Internet cafes are extremely popular in Tokyo and are a spectacle in themselves for foreign tourists. Net and manga enthusiasts flock to these institutions on a daily basis and will while away hours in private booths, living vicariously through a screen.
In 2019, statistics showed that Japan’s homelessness statistics accounted for the lowest in the world. With just 0.004% of the population sleeping rough, it would appear from the outside that Japan has this social issue pretty much stamped out.
As with many things in the Land of the Rising Sun you need to scratch below the surface a little bit to get to the true story. Bear in mind that these homelessness statistics only account for people who are not sleeping in physical buildings – Japan has a whole other cohort of homeless people that do not feature in any of these numbers. Meet the net café refugees – also known as the cyber homeless.
Why Net Cafes?
In Tokyo, many internet and manga cafes boast 24 hour opening hours. They charge a flat rate to stay overnight of approximately 2000 yen for a private booth – which works out as less than the monthly rent of a modest apartment. While the booths do not offer a bed, they do have comfortable reclining chairs and privacy.
Many cafes also offer facilities such as hot showers included in the overnight rate. There are onsite refreshments and food available, and even stalls where you can purchase toiletries and clean underwear. This makes them a popular option for bar revelers who decide it’s not worth making the trip home before work the next morning – and also, people of no fixed address.
Who is a Typical Cyber Refugee?
It is difficult to find exact statistics on how cyber homeless people there are in Japan – after all, this is a nation of great pride where admitting homelessness can be even more difficult than in other countries. A 2018 survey estimated that there were around 4000 cyber refugees in Japan – however, there are approximately 15000 overnight sleepers per week in Tokyo cafes.
Granted, some of these may be tourists on a budget (an estimated 37.1% of overnight guests at cafes are using them as budget accommodation on a Tokyo trip), or people staying in the city for convenience after missing the last train home – but the number still appears staggering compared to the number of people that have admitted their status as net café refugees.
The same 2018 survey indicated that 86% of net café refugees are men, while just 14% are women. The average cyber refugee is either in their 30s or 50s, according to the survey. Hypotheses around these numbers explore whether the cohort in the 30s age range represents the group most badly affected by the 2008 global crash, and Japan’s 2014 recession. 75% of net café refugees indicated that they did not have stable employment – and the description of this includes those in temporary or short-term work.
It is worth noting that in Japan, large amounts of money is required upfront in order to secure a lease on a rental property. This often includes a minimum of three months’ rent, plus a non-refundable “gift” to the landlord.
Japanese law still allows landlords to refuse potential tenants on the basis of factors such as nationality. This can rule low paid workers out of ever being able to secure a lease – the aforementioned 2018 study listed the high initial costs of renting as the biggest barrier for net café refugees finding a fixed residence.
Japan would have previously been heralded as an “economically equal” society, where workers across sectors can avail of a reasonable living wage. This has changed dramatically in recent years. 1986 saw the partial legalization of temporary and contract work in Japan.
1999 saw this style of employment fully legalized. It is estimated that 38% of the Japanese workforce is now on short-term contracts, and have annual earnings of less than half that of the average full-time employee as a result.
Many net café refugees are working temporary or short-term contracts. This can place them in a difficult position. If they were fully unemployed they might be eligible for state benefits however, their occasional employment moves them outside of this cohort.
The wages that they do earn fall short of being enough to live on – but the social stigma of being unemployed in Japan is significant. This leads to many people taking unsuitable jobs and living secret lives as net café refugees.
In 2015, Japanese documentary maker Shiho Fukada released Net Café Refugees, a short film profiling the daily lives of two cyber refugees in Tokyo. Fukada created this piece as part of a larger series on Japan’s Disposable Workers, motivated by his worry that many Japanese people “suffer in silence” when faced with social difficulties for fear of bringing shame on themselves.
The series also covers the stories of workers who die by suicide related to work stress, and the elderly homeless in Japan. All three short films are available to view free online and have garnered global attention.
The current coronavirus pandemic is shining a light on the needs of this cohort of Japanese citizens, often conveniently forgotten about. Cybercafes are closed at the time of writing as they are considered non-essential businesses. This has made the hidden homeless who call these businesses their places of residence more visible than ever before.
Beds in business hotels and community halls are being provided free of charge to net café refugees in Tokyo until the end of Japan’s state of emergency. In order to be eligible for this service, you must have no fixed address and show receipt and membership card evidence that you had regularly been staying in internet cafes before the pandemic. Tokyo wards have set up individual information counters where cyber refugees can seek advice and request accommodation.
A petition has been set up demanding that the sports village for the upcoming Olympic games (rescheduled to 2021) be redeployed for use by Tokyo’s homeless population, including net café refugees – at the time of writing, no known action has been taken on this suggestion.
It remains to be seen whether this problem will be addressed in the long-term following the pandemic – at present, the plan is to withdraw the emergency accommodations once internet cafes re-open. One would have to question, however – is this simply sweeping a whole cohort of Japan’s society back under the carpet after our eyes have already been opened to their plight?