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Sunday, July 20, 2008

WEEK 3

Temporary arrangements

Internet cafes turn into shelters as Japan's 'working poor' struggles to survive


Staff writer

Akio Watanabe knows what a dead end feels like.

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On any street: Two Internet cafes compete for people's attention near JR Warabi Station in Saitama Prefecture. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

The 34-year-old native of Yamagata Prefecture in northern Japan found himself one of a growing legion of "netto cafe nanmin (Net-cafe refugees)" at the end of March, when the major temp agency he had worked for suddenly terminated his contract — leaving him three days to pack up and leave his company's dormitory.

Watanabe (not his real name) had a hard enough life before that. As the only child of a divorced, alcoholic father, he got a job at a local stationery company after graduating from high school. But when he was 26, it went bust — this just two years after the death of his father.

Luckily, a client he had become acquainted with at the company offered him a job undertaking cleaning services for hospitals. That kept Watanabe extremely busy, traveling across the nation every time the company bid for new contracts. Then in 2005, the firm released him, saying it was withdrawing from the hospital-cleaning business because it did not pay.

After that, the only job Watanabe could find was east of Yamagata in Miyagi Prefecture's Sendai as a haken (temporary-staff) worker, he says. Every day, he would log onto his personal account on his mobile phone to check if there was work for him the next day. When there was work, he and other temp workers were shuttle-bused to factories and warehouses throughout northern Japan where they often found themselves assembling mobile phones or performed other monotonous jobs. But last year, that temp agency was hit with a series of scandals, leading to the sudden termination of his contract in March.

It's not as if Watanabe had sat around idly while his job prospects went from bad to worse. While being a haken worker, he had applied for numerous steady, full-time positions — all to no avail.

"In the job magazines, there were heaps of haken jobs on offer, but there were so few for jobs with seishain (permanent staff) status," he says. "At the places I applied to, I was told I was too old."

After being kicked out of his company dorm, and with his savings dwindling away, Watanabe recalls that he wandered from one Net cafe to another in Sendai, trailing a suitcase as he went. He would also sometimes stay overnight at capsule hotels and saunas that were open around the clock. There he occasionally bumped into former colleagues from the temp agency, and they shared their fears about their future, he says.

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A room of one's own: Internet cafes, like this one in the city of Warabi, Saitama Prefecture, have turned into last-minute shelters for people who would otherwise find themselves homeless. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Today, Internet cafes — originally designed as spaces for people to kill time while surfing the Net or read manga comics in their own private cubicle — are increasingly turning into shelters for people young and old who would otherwise find themselves homeless. Some even offer showers and free drinks.

According to an August 2007 survey of 24-hour Internet/manga cafes across the nation by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, 5,400 people were estimated to be using them overnight because they had no other place to stay. Of them, 2,700 were engaged in short-term, nonpermanent contract work, while another 2,100 were unemployed. More than 90 percent of them were men, age 20 to 60-plus. Many of the polled said they turned to these premises because they could not afford to pay deposits on an apartment, and because they were not sure if they could keep paying their rent.

While some experts point to a breakdown in family and community networks for the emergence of Japan's new working poor, companies have found a business opportunity in serving them.

Cyber@Cafe in Warabi, Saitama Prefecture, is home to around 25 people who "live" there. The cafe, located outside JR Warabi Station, occupies three floors of an office building and has a shower room, a washing machine and high-tech toilets for the convenience of its guests. Blankets can be borrowed for free. Guests paying ¥200 can spend 30 minutes in the cafe's comfortable 130 cm × 190 cm cubicles, which each have soft pads on the floor, a pair of black and red cushions, and a personal computer with a high-speed Internet connection.

The biggest attraction, however, is that guests who pay for a month's stay (¥57,600) in advance can register the cafe as their home and have mail sent there for an additional ¥3,000. At least four people have registered the cafe as their home with the local city government, according to Cyber@Cafe owner Akihiro Sato.

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Finding shelter: A 34-year-old former "Net-cafe refugee" cleans an apartment room in Tokyo. TOMOKO OTAKE PHOTO

"This is the first case in Japan where you can register a Net cafe as your home," boasted the 46-year-old owner, who says he has long been in the real estate business, which has included buying and renovating bankrupt love hotels to be put back on the market. "I decided to offer these services, considering that many Net-cafe refugees cannot find work because they don't have their own address. For me, this is a way of contributing to society through business."

Around 75 percent of the users are men, Sato says, noting that their ages range from 19 to their 60s. During a recent visit, most of the 41 rooms were occupied.

