to 30,000 yen a month, which would allow an average saving of 200,000 yen in seven or eight months. With this money, he can rent an apartment. In fact, last year the Tokyo government introduced subsidised, low-rent (3,000 yen per month) apartments for up to 2 years. This means that a salesman now only needs to save 100 yen a day, allowing him to achieve in a shorter time the second step -- a place of his own. In addition, in Osaka, flophouses, which normally only allow you to pay daily, have begun to allow payment of one month's rent in advance so the "renter" can use the flophouse as an address. At 600 yen a day, it takes about 18,000 yen to gain the right to use an address.

Why so much emphasis on the address? "You need an address to do anything," explains Sano. "If you are an elderly person, you can receive welfare money from the government. If you are young, you can fill out a form and look for a job, which is the third step and ultimate goal. In Japan, without an address, it's as if you do not exist!"

Currently in Tokyo, each vendor sells about 20-25 copies a day -- still just shy of the 30 copies needed to be able to rent an apartment and acquire an address. In Osaka, however, salesmen have been able to manage about 25-30 copies a day. About half of the Osaka salesmen have successfully reached the second step in six months.

"One reason why I believe that Tokyo has been such a slow growth market is because people who live in Osaka are more used to the sight of homeless people -- there are so many of them. There is not the same psychological distance between average residents and the homeless in Osaka that exists in Tokyo," reasons Sano.

How is the company doing financially?
The company started with US$200,000 in capital. Sano had borrowed 60 percent of that sum from lending agencies. He and Mizukoshi had dipped into their own pockets for US$40,000 and received another US$40,000 in donations. "Originally, I had considered making The Big Issue into a public company and raise money through issuing stocks," Sano says. However, not only would that require a huge amount of paperwork, it would also require the company to earn money for shareholders -- and that is not the mission of the magazine. "Unfortunately, as a limited corporation, we do not make enough money to meet our costs. Right now we are about US$100,000 in debt," Sano admits. "Every month, we show about US$10,000-$15,000 in red ink, and I must borrow money from different sources to keep going," he sighs.

Although The Big Issue Japan accepts advertisements, on account of its image (what luxury brand would want to advertise in a magazine sold by the homeless?), plus its relatively low readership, the magazine currently attracts very few. Magazine circulation ranges from 30,000 to 40,000, depending on the season. In the torrid heat of summer, sales drop off dramatically because sellers simply cannot endure the sun for more than 30 minutes at a time.

Of course, The Big Issue Japan is not a company in which success is judged by profits. "In the past year and a half, we have given over US$1 million to the homeless community in Japan," Sano says with pride.

Sano and his business partner are not people of means, and they cannot possibly go on borrowing money forever. However, he is a determined man: "We have been doing this for about two years now. I have made a promise to myself that I would do this for at least three years. In these three years, no matter what happens, I will keep going. The challenge is to turn around our magazine next year."

The Big Issue Japan's Future
Sano isn't a man who gives up easily. He firmly believes that The Big Issue Japan does indeed have a future and can eventually break even: "We have gained a lot of experience and knowledge in the past two years that we can use to turn things around next year," he avers.

He has a three-part plan: 1) improving the sales structure to take into consideration seasonal factors and finding ways to stabilize sales throughout the year, 2) maximizing the sales potential in Tokyo, and 3) boosting advertising revenues. The company is now ramping up their profile. Despite extensive coverage by the media, the company seeks to control its own image. The first step has been to take advantage of a free advertising campaign by Ogilvy Mather Japan, in conjunction with Yokohama, to reduce homelessness in the port city south of Tokyo. The poster ad, which will be displayed in subway stations, features a homeless man in outline, first lying on the ground, next sitting upright, and finally standing as he holds up a copy of The Big Issue Japan: "This ad embodies our philosophy and mission," Sano explains. "We plan to extend the campaign to JR stations. We also hope to get a celebrity tie-up gratis. These are ways to raise our profile without spending any money."

Another step the company is taking is to increase the magazine's Japan-related content. Currently, much of the content comes from fellow members of the International Network of Street Papers (INSP). These stories tend to focus on Hollywood stars and overseas news. "We would like to feature Japanese rock bands," says Sano. "In the future, we hope to translate our articles for publication by street papers abroad."

Sano's future goals do not end simply with the financial success of the magazine: "Of course, our first priority is to keep The Big Issue Japan going and become sustainable," Sano says. "But in the future, I want to set up in conjunction with the magazine a separate company to help people who have reached the third step [renting their own apartment], with education and job training, in order for them to gain the skills to reintegrate into society."

A Social Entrepreneur?
Do you consider yourself a social entrepreneur? "I'm often asked that, especially during interviews with the media," laughs Sano, who can't conceal his pride, as I try my best to pronounce the term in Japanese. "But, for me, I don't so much think of myself as a social entrepreneur as I think of The Big Issue Japan as a social enterprise, " Sano emphasizes, visibly excited. "My definition of a social enterprise is a company that tries to challenge a social problem through private business. And yes, I'm working hard to make The Big Issue Japan one of the few influential social enterprises in Japan." JI

A Vocation Under the El
Outside the central entrance to JR Yurakucho Station, Toshio Wada, 62, holds up a copy of The Big Issue Japan. The down-at-the-heels salesman is not conspicuous, even among the passing suits and fashionable women, for there are other vendors under the elevated railway, a nether region of greasy spoons and the hard-up, a penumbra fringing the great white way of Ginza.

Wada, to hear him tell it, is blessed.

He once worked for Tokyo Shoko Research, Japan's oldest credit reporting agency. Then something happened, and he resigned. He doesn't elaborate.

Wada enjoyed his freedom until he ran out of money and found himself on the street. A Christian friend encouraged him to join the local church. He'd had no truck with Christianity, but the church provided hot meals, and, after his joining its bible study circle, a place to sleep. "When I look back," he reflects, "I think my homelessness led me to God."

He quit the church after four years in April 2004. He couldn't stand the politics or stomach behavior he felt was not "church-like." He was back on the street -- only this time he had a job, selling The Big Issue Japan.

Wada seems to have found his métier, selling a respectable 40 to 50 copies of the magazine daily. Within six months he achieved "step two," his own apartment, albeit a subsidised one that rents for 3,000 yen a month.

How close is Wada to achieving "step three," a regular job? "I'm not looking for other work," he says. "This job's a lot of fun." Pressed, he explains he enjoys "interacting with many people." Then he breaks into a broad grin, adding, "Many of my customers are pretty young women from Ginza -- that's the greatest pleasure."

He's found his calling.

-Burritt Sabin