The Box Man

Text & photography by Leonardo Pellegatta

Birdy – Shelter
Birdy (2011)

“Here is the city of the box-men, anonymity is a must, and any residency permission is released upon the strict condition of being no one.”
— Kōbō Abe, Hako Otoko

Ueno Park, Tokyo, has been known for being the homeground for temporary cardboard houses for decades. Kōbō Abe’s mysterious novel starts in Ueno, with an official report of the police forcing the homeless people to relocate from the park in the 1970s. After moving to Japan, I decided to visit the park one day to explore the stories of The Box Man.

the box man leonardo pellegatta

My first meeting was with a fine man from Hokkaido. With surprise, I found myself having a spontaneous conversation in English after a long time. Another man from Kyushu kindly introduced me to his fellows camping in the park. I could not help but notice how intensely they hold themselves together and keep their place clean and organized.

These ‘invisible’ residents unfold their cardboard houses to rest at night and refold them every morning. In a silent compromise with the authorities, they are also in charge of cleaning and removing the old leaves, in order to preserve the green harmony of the park.

the box man leonardo pellegatta

Moving towards Asakusa, following upstream the Sumida, Arakawa and Edo rivers, I discovered a sea of semi-permanent cardboard accommodations (sometimes improvised with found materials), forming a secret city. Futons, simple cooking facilities and a primitive form of electricity are often available. Occasionally, a small orchard is grown. During the warm season, a romantic isolated “temporary house” is located under a cherry tree in full bloom.

Read more in N˚3: Fight.