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A Path That Leads to Heaven

Voices from Tokyo’s Blue Tent Village
Translated from the Japanese by Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda

In 2007, a homeless artist and activist named Misako Ichimura started a homeless feminist group called NORA. NORA was founded in the Blue Tent Village, a homeless community in a park in Tokyo that Ichimura had lived in since 2003. The group provides a space for unhoused women to share goods, clothing, food, and information with one another. When time allows, they also sew and sell their own sanitary pads, which provides a source of income. NORA’s work calls attention to the disproportionate violence faced by homeless women, who are subjected to various forms of harm—some invisible, some spectacular—by Japanese society. On November 16, 2020, a sixty-four-year-old homeless woman named Misako Obayashi was murdered by a middle-aged man as she slept on a bench at a bus stop in Shibuya Ward. After the trial, NORA self-published a series of zines to draw attention to Oyabashi’s murder and the sexual and domestic violence faced by homeless women.

Conditions have worsened for homeless people in Japan over the past few years. In Tokyo, as in other host cities, the 2020 Olympics were accompanied by massive sweeps of encampments, increased evictions, and heightened police surveillance that benefited business elites and punished the poorest residents of the city. The eviction of homeless communities from Meiji Park to clear space for the construction of a new national stadium was one of many such instances that anti-Olympics activists, including Ichimura herself, organized against. Meanwhile, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has led to the closing down of public spaces, such as libraries and internet cafes, which have long provided shelter for those unhoused.

In 2015, following the death of a longtime resident of the Blue Tent Village named Koyama-san, Ichimura began another project called the Koyama-san Notebook Workshop in which she organized a group of women—including shut-ins, the precariously employed, artists, foreign students, researchers, and her fellow homeless—to transcribe the notebooks that Koyama-san left behind. Although Koyama-san’s life history can only be pieced together from her writing, it is clear that she was irregularly employed, that she began living in the park sometime in the late 1990s, and that her homelessness was at least in part caused by an abusive relationship that she was in at the time.

As workshop member Naoko Fujimoto observes, Koyama-san’s notebook entries are handwritten in jagged lettering that seems to “cut through the page.” They are filled with words and expressions she appears to have invented herself, frequently making reference to imaginary places and even people (such as a figure named “Lula”). As members of the workshop have noted elsewhere, Koyama-san’s imagination was a crucial tool that aided her survival in a world that was hostile to her existence. Her notebooks offer a rare portrait of one homeless woman’s fight to maintain her dignity in the face of profoundly dehumanizing conditions.

Below are excerpts from Koyama-san’s notebooks, along with reflections from members of the workshop on her legacy, as well as the process of transcribing her work. These excerpts were first published in 2022 in etc magazine, a print journal published by a feminist bookstore in Japan called etc. Books. A book of Koyama-san’s writings, transcribed by the workshop, is forthcoming from the same publisher.

—Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda

Transcribing a Life

The woman we called Koyama-san lived in a tent village in a park in Tokyo until the end of 2013. She wrote an enormous amount. After Koyama-san passed away, Misako Ichimura, a fellow resident of the same tent village, started a workshop to transcribe her writing from the notebooks she left behind.

Many homeless people refuse to go to the hospital for fear that the park staff will remove their tent and belongings if they leave.

Carefully wrapped in layers of plastic to protect against the rain and humidity, the dozens of small notebooks that Koyama-san left behind seem as though they’ve been waiting to be read by someone. As I flip through them, I realize my intuition is probably correct. I don’t know whether to call them autofiction or a diary, but these little notebooks have captivated all of us, despite our different backgrounds.

Every month, mainly on weekend afternoons, we got together and worked on transcribing Koyama-san’s notebooks. But the contents of the notebook were so shocking, sad, painful, and funny, that we couldn’t possibly transcribe them in a mechanical way. Each of us wracked our brains trying to decipher her handwriting, occasionally pausing to relax our muscles, stiff from sitting in front of our computers for long hours, before finally stopping at the end of the day to have a chat over dinner. In this way the transcription proceeded, slowly, ever so slowly.

Kukiko Nobori


What Koyama-san Tried to Live

A small, abandoned corner of the park. This is where we, the so-called homeless, live, sleeping beneath our blue tarps and getting by on our own wits. Koyama-san also lived here, and we were on friendly enough terms to exchange a brief hello on most days.

Koyama-san seemed to enjoy being alone. One day, I passed her on her way into town. She was wearing an afro wig, a wide-brimmed hat, and slightly oversized high heels, and carried a black-patterned parasol like a walking stick. The sight of her brought me such joy, I immediately called out to her.

