JAPAN: Magazine sold by homeless spreads

An Osaka-based magazine that helps homeless people earn money by selling the publication on the street is spreading to other cities

The Japan Times
Thursday, December 11, 2003

By Hiroshi Matsubara

An Osaka-based magazine that helps homeless people earn money by selling the publication on the street is spreading to other cities.

Shoji Sano, 61, who publishes Big Issue Japan, said citizens' groups in Sapporo, Nagoya and Kitakyushu have contacted him about introducing the magazine in their areas.

"Inquiries coming from other cities are very encouraging," Sano said. "The homeless problem is a labor problem, in essence, and we believe a private-sector effort to create jobs is the only way to solve the problem."

Last week, homeless vendors started selling Big Issue Japan on the streets in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo.

"I hope the nationwide success of the magazine will encourage more people to start businesses to support homeless people," he said.

In the Kansai region, the first two editions sold more than 40,000 copies each. The third edition of the 32-page color magazine recently hit the streets.

Homeless people registered as vendors earn 110 yen for each 220 yen copy sold.

Big Issue was first launched as a monthly magazine in London in 1991 to enable the homeless to earn an income and regain their self-esteem. It became a weekly publication there in 1993.

Sano and other activists in Osaka started up Big Issue Japan after the massive success of its British namesake. Japan was the 25th country to launch a version of the magazine, 26 million copies of which are sold yearly worldwide.

The magazine covers a wide range of topics and interviews, such as with musicians R.E.M. and Bjork, and reports on social problems in Japan, including the resurgence of HIV and the tough job market for young people.

The magazine exceeded the break-even mark of 40,000 copies for each of its first two issues and turned a profit, prompting the operators to consider semimonthly press runs beginning early next year.

They hope it will eventually become a weekly, like its predecessors overseas.

More than 130 people are registered vendors, selling an average of 32 copies a day in Osaka. Sano said the average of 3,500 yen they make on a daily basis allows them to have three meals a day and to sleep at inns for day laborers.

On Monday, 10 homeless people joined a group of vendors in the Ueno district of Tokyo. Tokyo has 37 registered vendors working outside JR Shinjuku, Ikebukuro and Ueno stations.

Each vendor in Tokyo sells an average of 40 copies a day. Sano said this is the minimum required to ensure they can have a decent meal and a place to stay, given the high cost of living in the capital.

Masahiko Makita, 61, began hawking the magazine in front of Ueno Station on Dec. 4 and sells more than 50 a day on average. Station officials and local shopkeepers have told him to move several times.

"At first, it was impossible for me to look at the faces of (prospective) customers, let alone sell (the magazine) to them," he said. "But after selling many copies, I started to enjoy standing there, feeling I was a part of something larger."