Guests seemed reluctant to speak to the media, perhaps because of the negative portrayal of the Net cafe refugee phenomena in the media. None of the users gave this reporter and an accompanying photographer a look, let alone an interview. The dimly-lit cafe with soft jazz music playing in the background was quiet, spooky even. If you listened hard enough, you could hear sounds of people typing away at computers behind the thin sheets of plywood separating each cubicle.

"These people have been hurt in some way or another," Sato says after sending off a long-term guest going out, with a deferential "Itte-rasshai-mase (Have a nice day)." "We would like to help them heal their wounds with as much affection and hospitality as we can spare."

Shuzo Hikichi, an official at the city office of Warabi, says Japan's Civil Code simply states your home is "where you base your life." He added that the city has decided to allow Cyber@Cafe guests to list the premise as their home on the city's residential registry, on condition that the applicants have submitted all the necessary papers, that they have a clear will to "live" in Warabi, and that the cafe's owner has approved such requests.

"We have approved the requests, considering the fact that people without fixed addresses are inconvenienced," Hikichi says.

Tsukasa Group, a Tokyo-based real estate group that rents 2,000 apartment units in the Tokyo metropolitan area, goes beyond providing shelter to Net cafe refugees — it offers jobs, too.

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Akihiro Sato, owner of Cyber@Cafe in Saitama, says he will open a similar cafe in Tokyo's Kabukicho. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Since August 2007, the company has been providing "Net rooms" — 130-cm × 260-cm units of windowless rooms with tatami mats, a small desk and floor chair, as well as a high-speed Internet connection, air conditioning and a small washstand, for ¥1,500 per day, cheaper than most Internet cafes.

What is even more unusual is that the company solicits applications for employment from those who stay at such rooms to work as cleaning staff for the company, with the chance of becoming a contract worker and, eventually, even a permanent full-time employee — the holy grail for longtime Net-cafe refugees such as Akio Watanabe.

Sachihiko Kawamata, Tsukasa's charismatic president who became famous in the 1980s for introducing what is now commonly known as wikuri manshon — apartment units that can be rented out on a weekly basis — says he came up with the idea after hearing about a guest at one of his company's rental apartment rooms. This guest, after looking for a job for a week, checked out, paid the bills, then climbed to the rooftop of the building and jumped to his death. Since the company started the job program in November, 20 people have applied, out of whom three have earned a full-time contract. The rest, according to Tsukasa officials, didn't last; most ran away after getting paid for a day's work.

Akio Watanabe is one of the three who proved himself reliable. One night in mid-April, Watanabe hopped on a bus (a ¥2,900 ticket bought online) from Sendai to Tokyo. After spending a night at a motel in Sanya, a former day laborers' district in Tokyo that now houses hordes of old men on welfare, Watanabe called Tsukasa's hotline, which he learned about while googling at a Net cafe in Sendai.

"I thought this would be the last chance for me," says the well-built, bespectacled man — now wearing a neat pale blue company uniform — at an apartment in central Tokyo that he was assigned to clean.

Watanabe sounds confident and upbeat, saying he has just been told by Tsukasa that he would be given a full-time contract starting in August, at which point he would qualify for a health- insurance plan and other benefits for the first time in many years.

In addition, his responsibilities would be expanded to include decision-making on the maintenance of properties, he says, a hint of pride in his voice. He now lives at a company dorm in an upscale residential area in Tokyo's Meguro Ward.

"I sometimes wonder if it is really OK for me to live in such a nice area," he adds.

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Government approved: A receptionist at Cyber@Cafe in Warabi, Saitama Prefecture, shows a copy of the residential registration papers obtained by one of the residents there. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

I ask Watanabe what he thinks about the recent knifing rampage in Akihabara, which has spurred a heated debate on the sense of both financial and psychological insecurity temp workers share.

"If (suspect Tomohiro Kato) had colleagues or friends to confide in, if he had someone to grab his arm and stop him, he wouldn't have done what he did," he says, eyeing me straight. "He looked normal (though it was reported he had an inferiority complex regarding his looks). More people are snapping out of control these days. Japanese do not persevere enough."

A young Tsukasa spokesman thinks Watanabe has changed dramatically since he joined the company. "He was cheerful today," the spokesman, dressed impeccably in a navy-blue pinstripe suit, says softly as he leads me out of the building and onto a street under the sweltering summer sun.

"When he first came, he had such a humble attitude that we were shocked. He was like, 'If you could please kindly give me a job. . .' "



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