Technology

Japan's Internet Cafes: Home for the Underemployed


A Room
With No View

Over the past 10 years, Internet cafes in Japan have become hotels for the underemployed. Many are equipped with tiny private booths, showers, and laundry service and offer reasonably priced packages for overnight users. The monthly rate at one cafe is 1,920 yen ($19) a day. In 2007, according to Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, 60,900 people spent a night at an Internet cafe, and about 5,400 were living in them full time.

Finding residents willing to be photographed wasn’t easy. In 2009, I started by waiting outside cafes at night, approaching people arriving with suitcases. No one wanted to talk. People living in Internet cafes are not proud of it and want to keep their living and working conditions secret. The cafes themselves share this discretion: Only one of the several I approached, Cyber@cafe in Tokyo, granted me access. Akihiro Sato, the owner, believes his business is helping those who would otherwise be homeless.

Tadayuki Sakai

Sakai, 43, worked for a credit card company as a salaryman for 20 years. After a transfer to debt collection, he quit before his daughter’s college graduation and moved into Cyber@cafe. He currently works as a telephone operator and a temp at a friend’s computer systems company. After 16 months he’s tired of living in a 4.3 feet by 8.5 feet cubicle and says he feels chronically fatigued. “Living in the Internet cafe was like a joke in the beginning. I was excited to start a new life after being a salaryman,” he says. Now “it has become a daunting reality.” He’s hoping to move into an empty office at his friend’s company as soon as possible.

 

Lisa

Lisa, who declined to give her last name, is 18. Her family lived in Fukushima, but couldn’t afford housing after losing their jobs following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Her mother came first to Tokyo to look for work, and Lisa followed. They’ve lived in adjoining booths for 16 months.

In Fukushima, Lisa was a cashier in a convenience store for 650 yen an hour. In the past three months she’s had about 15 job interviews at convenience stores, a supermarket, and a lunch box stand, all which pay about 1,000 yen an hour.

Her mother is an office clerk. Each day at about 9 a.m., Lisa walks to the train station with her. Then she goes to a job interview—if she has one. If not, she stays at the cafe all day trying to get a high school diploma online. The cafe’s near the red-light district, and she’s scared of “dirty old men” who proposition her. “I feel depressed in the booth and sleep a lot,” she says.

 

Fumiya

Fumiya, 27, has lived at the cafe for 22 months. He looked for an apartment but was unable to find one he could afford. He initially rented a private booth for 12 hours just to sleep, soon realized he could live there, and chose a monthly package. It’s cheaper than renting an apartment because he doesn’t have to pay utilities. Fumiya works as a security guard at a long-term construction site and thinks he’ll have a job there until the project is complete. He says he needs about 1 million yen to pay for a security deposit, real estate agent fees, and furniture for an apartment in Tokyo. He guesses it should take two to five years to save that much, but he’s having trouble. He spends a lot of money on alcohol and food, which he can’t prepare at the cafe.

Text and photographs by Shiho Fukada. Fukada's project was supported in part by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Fukada is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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