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TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - The global economy may be on the mend, but times are still tough for the masses of homeless, jobless people in Tokyo, where the only meal of the day is often a bowl of rice handed out by charities.
Although Japan's export-driven economy is back on track, largely due to rising demand from Asia, the United Nations said its recovery was slower than other countries, and predicted only 0.9 percent growth in 2010 compared to 8.8 percent for China and 2.1 percent for the United States.
This sluggish growth, combined with troubles at giant corporations in the world's second-biggest economy, has made earning a living very difficult for scores of Japanese.
"I see no jobs around. It's a really tough situation," Eizo Tsuruga, a 50-year-old homeless man, told Reuters as he sat among others people eating a bowl of hot rice in the winter night.
A Welfare Ministry survey showed the actual numbers of homeless had fallen to 15,000 in 2009 from 25,000 in 2003.
Homeless people in Japan have traditionally been elderly, social dropouts, but with the economic situation, the demographics have changed to include laid-off workers, both young and old, and university graduates unable to find work.
On a recent Sunday, more than 400 people flocked to a Tokyo park to receive free meals and blankets distributed by local charity Shinjuku Renraku Kai, more than twice the number of people the charity used to see two years ago.
Many had queued for hours to ensure they got some cooked rice, often their only meal for the day.
"More and more people of all ages are gathering here," said Kazuaki Kasai, a volunteer who has worked at the charity's distribution point in the park for the past 16 years.
The global financial crisis that began in 2008 drove Japan's economy into its worst recession since World War Two.
Even through the jobless rate has improved slightly since then, to 5.1 percent in December from a record high of 5.7 percent in July, only five out of every ten applicants are landing jobs now, according to government data.
At a homeless shelter run by Tokyo's municipal government, those taking refuge know this fact all too well.
"During the previous recession, jobs were still out there at dramatically lowered wages and reduced number. But in this recession, there is absolutely no jobs available," Shigeo Shimazaki, a 45-year-old resident said.
The job market is only set to become even more difficult.
Japan Airlines, Asia's biggest air carrier by revenue, filed for bankruptcy protection on January 19, vowing to slash 15,700 jobs in an effort to survive in an industry hit by volatile fuel costs and fickle flyers.
The world's biggest automaker Toyota also rocked the fragile economic recovery of Japan by suspending U.S. sales of eight models last week subject to a massive safety recall, sending its shares tumbling.
For many homeless living on charity handouts, the solution to the problem lies with the government.
"They must revive the economy first," said Junichi Ando, a 43-year-old shelter resident. "The yen, the car industry... it was not like it is now. The government should fix them."
Editing by Miral Fahmy