How Religion Is Providing New Support in the Fight Against Poverty

Public Relations Office        May 30, 2017

Tatsuya SHIRAHASE, Associate Professor, School of Sociology

Tatsuya SHIRAHASE, Associate Professor, School of Sociology

Born in 1979. Graduate of the Kwansei Gakuin University School of Sociology. Completed the Kwansei Gakuin University Graduate School of Sociology doctoral program coursework without degree. Doctorate (Sociology). Specializes in welfare sociology, sociology of religion and poverty issues. Served as a Research Fellow at the Osaka City University Urban Research Plaza GCOE prior to becoming an Assistant Professor in the School of Sociology at Kwansei Gakuin University. Appointed to Associate Professorship in April 2015. Co-author and editor of Kamagasaki-no-Susume [Encouragement for Kamagasaki] (RAKUHOKU-Publications, 2011).

School of Sociology Associate Professor Tatsuya Shirahase has made the Airin District of Osaka his primary focus as he studies the problem of homelessness. As the gap between the rich and the poor widens in society, it exacerbates poverty among the young, fostering a growing social problem. Professor Shirahase is examining Japanese society as it looks from those places where poverty is the reality. He is taking his research to the front lines.

Tatsuya SHIRAHASE, Associate Professor, School of Sociology

Professor Shirahase is studying what sorts of safety nets are needed for the homeless and others who often find themselves cut loose from public help. In this context, he has spent the past dozen years or so performing field research in the Airin (also known as Kamagasaki) District of Osaka, which is colloquially referred to as “Day Laborer Town,” studying the severe homelessness which is found there. For a great many years Christian groups virtually unknown to the general public have demonstrated a deep concern for the homeless in this area, and this has provided Shirahase with a unique window into “How Religious Groups Are Helping the Homeless.” This past spring he compiled his research in to a book entitled Shukyo no Shakaikoken wo Toinaosu: Homuresu-shien no Genba kara [Reexamining How Religion Contributes to Society: Helping the Homeless Face-to-Face].

Shirahase’s first encounter with homelessness was after his high school graduation while he was attending a preparatory school in Nara to get ready for university entrance examinations. Combined with the shock of actually seeing homelessness with his own eyes for the first time was also the awareness that churches and other groups were helping these people.

Why did these religious groups continue to help the homeless year after year when society itself ignored them? Wanting to understand the reason for this, as a graduate student Shirahase started regularly visiting Airin District at night, helping with the distribution of boiled rice and studying those who were helping as well as those being helped.

He learned about the different approaches that different religious groups took. For example some emphasized missionary work while others focused chiefly on humanitarian aid. Similarly, amongst those who received help there were different responses. Some cared only about the help they were receiving and had no interest whatsoever in the religion helping them. Others converted to the faith of those helping them and became regular church attendees.

Listening to the stories of the people which he encountered, Shirahase discovered that a great many of Japan’s homeless were socially marginalized, unmarried and elderly people who were living on the street not so much because they were unemployed but because they were discriminated against or had no family to turn to.

For example, Shirahase points out that it is quite common for those who are homeless in the Philippines to be married with children, despite the fact that they have no physical home. In these cases, “homeless” does not equal “broken family.” In Japan, however, the homeless are those who fall outside the accepted norms of society, existing in a state of social isolation. Shirahase tends to believe that the homeless in Japan accept the help of churches and other such groups because, to these marginalized people, these groups become a kind of “quasi-family.”

In recent years, the Great East Japan Earthquake and other disaster relief situations have put a spotlight on the volunteer work of religious groups and individuals. Insights into how to address not only homelessness but a variety of other social problems, such as death amongst those who are socially isolated and social alienation amongst foreigners living in Japan, are likely to be found in the aid work which churches and other religious groups and organizations provide. Shirahase eagerly hopes that by understanding how such groups and organizations carry out their work, it will help to reveal gaps in Japan’s current social welfare system, for example, and suggest new ways that society can offer support. Professor Shirahase has a new book scheduled to be published next year which summarizes the history of Airin District. Continued field study of Airin District offers a crucial perspective on the complexity of factors which give rise to homelessness as well as how society can more deeply address this complicated issue.

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