While completing a research project on cultural representations of catastrophe, I came across a photograph that depicted the meaning of absence. The aerial image showed the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami and earthquake in the Tohoku region of Japan. Rikuzentakata – a town populated by 23,000 in 2010 – was a void, all the lines of the town broken beyond recognition.

Other photographs, showing before and after images, also depicted absence in the wake of disaster. The absence of houses, of trees, of living beings. The enormity of the catastrophe made it difficult to imagine the event, and I could not populate the void with the life that it must have once contained.

I travelled to Tokyo, for an academic conference, with the images of disaster stowed away in my mind. I went with the hope of finding the origin of these images, or a kind of equivalence, even though it had been years since the catastrophe, and even though Tokyo is over 600 kilometres away from the region of the tsunami.


Unstable grounds and seismic threats physically and symbolically shape Japan, which Gregory Clancey calls “the earthquake nation”. Since the mid-nineteenth century, more than 40 large-scale earthquakes and 500 major fires have struck Japan. Tokyo has a catalogue of disasters, including the great earthquake and tsunami of 1855, which destroyed most of Edo, killing more than 7,000, with ensuing fires that claimed 100,000 lives; and the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which destroyed 44% of the land in the Kanto region, leading to over 100,000 deaths and causing a tsunami that devastated Tokyo and other cities around Sagami Bay. The city has endured numerous cycles of destruction and reconstruction, houses of paper and wood built and rebuilt, subjected to tectonic shaking, burning, and flooding.

As a child, the filmmaker Akira Kurosawa survived the Great Kanto Earthquake. In his autobiography, he writes of the roof tiles that “suddenly danced and shook and slipped off,” and the “burned landscape” that resembled “a red desert” in which “every manner of death possible to human beings [was] displayed by corpses.” He stood transfixed by the sight.

Sometimes it is difficult to look away from disaster.


In the afternoons after the conference panels ended, I explored Tokyo. I have always been a reliable reader of maps, a navigator of terrae incognitae. But Tokyo – with its labyrinthine network of paths teeming with possibilities, its intersections, one-way streets, overlapping walkways – challenged my ability to read maps.

I got lost on one of my walks, and found myself in an open space, which I later learned to be Yoyogi Park. As I wandered around, I came across a small group of tents, built of blue tarpaulin, cardboard and other found pieces, carefully constructed to protect the inhabitants from the elements. Many of the tents had pitched roofs, giving the structures the semblance of little houses. Umbrellas had been repurposed as tent pegs, or used as awnings outside the small doorways covered with roped-down flaps. Thin pieces of fabric tied to trees formed a kind of canopy that cast a shadow on the tents. Rows of shoes sat on cardboard boxes outside, signally the demarcation of inside and outside – the tradition of genkan – of private and public, clean and unclean. Laundry lines stretched between trees, and many potted plants sat by the entrances on metal shelves made of twisted wires. One house had a wooden frame around the door, and bonsai plants on a handmade shelf. Some tents had collections of rocks arranged ornamentally by the doorway, or pictures hanging on the tree outside. There were also lawn chairs around what resembled a communal hearth, and a small vegetable garden in one corner. Some of the tents were dimly lit from within. These structures, I later learned, formed one of the homeless communities, or tent villages, in Tokyo.

The design details, and the care with which the tents were maintained, astounded me. I wish I could have spoken to the inhabitants, but knowing no Japanese, I could only observe in silence.

In a city of over thirteen million people, there are approximately 5000-6000 displaced persons who are sleeping rough in Tokyo – a modest number, compared to other metropolitan centres. Hidden in park corners or in train stations after the commuter rush, the homeless are shielded from the touristic gaze and do not fit the image of Tokyo as a place of technological innovation and gleaming towers.

While it is possible to speak of the aesthetics of the tent village, of the beauty of those thoughtfully designed structures, their evocation of wabi-sabi, these temporary dwellings redefine the meaning of home.

As I found my way out of Yoyogi park, I tried to navigate the difficult terrain of questions about how we live and sleep in cities. How can we, who are sheltered, imagine the shelterlessness of others? How do we bridge the vast distance that separates the passers-by on the sidewalk from those lying against the wall? How do we, who are safe at this moment, understand the possibility of disaster?


“The knell has sounded for the dwelling in its old sense, dwelling in which security prevailed.” – Walter Benjamin.