“Hello! Going out?”

Koyama-san smiled shyly in response, as though to say, “Yes!”

It was a meticulous piece of handiwork. Something made from nothing. Creating value without money. I suddenly felt like crying.

In the fall of 2012, people in the surrounding tents began to keep an eye on Koyama-san, who spent most of her time alone. Someone came to tell me that she had collapsed and that they were worried about her. When I went to check on her, I heard a voice from inside the tent saying, “I’ll be fine. I’m just a little tired.” I handed her some food through a gap in the tent, and in exchange she gave me what looked to be a small, handmade item tied up with sparkly buttons. I didn’t know what it was, but for a while after that, Koyama-san would occasionally give me one of these sparkly objects.

About a year later, Koyama-san stopped coming out of her tent. Every morning, I brought her hot water and food and asked her how she was feeling, but her reply was always the same: “My legs feel heavy. I’m tired. I just need to rest,” or “I desperately need a cigarette.” She didn’t seem to be doing very well. When I asked if she wanted to go to the hospital, she’d immediately reply, “No.” Many homeless people refuse to go to the hospital for fear that the park staff will remove their tent and belongings if they leave. But for Koyama-san, there seemed to be some other reason as well.

One day, when I brought her her food as usual, Koyama-san’s small hand reached through the gap in the tarp, gripping a pair of scissors. She said she wanted me to help her get changed by cutting her clothes off. I wondered if perhaps Koyama-san had resolved to give up something of her own in exchange for receiving care—hence this rather dramatic way of changing. Entrusted with this major task, I accepted the scissors from her.

I lifted the flap of the blue tarp and entered Koyama-san’s irregularly shaped tent. As I proceeded toward the back, I passed boxes of shoes and clothes, stacks of dishes, bread bags, books, and notebooks. Finally, I saw Koyama-san lying on top of a layer of those handmade sparkly objects which covered the ground entirely. It was a sight to behold. I cut her dirty clothes off with the scissors and helped her get dressed. After I finished and crawled out of the tent, I just sat there for a while, stunned. What was that world in there? After that, Koyama-san gradually began eating less and less. She seemed unable to acknowledge her own condition. She said that her mother had always told her to smile and keep her head up but that she’d failed to do so and was now being punished for it.

Since Koyama-san refused to go to the hospital, I decided to organize a group of people to take care of her. Among them was Yoshida-san, who would later become one of the members of the Koyama-san Notebook Workshop, and Setsu-san. One time, a volunteer came to help do some work around the tents and offered Koyama-san some of her favorite cigarettes. She looked happy.

To make it easier for people to help her, we made Koyama-san’s tent a bit larger, put a bed inside, and placed her sparkly objects, notebook, and a small bottle of her favorite drink next to her pillow. I was relieved when she seemed to like her new tent. However, her condition continued to deteriorate, and soon she was reduced to consuming nothing but nutritional jelly drinks.

A few days later, I visited Koyama-san’s tent and greeted her from outside as usual. There was no reply. When I quietly entered the tent, I found her still asleep. I called out to her several times, but she didn’t answer. Panicking, I finally gave in and called an ambulance. Koyama-san was carried out of the tent and taken away. I accompanied her, but the sight of her being taken away like that brought tears to my eyes.

Koyama-san was taken into the emergency room. Shortly later, a doctor appeared and confirmed that she was dead. I was taken into the examination room next door, then hounded by a group of doctors and nurses who demanded to know why I hadn’t brought Koyama-san into the hospital earlier. They criticized me, saying that I should have brought her in, even if she didn’t want to come—otherwise she had no chance of surviving. I was speechless. Tears ran down my face. I’d made a mistake, I thought. I never should have called the ambulance. This is why Koyama-san didn’t want to come to the hospital. I wanted to apologize to her immediately. I left the room to try and see her, but the police officers were already zipping her into a body bag. Oh no, I thought. How was I going to get her back to the park? These police officers had no idea what Ms. Koyama wanted, yet here they were, trying to take her away. “Don’t you dare!” I yelled, trying to stop them. But I was crying too much, and I had no strength left, and they pulled me away with little effort.

Several days passed, and the new year dawned. It was a very quiet New Year’s Day. My back still hurt from when I had crawled into Koyama-san’s tent to help her. The pain reminded me of her and made me terribly sad.

