An encounter with a homeless man

I met Hideo Asano in July, 2015

‘Hello. Excuse me? Are you Danish?’

I was sitting on a bench in Ueno Park in Tokyo nursing my hangover. Last night I had been to Golden Gai with a friend. We stayed later than planned.

Hideo Asano

Ueno Park where I met Hideo Asano

I had to check out from my airbnb-apartment this morning, I did not get much sleep. I was heading for Osaka today, but had spent some time in Ueno first. Had some food, drank a lot of water, tried to nurse my hangover as best I could.

‘Excuse me, are you Danish?’

The same question again. I looked up. A Japanese man, probably in his fiftees although I suck at guessing the age of the Japanese, was standing over me, looking at me. He had old clothes on, a bit dirty, carrying a big bag.

A homeless guy. What did he want?

‘No. Not Danish. I’m from Norway,’ I answered.

The guy smiled. ‘Norway. I was close. That was a very good guess, don’t you think?’

Hideo Asano

Ueno Park

I nodded, took a big sip of water from my water bottle. It was hot as usual, over 30° Celcius and humidity in the 90s. Rehydrating was impossible, whatever I drank I quickly sweated out. My head was pounding, my mouth dry. I could still taste the sake from yesterday.

The man bent down, clearly wanting a chat. I was in no mood for talking really, all I wanted was to get out of here, get on the train. Why had I stopped here in Ueno, why not simply get on the Shinkansen. Air-conditioned, I could sit. Maybe sleep a little. Now I was stuck in Ueno Park with a homeless guy.

‘My name is Hideo Asano,’ he said. ‘Nice to meet you. I am a writer and traveller.’ He held out his hand.

Hideo Asano

The lake in Ueno Park

I shook it.

‘Nice too meet you. My name is Torgeir.’

Hideo Asano sat down next to me on the bench. I tried to be at my best despite my massive headache.

As the book begins the protagonist is celebrating New year’s eve, only himself and a can of beer, when he is arrested and thrown in jail. He is innocent of course, he has been tormented by a man for a week, now the man has made him been arrested.

In jail, the protagonist discovers the injustices and breaches of human rights in the Japanese prison system. He is being held without a verdict, tortured into confessing, loud pop music is being played all day.

Hideo Asano

The Short Nasty Journey by Hideo Asano

Throughout the book, comparisons are being made to legal systems around the world, information the protagonist have picked up from talking to foreigners on the street.

It is clear that the author is not a big fan of the Japanese legal system, calling it barbaric, against human rights, a kangaroo court. He is denied a lawyer at his trial, and feels his basic human rights are being denied him.

As he is finally freed he realise the time in jail has changed his life for ever.

The book, A Short Nasty Journey is based on a true story, Hideo Adano’s I presume, how much of it is true I don’t know.

‘You know,’ Hideo said. ‘I hate Japan. In Japan you are never free, there is no freedom, no rights here.’ His English was surprisingly good.

I nodded. ‘Oh yeah?’

Hideo continued. ‘Yes. Policemen in Japan have all power, people are simply slaves to the system. Police can do whatever they want. They can arrest you for 23 days without reason.’

Hideo Asano

Hard to see the lake

I’m only half-listening. I love Japan. I feel so free here. Whatever this guy is saying sounds like rubbish. I remain quiet, wait for him to continue. Don’t feel like talking anyway.

‘If I stay here at night, do nothing wrong, just stay here and drink a beer, police can come up to me and arrest me. And three weeks in jail.’

Hideo Asano is quiet for a moment, I don’t say anything either.

‘No freedom in Japan,’ he finally says.

We, or should I say he, keeps talking for another ten minutes. All the time about the horrible legal system in Japan, the power of the corrupt police. He finally picks out some leaflets, handprinted books, asking if I want to buy some. I hope this is the end of his talking, quickly buy a book and a leaflet of poems.

I am not an expert on the legal system in Japan, but I know two peculiar facts. Number one, police can hold a person without a charge for 23 days. Second, Japan has a very high conviction rate, over 99%. Are those two connected?

Hideo Asano

Policeman with lightsaber

I have never felt afraid of police in Japan though. Many a times have they helped me out find my way when lost, and they look so nice with their “lightsabers”.

He quickly left after that, I put the book away. I would look at it later. I got up, feeling like no more weird encounters, walked over to the train station and got on a train for Osaka. On the train I could nurse my hangover in private.

Hideo Asano

My signed copy of the book

When I was back in Norway I googled Hideo Asano and quickly saw I was not the only foreigner to have come across him. It seems he is often approaching foreigners for a chat. One of his favorite activities is to approach mixed couples, foreign guy and Japanese girl, and complain about how that is not natural.

He seems to be a man with an interesting story to tell though. Born in North Korea, raised in South Korea, he studied at College of the Desert in Southern Carolina.

He used to work as a journalist, a job that took him to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Singapore, France, London, Germany and Latin-America.


Now I wish I was in better shape when I met him, I wish I would have talked back more. I am sure it would have been an interesting conversation. A view of Japan different from mine.

