Alone by a frozen stream, a 17-year-old boy was waiting for the sunrise one February morning last year when Tokyo was hit by one of the heaviest snowfalls on record.
Snow was blowing into where he lived under a bridge. Clad in only a hoodie and jeans, the boy sat holding his legs, which had become numb in the freezing temperatures.
After enduring frigid winds and snow, he headed in the morning to a nearby supermarket as usual, undeterred by the snow-covered townscape.
After a brief nap on a bench, he went to a discount store. Penniless, he survived on pastries and bento meals he shoplifted and carried with him.
The boy had been living under the bridge since November 2013. Masses of commuters and shoppers were constantly walking over the bridge, which is located near a JR station.
Now and then, people walked down to the riverside with their children or dogs, but they passed him by as if they did not see him.
All of a sudden, however, a police officer approached last summer and asked him, "Why are you here?" While the boy was telling his name and age as asked by the officer, he thought to himself: "Finally, somebody came to rescue me."
After spending 10 months under the bridge, the gaunt boy with hair grown to shoulder length looked like a totally different person than he had been before.
His mother was always turning her back on her children. She began behaving differently after the birth of his brother, who was three years younger. She seemed to become utterly absorbed in a computer in their apartment. She neither prepared meals nor did cleaning. She did not even respond when her sons talked to her. When he said, "I'm hungry," she occasionally handed him a ¥1,000 (S$11.45) bill without saying a word.
Holding the bill tight in his hand, he went to a supermarket nearby with his brother, a toddler at that time. They wandered through the store's aisles, opened the packages of snack foods and ice cream, and ate right there as they did not know how to use the money.
When a bakery clerk, apparently unable to remain indifferent, offered them pieces of left-over bread, the brothers quickly took big bites. "My mom doesn't like us," he thought at times.
As soon as he began primary school, he was taken in by a home for children. As his mother had never taught him how to read or write, the boy was unable to write his name, even with simple hiragana characters - which made him a target of teasing from classmates. He went through school constantly staring at the floor. Faced with bullying that continued through middle school, he became a truant.
He cherishes one precious memory from his childhood, however. When he was temporarily allowed to go home, the boy went to the stream with his mother and brother. When he showed her a tortoise he had found near the bridge, she laughed in delight and said, "You did it."
But he had not seen his mother's bright, smiling face ever since that day.
Quitting first job
When he turned 15, an official of the children's home told him he had to decide if he would get a job or go to high school. Without wavering, he decided to start working because he wanted to escape from poverty.
Along with the official, he went to a Hello Work job-placement centre, where he found a job at a pet-related company.
He moved into the company's dormitory and worked from morning to late at night - only to find out his take-home salary was extremely cheap. The company claimed it had deducted his dormitory and meal fees from the salary, but it never gave him a payment slip. Becoming aware of the company's "deception," he left the company after 18 months.
The job-placement centre later introduced another company to the boy, but he was not offered a job after an interview. "I failed again," the boy thought. "I'm finished now." He then found himself standing at the bridge where he had seen his mother's smiling face.
After homeless life
After he was taken into custody by police, the boy was admitted to a Tokyo home that helps young people become independent. When he told the facility's director that he worried about working without problems, the director responded: "No matter how many times you fail, it's all right. Let's find something you want to do together."
Ever since he can remember, he had kept questioning why his mother hadn't protected him. Now he learned that she suffered from a mental disorder. But he does not feel like meeting her again yet.
He is now working at a janitorial company, to which he was introduced by the home. Being an animal lover, the boy now has the dream of working at a zoo. He also wants to study math and English from scratch so that he can attend a vocational college.
Like everybody else, he is allowed to stay at the home until he turns 20. "I'm worried about if I can really manage by myself, but I've got to look ahead," he said.
His younger brother is now in the third and final year of middle school and is living at another home for children. The older boy plans to visit his little brother for the first time in four years after his graduation from middle school this spring.Speech