Japan’s urban landscape is dotted with internet and manga cafés. These places are typical open 24-hours a day and offer unlimited internet, manga, and privacy for a low price. Some manga cafés even offer free soft drinks, vending machine access, and on-site showers. They are also attractive to homeless and underemployed.
Image via Retail Design Blog
Japan is in the midst of a work-related crisis that dates back to a 1980’s recession. Since 1984, there has been a steady decline of regular, full-time workers and an increase in irregular, part-time workers. According to a 2011 survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 35% of Japan’s workforce is irregular employees.
Even more alarming is that average monthly salary for these workers living in Tokyo is 113,000 yen ($1,443), which is below the 1.12 million ($14,300) poverty line set by the government. A cheap one-bedroom apartment in Tokyo can cost 74,200 yen ($667.47) without utilities and other living expenses.
Out of desperation, many of these homeless workers turn to manga cafés for shelter and a night’s sleep. Depending on the chain and packages, you can pay between 1,400 yen ($12) to 2,400 yen ($21) for a 12-hour stay in a cubicle. You’ll have unlimited wi-fi, entertainment, and potentially a shower (one chain charges 100 yen per 10 minutes) for a fraction of the cost of rent.
Image via Japan Guide
Initially, manga café opened in 1995 as a place for people to relax. Workers that missed the last subway could also spend the night instead of checking into a capsule hotel, which can cost 3,000 yen ($25) to 6,000 yen ($50) a night.
But the increase in irregular workers has seen a rise in permanent “residents,” known as net café refugees or cyber-homeless. The crisis has led to manga cafés offering long-term packages. A 2012 documentary featured a security guard who lives off of a discounted daily rate of 1,920 yen ($25) – which is equal to 83,380 yen ($750) monthly rate.
At first glance, it’s more expensive to live in a manga café than an apartment, but the man shared a harsh reality. Irregular workers have to pay at least a million yen ($13,000) in security deposits and realtor fees due to their unstable pay and a lack of a financial guarantor.
It’s a measure to protect landlords from renting space to financially unstable people, but the exuberant fees can make it nearly impossible for others to have the opportunity have a permanent residence.
Net café refugees are an unfortunate sign of the increasing wealth gap in Japan and a failure to recover from a decades-long recession. Japan was once known for their “lifetime employment” policy, but that is slowly being phased out as companies seek part-time, irregular workers.
Net café refugees also highlight Japan’s homeless struggle. Typically, the nation is praised for having a low homeless – the Tokyo metropolitan area “only” had a record-low of 1,697 homeless people in total. That number belies the issue of irregular workers, who exist in a plane between “official” homelessness and employed.
Image via The Japan Times
While some struggle to cope looking for extra work and dream of renting an apartment, others aren’t too worried. That same documentary featured a former salaryman who had no regrets resigning from his job. “I never want to become a salaryman again,” the 42-year-old said.