On the day Koyama-san was cremated, I went to the crematorium with some of the people who had looked after her before her death. We brought some things we’d found by Koyama-san’s bedside, with the intention of placing them in the coffin with her: those sparkly objects, several of her notebooks tied up with those sparkly string-like things. Yoshida-san said that Koyama-san had given her permission to read the notebooks, so we read them together. The sentences, written in vigorous handwriting, seemed to contain something important within them. So we decided not to burn them, so that others could read them too.

—Misako Ichimura

Holy Work

“I’m going to France today.” That was the name of the memorial exhibit we held to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Koyama-san’s death. When I got the email with the subject heading, it felt like finding a message in a bottle.

At the time, I had completely withdrawn from other people, and my mental illness was at an all-time low. Every day I felt like I was drifting aimlessly in a small boat on the ocean.

My inbox was filled with ads telling me to buy things. There were no messages from friends. I was lonely, and I had no desire to talk to anyone about it. I existed, but I had completely disappeared from society.

But the words “I’m going to France today” captivated me. This seemed to be one of many of Koyama-san’s phrases that the women had chosen for her exhibit. What an eccentric, magnificent inspiration. I decided to go.

The memorial exhibit was held in the tent village in the park in the middle of winter. I think there were at least ten people there. I prayed over Koyama-san’s grave and received a booklet containing some of her writing. “France” in Koyama-san’s parlance referred to a certain chain coffee shop that I often went to as well. In her world, going to a coffee shop must have felt like going to France.

I was surprised when the organizers also handed me some of Koyama-san’s infamous sparkly objects. Koyama-san called it her “holy work.” I heard that when Ichimura-san would bring her hot water and other things, that’s what Koyama-san would give her in return as a thank-you gift. I felt humbled to receive such a valuable item. I took it in my hand and looked at it. It was a palm-sized piece of cloth that had been twisted like a rope, wrapped with silver tape, and secured in a spiral shape. The silver tape was made of those thin strips of aluminum sheet fibers used to protect tents from the cold. It was a meticulous piece of handiwork. Something made from nothing. Creating value without money. I suddenly felt like crying. Each visitor to the memorial exhibit held one of these “sparklies” in their hand. Like a twinkling star that had fallen from the sky into their palms for the very first time.

—Haru Nagano

From Koyama-san’s Notebooks

November 2, 1991
I don’t want to work. Work just doesn’t mesh well with me. But I can’t tell anyone about it. In my own way, I’ve lived my life to the fullest.

I’m back in this city I’ve been away from for the past twelve years, only now without any of my natural blessings, and unless I pray to heaven that I can work and earn enough cash to pay for it, I can’t even afford to take a nap in my room for an hour, not even on my day off. Even if I go out, there’s nowhere to rest, and anything that might help ease my struggle costs time or money.

Everything of value to me is becoming worthless, is being washed away.

1991 [No notation of day or month]
Emotional fluctuation. The very earth on which people live is disappearing, and the path of each solitary life lived without the light of family, of men and women, is littered with phrases like, Keep moving forward! Work! Earn money! Be independent! But I am afraid to talk openly with people. In these tension-filled days, when even the words I speak to myself become a silent melody, I feel the sorrow of humanity’s soul carried along by an unnatural, frenzied energy.

Ever since I was born and began to make my way in the world, my mind has worked ceaselessly, without rest. It has endured anguish, cried, laughed, talked, learned, overcome a fear of life, the contradictions of my own ideals. But this kind of wisdom creates a barrier between myself and others that I simply don’t have the energy to explain. These forty-one years have felt like being carried away on a torrent of water.

February 3, 2001
I want to go to France. I want to look at Japan from the vantage point of the West. Sometimes when my emotions get the better of me, I leave my place to look for a place to relax, stop into a coffee shop to calm my spirit. Sometimes I get so frustrated I want to yell, can’t a woman get a measly 10,000 yen around here? But thanks to this hundred yen, I can sit here, calm down, and think about my next move.

February 22, 2001
As long as I exist, I will worship Zeus, Zeus, Zeus, and the gods of art, literature, and music, maintain my burning passion for the arts, but when they tell me my time is limited, that I am a fool . . . when they yell at me, whose dime are you eating on, get to work you lazy ass, bring in some money for a change, my soul is wounded, I receive a terrible shock. Try as I might, I can’t seem to pursue the two or three things I really want.

Human freedom. I want to release my soul in its true form, so I can stretch out, feel at ease.

As long as time allows, I want to keep being myself. I have lost the ability to walk. I am trying to clear the blockage in this heart of mine. A silent February is coming to an end.