Dwelling. To dwell. From the Old English word dwellan, which means “to lead astray, hinder, delay”. Later, the word became associated with the state of abiding, or continuing for a time, in a particular place, state or condition. A dwelling, then, is a space between two different states of being, a place of dallying, of pausing in thought.

Tokyo is known for its vertiginousness, its dizzying array of bars, restaurants, shops, and love hotels one can visit in the middle of the night. On the other side of that restlessness, there is the desire for rest, for undisturbed repose.

But in a metropolis where space is scarce, ideas about home and rest are constantly shifting. In a film series on the Guardian Cities website, I learned of a unique type of home in Tokyo, the manga kissa, or manga cafes – arcade-like spaces consisting of tiny cubicles enclosed by low plastic walls, with single beds and small desks, where guests have access to the internet, as well as a shower and meals, for a reasonably low price. For those who do not want to commute home or cannot afford rent, the manga kissa are ideal. A makeshift home. “A home for hours”. But it is also a space in which the self is isolated, cocooned inside an enclosure in which the only contact with the outside world is mediated by a screen. The British Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale celebrated the design of these spaces as the future of urban living. But these spaces also speak of impermanence, of the fatigued body – the bodies of the so-called cyber-homeless or net-café refugees – crammed in spaces that do not permit prolonged resting. It is fascinating how in the tiny cubicles of a manga kissa, the inhabitants might escape into the virtual world of gaming, where space is potentially infinite, expanding outward beyond the plastic frame of the hourly-rate shelter.

A transient home – this is something the traveller understands. Hotel rooms, hostels, capsules, foreign beds have something in common: they temporarily protect the occupant from the precarious city outside. Walls are important, the vertical planks that offer the feeling of being protected on all sides. The instinct to create a shell for reposing and hiding is nearly universal. Animals burrow, make holes in the earth, in furniture, in boxes; birds make nests out of twigs, feathers, leaves, and found objects. We watch animals and learn much about ourselves, about our instinct for building four walls to contain our possessions and our bodies.


In Tohoku, the debris was cleared soon after the tsunami , and wreckage piled into neat rows alongside the roads. Temporary buildings – metallic structures built of former shipping containers, and huts built of salvaged wood – housed the approximately 80,000 people who were displaced by the disaster . An additional 160,000 evacuees fled the radiation in Fukushima. As of March 2017, six years after the disaster, there were roughly 36,000 people still residing in temporary housing; only 77% of planned replacement housing had been completed in the Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures.

Before the temporary shelters, there were beds in gymnasiums, separated by curtains made of bed sheets or towels; even after the catastrophe, people continued to believe in the importance of walls, even if it were only a piece of fabric. The important thing was to have walls, however flimsy, that gave the sensation of being protected inside a shell, in spite of the knowledge that walls collapse when the earth begins to shake.


During my stay in Tokyo, I continued doing research, and looked at images of the Fukushima disaster, photos of evacuated towns, of bodies of water contaminated by the dark leakage, of the thousands displaced by disaster. One image stood out, that of a dishevelled man putting on a biohazard suit. Next to him, there was a small cardboard box, with a collection of items: A neatly folded blanket, a few books, a metal lunch box, a water bottle. The box was nestled inside another cardboard box, this one large enough for a person. The larger box was the man’s home, one of the makeshift dwellings in the “box cities” that pop up nightly in subway stations. As Brian Sinclair outlines in his study of Japan’s transient shelters, these cardboard boxes, though flimsy, offer shelter and provide a space for privacy and personal rituals.

According to the caption underneath the photo, the homeless man in the biohazard suit was paid to clean up the nuclear waste that no one else wanted to clean.

Looking at the photo, I pondered the fundamental differences between the homeless and the survivors displaced by disaster. Although the causes for homelessness and catastrophe are different and complex, I could not help but see a link between the two. If the tsunami survivors had been victimized by unforeseen natural forces, are the unsheltered the victims of a different sort of disaster?


On the third day of the conference, I skipped a few panels and travelled to the Odaiba district in Tokyo. I visited the House Vision exhibition, featuring temporary pavilions designed by some of Japan’s leading architects. There were exquisite interiors infused with the intoxicating fragrance of cedars; digitally controlled walls that responded to human touch; a multi-layered building that contained within it the complexity of the palimpsestic city. Japanese culture has always struck me as one in which a particular ideal of home is upheld – clean, well-organized, minimalist, with luminous spaces, wooden surfaces, and a blend of the traditional and the modern.

