A Life Of Helping The Homeless In Sanya, An Obliterated Tokyo District

Matter of fact about the realities of the everyday struggles she witnesses, sure, but she’s far from cynical. If she ever seems frustrated, it’s not because of the local loiterers who leave unwanted gifts of discarded One Cup sake glasses on her hotel doorstep. Her frustration is with the apathy for which so many people, governments included, have for the less fortunate Tokyo locals.

Mago Yoshihira is the main figure behind YUI Associates, a community building project that helps the city’s homeless through awareness, accommodation and social integration initiatives. She’s based out of Kiyokawa in Tokyo’s Taito ward, an area once known as Sanya (山谷). It was “erased” from the city’s maps 50 odd years ago because of its less than sparkling reputation. As part of YUI, Yoshihira runs a cafe and three hotels, two for travelers and one for those living rough.

Each Monday afternoon Yoshihira and her crew head out on to the streets of Sanya to collect trash, chat with the locals as a way to offer practical support, a warm smile and a sympathetic ear to those who may feel all but forgotten.

We joined the 30th edition of their trash collecting rounds to learn more about Sanya, the reality of Tokyo’s homeless situation and what YUI is doing to help.

© Photo by Robert Lewis

Mago Yoshihira

Savvy Tokyo: How did you become interested in the world of community development?

Mago Yoshihira: When I was in university, I became interested in community development in disadvantaged countries. In the beginning, I was interested in developing countries, and I wanted to improve my English so I thought the best plan was to do a masters course overseas.


I was inspired to learn about advocacy planning after learning about the work of Paul Davidoff, a US planner who campaigned for the rights of black people. He came up with the concept of advocacy planning and need to bring awareness to disadvantaged communities. I was so moved by his work.

‘I felt like there had to be something I as a Japanese person could do to help make things right.’



While researching community building on Negros Island in the Philippines I learned about the bilateral treaty between Japan and the Philippines. Japan would come and take all the fish from the area, so the local people were very impoverished. It made me think that just because something is legal doesn’t necessarily make it right. I felt like there had to be something I as a Japanese person could do to help make things right.

When I returned to Japan I wanted to go to the countryside, but I came to Sanya as a volunteer with a

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