THE NET CAFE REFUGEES: Japan’s Disposable Workers


The first time Fumiya, 26, spent a night at the internet cafe, other people’s snoring and footsteps kept him awake throughout the night. Since that sleepless night, ten months have passed and a little noises like that no longer bother him. Once he got used to sleeping with a blanket over his face to block out the fluorescent lights that stay on through the night, he says living in an internet cafe is “not so bad. We need a place like an internet cafe. Without it, there would be many more people who have jobs but no homes.” Internet cafes have been around in Japan for over a decade, but around the mid 2000s, a new type of internet cafe where people also use as the accommodations sprang up and people started living there. These internet cafes are equipped with a tiny private booth for guests, showers, and laundry service, with a reasonably priced package for overnight users. Fumiya started living at an internet cafe after he left his job with a dormitory. He looked for an apartment but it was more than he could afford. He was initially renting a private booth for 12 hours just to sleep, but he soon realized that he could actually live there. For the internet cafe he lives, Fumiya chose a discounted monthly package and pays 1,920 yen (US$25) a day, which comes down to a monthly rent of about US $750. Still, it is cheaper than renting an apartment because he does not have to pay for utilities. It is clean and offers unlimited free drinks, blankets, and cushions.


The booth is partitioned by about 5.9ft walls and a door, and Fumiya can enjoy his bath-tub size privacy of a 5.9ft x 3.9ft space, which is big enough to sleep without bending his knees. He currently works 8 hours a day 6 days a week as a security guard and makes abut 230,000 yen (US $2,900) a month. He says he needs about one million yen ($13,000) to pay for security deposits,realtor fees, and furniture for an apartment in Tokyo because a realtor usually asks for a lot of money in advance for people without a financial guarantor. Fumiya guesses it would take two to five years to save that much money. His job is too unstable to plan ahead as he doesn’t know when his job changes or where his next job would be. He says, ”We need a place like an internet cafe. Without it, there would be many more people who have jobs but no homes.” According to the survey by Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in 2007, 60,900 people spent a night at an internet cafe at any given day and estimated 5,400 people live there because they have no home. Out of these long-term users, 2,200 were unemployed and 2,700 people were irregular workers like Fumiya. Called “internet cafe refugees” by the media, they have drawn attention to the plight of irregular workers whose salary is not enough to pay for their own apartment.


The number of low-paid irregular workers, with little benefits and no job security, has been steadily climbing and replacing regular workers. In 1990, 20% of the workforce were irregular workers but in 2011 the number reached 17.3 million people, 35.4% of the workforce, according to a survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in 2011. 30% of male and 50% of female irregular workers earn less than the government poverty line of 1.12 million yen (US$14,300). The average monthly income for irregular workers who live in internet cafes in Tokyo is 113,000 yen (US$1,443) according to the survey by the Ministry of Health and Welfare in 2007. Fumiya eventually wants to be a regular worker so that he can have stability and rent an apartment. The older he gets, life as an irregular worker will become harder as the income gap between regular and irregular workers increase over the years.


By the time he reaches the age of 45, he would earn less than half of his regular counterparts. He says, “I want to get married and have a family. That is, I’m lucky.” Tadayuki Sakai, 42, smiles broadly when he recalls the time when he turned in his resignation to his boss. He worked for a credit card company as a regular worker, known as salaryman, for 20 years. He shouts with joy, “I felt so good! So so good!” Mr.Sakai’s stable full time position is hard to come by in today’s Japan, where more than one in three people are employed as irregular workers. Lifetime employment, once the birthright of the middle-class, has steadily been replaced with low-paid irregular workers with little benefits or job security. About 2,700 people with irregular jobs live in internet cafes because they cannot afford to live in an apartment, according to a survey by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in 2007. After Mr. Sakai quit his salaryman position, he moved to an internet cafe where he now works as telephone operator and temps for a friend’s computer systems company.


Even though living in a bath tub-sized booth is his new reality, Mr. Sakai swears he is much happier being an irregular worker. “I never ever want to become a salaryman again.” Many Japanese companies have been going through painful transitions since the 1990s in order to keep up with productivity and global competitiveness. The process created a serious conflict with its traditional corporate culture. Companies used to expect workers to have earnest dedication and loyalty in exchange for a secure lifetime of employment. As the lifetime employment system collapsed, workers, such as Mr. Sakai, started questioning if their dedication was worth falling ill or being unhappy. He put in nearly 200 hours overtime a month three to four months a year. He says, “I didn’t have time to go home. I took short naps in the office and resumed work when I woke up.”


Overwork brought on depression and the company physician ordered him to stop working three times in the 20 years he was employed. He says, “When I returned to work, my boss gossiped that I was a psycho and weak.” Bullying and harassment such as being slapped or yelled at were routine. He shrugs it off, “It is a part of the old generation’s culture.” He remembers one of his bosses ignored him for a month after he turned down his drink invitation. Instead of offering early retirement or buyouts, bullying and harassment were the company’s tactics to force someone out. Mr. Sakai was once making 500,000 yen a month (US$6,400), but was demoted to an administrative position and eventually to debt collection, making 200,000 yen ($2550). He says, “You keep getting demoted or assigned marginal positions until you feel compelled to resign. It’s really hard to keep one’s place.”


Currently, there is an imbalance in the labor market where some feel they are forced to work to death and others don’t have enough work to survive, says Mariko Adachi, a professor of Economy at Ochanomizu Women’s University. We cannot eliminate the imbalance, she says, “There are a lot of mismatches between people and jobs. People feel trapped and hopeless.” It is not an apartment in Tokyo that Mr. Sakai wishes to move to from internet cafe. He has no hope for Japan and wants to move to a foreign country. He neatly organizes his belongings in his booth — one pair of black leather shoes, two dress shirts, a tie, one grey suit, a backpack, and a briefcase. “I have nothing to lose anymore. I don’t need to hold on to Japan. All I can count on is myself.”

By Shino Fukada from