The pavilions at the House Vision exhibition, each like evocative works of art, ironically reminded me of the tent village and the cardboard home. Each spoke of the desire for enclosure, however small, a space that contained the accoutrements of a home, a place for dwelling, for pausing. Even when living under eaves or in doorways, it is important to retain the rituals, the dignity, and the tangible mementoes – the potted plants, the pictures, the well-thumbed books – that speak of a life. It is home as described by Gaston Bachelard, a nest for daydreams and memories. “Home sneaks in everywhere”, as Rebecca Solnit writes, even though the physical space might be lost, even though it was probably in the process of ruin from the start.

But even though the temporary dwellings can be beautiful, and might feature design details – the use of wood, the clear boundary between inside and outside, the presence of greenery – transient shelters do not constitute a fixed address. The inhabitants still dream of stability, of not having to pack up at a moment’s notice, of being able to declare, “Here I will stay.”

In 2006, Yoji Yamauchi, who had been homeless since 1998, petitioned the district court of Osaka to have his tent declared as a permanent address. Without a fixed address, he could not access the public health insurance system nor register as a voter. Together with non-profit associations, Yamauchi fought against the violation of Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which “recognize[s] the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.” In January 2007, Yamauchi won his case against the district court. In their ruling, the court defined a home address as “the centre of that individual’s entire life and that which has the deepest relationship with that individual’s life.” But the city appealed the ruling, on the grounds that a tent, easily removable and built of flimsy material, does not meet the standards of a residence by “conventional wisdom”. The Osaka High Court ruled in favour of the city. Yamauchi’s tent in the park reverted back to being a transient shelter.


In the cult classic Japanese movie, Tampopo, there is a homeless community, where the homeless all have refined culinary tastes, with a master chef living among them, offering the community gastronomic delights in an almost idyllic urban park they call home. This is a fantasy of homelessness as freedom from societal constraints; homelessness conflated with quirkiness and eccentricity of character. And more importantly, it is the public’s fantasy of the homeless as being perpetually cheerful, living in their own little paradise, not in need of anyone’s help or sympathy.


On the far side of Yoyogi Park is the Shinto shrine Meiji Jingu, and on my last visit to the park, I walked from the tent village to the shrine. At Meiji Jingu, there are prayers written on ema boards, wooden boards shaped like tiny houses with pitched roofs, bearing messages and prayers for something lasting in a world of flux.

The most common were messages of love: “I wish my family happiness in whatever they do”; “Please let me get into the same university as she does, so we can be together”; “Thank you for all these incredible years together – may we have many, many more.”

A little girl, aged six, wrote “Every Monday, take all my stars”. Another child  drew a little house and scrawled on the board, “When I grow up I want to live in a gingerbread candy house.”

And on an ema board hidden beneath others, I found a prayer, written in large, hesitant script: “I wish to have a home.”


On my final evening in Tokyo, I received two pieces of news, which I read in the box-like capsule that was my hotel room. I had not checked my emails for a few days, so the messages had been sitting there in the inbox. One email informed me that I had failed to get a postdoctoral fellowship, which signalled my last attempt to gain entry into academia, the world of reading and thinking that had once provided a metaphoric home. Another was from my landlord, informing me that the building will soon undergo renovations, which would increase the rent dramatically, and for which I needed to vacate the property within one month.


“Home is no longer a dwelling but the untold story of a life being lived.” – John Berger

Home is the cardboard box to which you return. That was what I learned in email correspondences with a friend in the UK who once lived on the streets. Shelterlessness is a myth, for there is always shelter, even if it is impermanent and will never belong to you. A bus stop with a roof; a doorway; an enclosure in the park.

What is the defence against precariousness, I asked, against not having a room of one’s own, not having anywhere to go?

Whatever you have is your shelter, came the reply. “Home is a black leather jacket fitting tightly to my brain”, that was the line my friend recited to himself while sleeping in a small cement alcove, a line from “Death and Night and Blood” by the Stranglers.

