Hard times have forced a new underclass to move into three-square-metre rooms ? with internet access, writes Justin Norrie in Tokyo.
Hidefumi Ito smiles widely when he recalls the sprawling five-bedroom house he built for his family in Hakodate, in the north of Japan.
These days the 53-year-old divorcee’s lodgings are somewhat smaller. As he huddles cross-legged behind a computer screen, Ito surveys his rented three-square-metre “Net room” in Tokyo’s old town and wonders how he lost it all: the art gallery business he declared bankrupt, the wife and children who no longer talk to him, the sense of belonging to regular working society.
Crammed into his new living space, on the second floor of a drab, four-storey building in Shin-okachimachi, is a computer with high-speed internet access, a tiny sink, a few bags of his clothes, a copy of Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka On The Shore and a CD of jazz recordings by female singers.
For 1500 yen a day, the temporary shift worker – currently employed to lift and sort parcels for a delivery service – can enjoy his own “hiding place from the world” in Japan’s cheapest accommodation, introduced a year ago to house those unable to afford a permanent home.
As morning arrives through the window, Ito stretches out across the full length of the tatami mat flooring, drapes a bath towel over himself and sleeps.
Such is life for one of the older members of Japan’s “working poor”. In the west the expression has been commonplace for decades but in Japan the borrowed English words make up the newest catch cry of the nation’s media.. Over the past year newspapers and TV networks have become preoccupied with the vast generation of haken (part-time) working poor scratching out a minimal income and living in Net rooms, internet cafes and other makeshift accommodation.
The new underclass, estimated by some to make up almost one-quarter of the working population, emerged seven years ago under then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose free-market reforms encouraged Japanese companies that once guaranteed lifetime employment to start recruiting temporary staff instead. Since then the proportion of Japan’s workforce defined as part-time workers has climbed from 38 per cent to 44 per cent, according to government figures. A Health Ministry survey last year estimated that 5400 unemployed and part-time workers, many of them in their 20s, were sleeping for at least half of the week in internet cafes because they could not afford permanent homes.
Some, like Shigekazu Kinjo, a construction worker in his early 30s currently staying at an internet cafe near Shinjuku station, have been doing so for several years. “I accumulated a big debt on an apartment I was living in and eventually I was evicted,” he says. “This is a much cheaper, but a much lonelier, way to live.” Because they have no fixed address, internet cafe refugees such as Kinjo are forced to search for day-to-day work – usually manual labour – that in turn renders them ineligible for better jobs.
Lawyer Mami Nakano, an expert on labour regulations says that the “sad reality” for many is that it’s “impossible to climb out of this situation. There’s no hope. Most Japanese know about internet cafe refugees but they simply don’t understand how horrible and hopeless the living conditions are. A whole subclass of people in their 20s and 30s has become trapped.”
Unlike younger workers caught in Japan’s poverty cycle, Ito has forsaken tiny internet cafe cubicles, 24-hour fast food restaurant booths and all-night saunas for the relative luxury of the Net room, designed and built last August by Tsukasa Downtown Development Company.
“I lived in internet cafes for half a month, but I could never get any sleep,” he says. “It was too noisy. Here I can lie down and get some proper sleep. It’s incomparably better.”
Sachihiko Kawamata, the 60-year-old president of Tsukasa and originator of the Net room, says he was motivated by the plight of one man: “Three years ago there was a gentleman in his 40s from Hokkaido who came to Tokyo looking for work. He rented one of our cheap office spaces and slept on the floor. After a week or two he couldn’t find any jobs, he ran out of money and he became desperate. Finally he threw himself off a nearby building. That affected me deeply.”
Last year, as “internet cafe refugees” became a cause celebre in the local media, Kawamata decided to put his plan into action. So far he has fitted out 50 Net rooms in 15 blocks across Tokyo. He plans to build another 150. The 2000 tiny office spaces he rents out by the day are also used as temporary dwellings, although occupants are supposedly not meant to sleep in them. “Ever since I was a teenager in the US, when I was always struggling to find a place to spend the night, I felt a very strong sympathy for people with nowhere to go, nowhere to sleep.”
Until now the Japanese Government has expressed grave concern about the expanding ranks of working poor but taken little practical action to offer them financial security. New laws adopted last May have forced employers to offer equal pay and training to part-timers performing tasks equivalent to those of regular workers. But the changes have affected less than 5 per cent of part-time workers.
Ito is bitter at what he perceives to be a half-hearted government response: “They don’t seem to have any real plan at all for people like me. It’s all very superficial stuff. Essentially we’ve been forgotten.” Yamato Unyu, the delivery company that employs him to lift and sort parcels, pays him 15,000 yen a night. But because his two-month contract finishes at the end of this month, and because he has no idea where his next job will come from, he cannot afford to rent a studio apartment. “I can never plan my life very far ahead,” Ito says. “For now I’m happy here.”
This year the Net rooms have been filled almost to capacity. That, says Kawamata, is evidence of the growing divide between rich and poor in Japan, once a fabulously wealthy country where entrenched poverty was not common.
Statistics provided by TV Asahi showed that in the Bubble years of the 1980s the top 20 per cent of the population made 10 times more than the bottom 20 per cent. By 2000, they were making 168 times more.
In response, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s cabinet recently announced it would introduce job-training loans next year to help part-timers make the transition to permanent work. It has also proposed to ban businesses from offering contracts of less than one month.
“It won’t make any difference,” says lawyer Nakano, “because the entire part-time work system is designed to facilitate human rights abuses by business. Until the government stops companies from hiring people on all short-term contracts – two months, six months, whatever – part-time workers will be completely unable to secure their livelihood.”