March 18, 2001
Today I found a yellow umbrella in the garbage dump in the park. It saved me from getting wet. Thank you, umbrella! It was the lone bright spot in my day.

March 26, 2001
The earth is damp from last night’s rain, and the green of the young grass is even more vivid than before.

I was finally going to relax and just lay in bed all day, but when I woke up just after noon, my stomach suddenly began to hurt, and I called out in pain. Shut up, you’re depressed, I don’t trust anything you say . . . I can’t bear to cave in to someone like this, so I leap to my feet and do a loop around the plaza in the park. The spring breeze is strong, the fountain in the park is flowing like an avalanche of tears. The park is nearly deserted. I let the afternoon light wash over me and shake my proud, lonely spirit awake so I can leave these cruel voices behind as soon as possible. I take a sip of whiskey from a small bottle. It’s a fifteen-year whiskey that I’ve tried to stretch for the past five days. It was 315 yen—cheap but interesting. I feel the tension in my body melt away.

The sakura seem like they’ll scatter early this year. The leaves will probably be rustling for a while, until they bear new fruit. Around three o’clock, I silently step outside to avoid my feelings getting hurt. My suitcase feels twice as heavy as usual. The city is quiet after the weekend. I sit in my usual place and feel at ease. When I leave the physical world and enter my own for a brief time, I pretend like I’m taking a quick trip to France, and a burst of laughter comes back to me.

I don’t like this damp feeling in my soul. And I hate fighting most of all. When I’m told over and over that I’m a useless idiot with no more brains than a konjac, the days and months pass by so slowly, and I feel fed up. I’ve written too much this time.

Soon I might not even be able to maintain my usual habits. But I’ll search for some new pleasure that I can look forward to. Let me get through this delicate month of April so that some new image can develop in me along with the spring leaves in May.

I have been reading and writing since I was twenty-five years old, and if I can finish about six notebooks every two months in this environment, that’s enough for me. Surely everyone who has encouraged me and supported me will be happy for me, even if I have no income or recognition from the rest of the world. I’m happy, too, that today I could write, read, walk . . . see a lovely landscape, listen to beautiful music.

April 7, 2001
Since May 3, 1997, I’ve been living in the park, but I can’t imagine surviving the cold winters here, or life in a tent in general. For nearly forty years, I didn’t so much as sit on a single patch of grass, but how much more complex my inner life has become from living in nature, through rainy days, stormy days, snowy days, even alongside people I fear. I’m free and, at the same time, unfree.

When I think about how I spend upwards of four to five hours outside each day, and sometimes more than twenty hours a day wrapped in this shabby plastic tarp, I’m struck by my own existence, and how strange it is that I can move, eat, drink, walk at all.

And yet, I still didn’t want to go back to my actual human relationships. In this place is a path that leads to heaven.

May 8, 2001
A little past six o’clock, I go out by myself. I can’t very well go all the way to Aoyama Roku-cho-me just to get a bento. I don’t want to be in this darkness anymore. I want to go to a cafe. I want to write something. I want to sit in a chair and recover my strength. Suddenly I run outside. This 1,200 yen just isn’t going to cut it anymore. I run on pure instinct. This long-held habit of mine will never cure itself as long as I have time and money. When I think of the time when my habits were interrupted, I can hardly stand it.

I happened to find a hundred yen on the ground near the station. Yay! Inside, I shout for happiness.

An eighty-yen cup of coffee can tide me over for two or three hours at night. Thank you, coffee! When I’m sitting down in a chair, I don’t feel pain.

I forget this notebook, this music, this unbearable sadness.

June 12, 2001
Just as I’m headed into town, I find a hundred yen on the ground. I’m happy.

Now I don’t have to break my 1,000-yen bill to pay for the coffee and pack of cigarettes that will help me pass the evening.

I pop into the coffee shop a little early. My usual seat is open.

At times like these, I wonder why I’ve even bothered to stay alive all this time, and I reread the eight notebooks I’ve been writing in up until April. I haven’t been able to keep to a schedule, but I think I’ve been sustained by a strange, meager grace. It’s been a harrowing six months of my life, this 2001! As long as it continues, I’ll hold fast to hope.

July 3, 2001
At six o’clock in the evening, I head into town a little on the early side. I’ll stretch this change as far as it’ll go today for my own benefit . . .

I hear music filled with sunshine.