Time slows down when one watches passers-by on their way home, when one observes the grey skies closely to make sure one has enough time to cover the cardboard shelter with nylon sheets. One counts the pennies, the number of footfalls that hurry past, the hours between meals, and the thirty minutes of heating on public transit. Sometimes nothing can alleviate the despair that comes from having nowhere to go. Sometimes, everything is pain, the soiled blanket that turned from pink to grey; the damp cardboard beneath; the children who stare and the adults who look away. Other times, the memory of being warm creates a protective layer. And the dream of one day having somewhere to return to builds a kind of metaphoric shelter. The self takes refuge inside the dream.


I travelled back to my hometown, Vancouver, where permanent shelter still eludes me. Vancouver has approximately  2181 homeless individuals (according to a 2018 report published by Metro Vancouver). Deregulation, speculative and predatory investments, and rezoning have driven many either out of the city or onto the streets. In an age when instability is increasingly the norm, when thousands cross seas and borders in the hope of rebuilding a home, displacement is no longer a disaster viewed from afar. And like Tokyo, Vancouver is a city threatened by catastrophe, “the really big one”, which, according to experts, is lying in wait in the Cascadia subduction zone.

During my month of packing and house-hunting, I took long walks in the city and sought the equivalent of the tent village I saw in Tokyo.

I walked from the east side of the city to the west and tried to trace the line of urban change. One day, while walking in downtown eastside, in a downpour, I saw a lone figure sitting in the torrential rain under an umbrella with holes. He was completely immobile, even as the rain poured down his face. He gazed out across the empty square filled with mud and puddles, though I could not tell what he was looking at. Perhaps he was looking at the man who was pushing a cart full of garbage across the intersection, or the woman who was huddled against the wall of an abandoned building, rocking back and forth, slowly.

On the east end of Hastings Street, there were many cardboard structures, crammed in doorways or pushed up against buildings. These cardboard homes are dilapidated, exposed to the elements, as if the inhabitants wished to construct a signifier of their plight. There were also those who slept in shopping carts or on discarded mattresses. During the day, the homeless sold counterfeit luxury goods and random collection of items for a paltry sum. A few blocks west, trendy cafes lined the sidewalks, alongside shops selling handcrafted leather bags and clothing boutiques that carry $99 t-shirts. Fittingly, in front of a store selling expensive Scandinavian furniture, the displaced made beds outside the windows, gazing in at the luxury interiors.

I kept walking west, then south, across False Creek, all the way to the affluent districts of Kitsilano and Point Grey. Here I admired stunning structures that resembled the fairy tale houses I dreamt of as a child, with sculptural pieces of furniture, expensive art on the walls, and luminous, airy spaces. I have always dreamed of housing. At a young age, I built Lego houses using plastic blocks of red, yellow and blue, elaborate structures with multiple storeys, swimming pools and gardens, and little nooks where the small plastic figurines led interesting lives.

In the prosperous neighbourhoods, with neat rows of autumnal trees, lush gardens partially concealed by tall hedges, I dreamt of moving up from a Lego house to a real house. To admire a house from the outside is to imagine a particular life, not a trouble-free life, but at least one in which the self is sheltered and protected. These houses bear the sign “This is mine”, which the owners – wherever they might be in the world – proclaim to the world.

Elsewhere in the city, Vancouverites protested against the government’s plan to build temporary modular housing for the homeless. Protest signs read “Junkies out”, “Right Idea, Wrong Location”, “Not in Our Neighborhood”. The protesters spoke of unfairness, of the importance of community, of the children who would be traumatized by the crime, drug use and mental illness that the protesters  assumed were invariably associated with homelessness. Aside from these anxieties, there were concerns about property value.


In the central branch of the Vancouver public library, where I do most of my writing, there is a small community of the homeless who find temporary shelter in the armchairs, among the book stacks, and at the computer stations.

On most days, a middle-aged Asian woman arrives promptly when the library opens, and occupies the same desk, on the fifth floor, with a view of the grey cityscape outside. She has a strict routine. First, she places her plastic bags – some seven or eight, all maintained neatly – in one corner, then she begins wiping the two adjoining desks carefully, going over all the corners and sides. She moves on to the legs of the desks and the chairs and lights, until the entire area is dust-free and newly cleaned. She then covers the chair and the desks with fresh newspaper, and places her bags on the two desks, leaving a tiny space for her to rest her head. When she is awake, she spends most of the time looking outside the window, observing the streets below. Once a day, she gets a cup of coffee from Starbucks. Near library closing time, she folds the newspaper and carefully packs everything into the plastic bags. I do not know where she goes. Perhaps the library is home, and at night, she is out in the city, as we are in the day.