Visit his website here.

22 thoughts on “An encounter with a homeless man

  1. kad8585

    Interesting post for sure. I tend to avoid and ignore most homeless people but the reality is that they are people too, with past lives and experiences that I can learn from if I just take the time to listen. Thanks for the share.

    1. Traveltorgeir Post author

      Yes, I tend to avoid them as well, but in this case it wasn’t as easy. Now I wish I’d have spoken some more with him.

      I went back to Ueno park on my two latest visits to Tokyo, but never saw him again. At least I have his ‘book’.

    1. Traveltorgeir Post author

      They sure do. We should always find time to talk to people. You never know how they might surprise you

  2. ckaway

    You never know the history of people you encounter and this is such a good example. Sure enjoyed reading about your experience and your conversation with this man. Glad you were able to learn more after the fact. A good reminder to treat everyone respectfully.

  3. Ticking the Bucketlist

    Oh…How I wished you were in a better shape…he would have had so many stories to tell! I never knew these facts about the police in Japan…somewhere, its got me a little scared!Well, it is one of the safest countries in the world…so , I am sure they must be doing something right!

  4. Kristine

    Når jeg en gang i fremtiden besøker Japan, så håper jeg at jeg får møte denne karen. Han virker som en interessant person som har levd et spennende liv og sett mye. Ville du anbefalt boka hans?

    1. Traveltorgeir Post author

      Han var en spennende person ja, hadde bare formen bært bedre. Har forsøkt å finne han i Ueno igjen, men ikke sett han på mine senere besøk i Japan.

      Boka var grei den, stort sett klaging på Japansk politi, men også ganske interessant. Om du skulle treffe han i Japan anbefaler jeg å bruke noen yen på å kjøpe den :-)

  5. Pinay Flying High

    Oh how I wish you were not hungover as well when you met him. Looks like he could’ve told you so many interesting stories if you were chatty. I also met a Japanese woman when I was living in Doha and when I asked her why she moved to Doha she told me the same thing, that there is no freedom in Japan. I was quite surprised because the whole world thinks that the Middle East is very strict and then there’s this Japanese woman in front of me telling me how much she loves her life in Doha because she’s free. :p

    1. Traveltorgeir Post author

      I guess Japan can feel not so free if you don’t conform to the way of life that is expected rom you. As the Japanese saying goes: the nail that sticks out is easily hammered down.

      Individuality is not always seen as a good thing in Japan I guess

  6. LP

    This is a very interesting experience you had hangover and all. I was homeless once a few years ago, I will admit that first I thought the government didn’t help me but now I know a lot of this was out of my own doing. Every homeless person I’ve met has a story to tell. And majority of those stories all play the same note, woe me and blame someone else for their issues.

    1. Traveltorgeir Post author

      Thank you for sharing your experience. I have not talked to many homeless, but it seems they all have this tale to tell. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

      Anyway, homeless are also humans and we should talk to them and listen to their story.

  7. Gina

    The people you meet in Ueno Park are always so colorful! Like him, I’m not a fan of the Japanese system. While I was in Okinawa, I got pulled over and asked for my military ID even though I’m not in the military. Every time I told the officer I wasn’t in the military he would just switch branches. It was awful. Also, I think Japanese keep themselves orderly because of the culture. I’ve never seen a policeman with a gun. They’re actually a joke in Japan because they’re good at giving directions.

  8. nacho

    i met him in december 2015, at ueno park too.
    we had the same chat you had, about police and freedom, it was a nice experience.
    finally, i bought a handprinted haiku book.

  9. hlee

    Anyway, I met him yesterday at my country (Malaysia). He is still a homeless old man. Still same story about all the freedom, corruption, etc. I hope he is doing well and good luck after this. I came to your website because i googled him. =)

  10. BenSmart

    Met him in Singapore in 2001. At a tiny mosque near the Singapore General Hospital during lunch break. A mosque goer was preaching to him about Islam. He didn’t seem interested. He approached me instead and we talked about stuff in general. He took out a book, he asked if I wanted to buy it as it helps to fund his journey. He looks rugged and worn out. So I did buy a book. We exchanged pleasantries and parted ways as I had to get back to work as lunch break’s almost over. When I got home, and open up the pages of the book, then I realized that he’s the author of the book. The book is The Timber Carriers of Afghanistan. A few weeks later, I met him again at Changi Airport. His persona looks a bit different. He fits the typical pro adventure traveller profile at the airport. I approached him and said we met earlier. He seems in a hurry and always glancing around. He sold me another book, a compilation of short stories. Unfortunately, I lost both copies of the books after I moved out of my parents apartment and eventually left the country. Messaged my dad this morning to ask if he still keeps my old books, sadly he’s thrown them all out. I wanted to share the book with my colleague whose stepson served in Afghanistan with the Australian SAS. Many of them suffered PTSD. That book describes the core essence of the people and the land of Afghanistan. Hideo Asano was able to delve deep into the psyche of the locals and present the story with untainted eyes.


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