It takes me back. I listened to this beautiful song a lot when I was a child, and it still strikes my soul whenever I hear it, makes a bright hope glitter inside me.

For a brief moment, my disconnected thoughts allow me to experience a spirit of joy as I sit in my “sun seat.” The thought-dense hours of the night are approaching. The daily rhythms of my life change, but the central, inner life remains the same. I open up a new notebook for the first time in ten years, begin to write, and see the familiar flow of letters on the page. It’s almost like a recursive diary.

I wish I could leave behind the pain and anxiety that sometimes assail me, so that I could keep a little hope alive. In my natural forest sleep, I dream that my mother and sister made me grilled chicken and peppers, and when I wake, my hunger is softened. But there still isn’t enough food to get through the summer.

I think I’ll walk slowly, gracefully, so as not to strain myself with too much physical labor. Surely one of these days, some small allowance will come my way. I’ll spend this third day of July keeping my heart full of sunshine.

September 27, 2002
Around six o’clock, after it gets dark, I combine nine different vegetables, then salt and stew them. I drink three glasses of watered-down alcohol, relax as I listen to the sound of the rain, and savor the flavors of the different vegetables. Then I stop my usual running around and have a little coffee and bread. At eight o’clock, this lonely, still early hour, I lay down, clear my mind, and fall asleep.

As I was getting ready to go on a leisurely walk, carrying some food to my tent and hauling some water, I spotted a lone crow looking up at the sky above the treetops. A round rice cracker fell on the ground nearby. The crow grabbed it in its beak and flew away happily. There was no one around, and now, not a bird in sight either—it was the first time I’d witnessed such a strange scene.

February 9, 2003
Around five o’clock, I headed into town. I wanted a bag. On the corner of Takeshita-dori, I saw a trash can and, in it, a bag that had the word Paris written on it. I picked it up, and underneath it was what looked to be a pair of custom-made high heels. I was happy about this encounter. I’d had a pair of Italian boots, but they’d gotten moldy from the rain, and I didn’t have a single pair anymore. The shoes were size L. My feet are big, so it’s always difficult for me to find shoes that fit right. These shoes are a dream. How fun it would be to wear these and go dancing, or go for a long, leisurely walk. They would probably look nice with a dress like one of those curly-haired Western girls might wear.

October 10, 2003
Once again, my mind turns to a room of illusions. A flash of a phantom figure standing, smiling.

Wearing a wine-colored blouse, a striped, fresh suit with side vents.

Lula, busily going about their work, has come back to me, and when I see them standing before me, I am enveloped in a bright light, and suddenly feel like a different person.

A brief moment in the night when joy and happiness envelop everything.

I fall asleep late in the night, listening to the sound of rain.

December 29, 2003
A miserable, lethargic afternoon. I read three of my notebooks from the fall of 2001. I’ve been living in poverty for over two years now, and it’s getting worse all the time. I can’t bear to live like this anymore. How long will I have to endure this? My hopes and dreams fade as I mutter, no, and sink into a state of disillusionment. Time chugs along, minute by minute. I can’t even muster the energy to get myself ready to go out. I drink some lukewarm coffee and eat a biscuit, finish reading my journal, and by then it’s already three o’clock. The sky to the south is awash in purple. I sit very still, waiting for my emotions to subside. I can’t help but resent the injustice of the cruel severity imposed on each human being. I don’t want to think about anything anymore—I grow even more silent, and sink into my innermost depths.

September 6, 2004
September 6th. I wake up out of sorts to a lonely table. Once again, I head into town to replenish the things I need. The rest I took yesterday makes me move slower today. I walk for about two hours, and just when I’m about to give up, I find a little something to eat and drink—it’s not a lot, but it’s better than nothing. I return home a little early, do my laundry, haul the water.

Night falls, and suddenly I can’t stand being in Japan anymore. It’s a little early, but I decide to get away for a week, to that apartment in France I made up in my mind. I want to escape the pressures of poverty, of Japan.

I’m awake till dawn, worrying, thinking, suffocating.

October 10, 2004
I raise my glass of beer to a modest meal. I dance the jitterbug to a slow jazz song, awaken the liveliness of my heart. I take a shower. It’s October, but it feels like the rainy season all over again. In only two more days, I’ll have lived fifty-five years.

I’m setting out on a new journey. With Lula beside me, bright and noble, the 11th at last comes to an end.

As I face tomorrow, I vow to myself never to forget the feeling of being enveloped in light, as though I’d ascended to heaven. I forget how cold I feel in reality, and sleep for eight hours straight.