This image of the woman at the desk is for me the equivalent of the tent village I saw in Yoyogi Park, over 7000 kilometres away. Her plastic bags and newly cleaned desks resemble the carefully built tents and the neat cardboard box packed with a few belongings. Everything else is gone, but this is mine; this, I keep clean.


According to the brutal rules of the property market, nothing is yours unless you paid for it, your name stamped on a legal document that delineates the boundaries of rights and power. The words of the lawyer in “Bartleby, the Scrivener” echo in my head: “What earthly right have you to stay here? Do you pay any rent? Do you pay any taxes? Or is this property yours?”

Henri Lefebvre, in his seminal essay “The Right to the City”, speaks of the right to “habitat and to inhabit”, to live one’s life in the city, and to cultivate a sense of belonging. The new politics of space in urban centres means that many who are in the city are excluded, rendered placeless because of circumstances, and relegated to the margins even when they are standing in the heart of the city. Belonging should not be a question of possession or wealth. Belonging is a matter of participation, of weaving the urban fabric, of making and remaking the city. The right to the city is the right to be recognized as a being deserving of space, the right to return to warmth, the right to carve out a space and say, “I am home”.


“Disaster” has its roots in the French word désastré, which was in turn derived from the Italian dis-astrato, signalling the state of being abandoned by the protective stars (literally “de-starred”). So to be in disaster is to be left to one’s miserable fate, to be subject to divine forces that are ultimately responsible for earthly calamities.

However, following the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the idea of disaster willed by God or cosmic agencies was replaced by one of “human-engineered calamity”, to quote MarieHélène Huet. According to the modern discourse on disaster, it is no longer possible to blame the sun, the moon, and the stars. Instead, humans are capable of manufacturing great hazards that harm the very communities that civilization has worked so hard to construct.

Some disaster sociologists claim that there are no natural disasters, only human-made or anthropogenic disasters. Even if natural forces initially caused a disaster, human systems – physical, cultural, and political – can channel or amplify the calamities. The Japanese understood this and engineered buildings that were seismically proofed. But Fukushima came along and demonstrated the catastrophic effect of human error.


I cannot look away from the photographs of the tsunami, those images of absence, nor can I stop picturing the tent village in my mind. Both speak of disaster, just different in kind. I am terrified, terrified of not having anywhere to which I could return at the end of the day, terrified of the cold, the rain, the hunger, terrified of being unmoored, engulfed by disaster, then spit out onto the debris. But no photograph will ever suffice, and one who has never lost a home cannot imagine the spaces that were so lovingly put together, the sitting rooms where families gathered, the gardens where children took their first steps, all taken away. I, or, rather, “we” – who have never experienced disasters of the same magnitude – do not really get it. We cannot imagine what is it like to lose the spaces that give meaning, we do not know how cold it gets on the streets in the winter, exposed to the wind and snow, having only sidewalk ventilation grates as a source of warmth. Cannot imagine, cannot understand.


“It is the emotion of moments defended by the camera’s memory.” – Teju Cole

In the heart of the city, many luxury condominium units remain dark in the evening, uninhabited, empty signifiers of capital. From afar, it looks as if there are many voids punctuating the cityscape.

These voids remind me of the Japanese concept of ma, a word that is difficult to translate. Emptiness, silence, distance, blankness, the interval between things, between persons, between the rising and the setting of the sun. With deep roots in Japanese aesthetic, ma is both temporal and spatial, the interstice filled with potentiality, to be inhabited by a visiting deity; it is also the time of rest or pause. Like dwellan, ma is a state of abiding, of in-betweenness. Perhaps these voids are invitations to pause, to rethink the concept of dwelling, to redefine the rights to the city.

Walking back towards downtown Vancouver in the evening, I found my gaze fixated on the condo towers with their many voids. Staring at the voids for too long induces vertigo, but one also sees what one otherwise might not have. I took a photo of the cityscape, and added it to my collection of images.

Christine Lai is a Vancouver-based writer of fiction and non-fiction. She is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University, and was a member of the 2017 Writing Studio at the Banff Centre for the Arts. She also holds a PhD in English Literature from University College London in the UK. Christine is currently working on a novel, while collecting notes for a non-fiction project on cities and urban culture. Her short story is forthcoming in Joyland.