Japanese find sleep, shelter in cyber cafes

TOKYO Mon May 7, 2007 11:23am BST

Men make use of the internet service in the private rooms of an internet cafe in Tokyo May 2, 2007. Some low-wage earning young people who cannot afford apartments in Tokyo are choosing to live in internet cafes, which are cheaper than a hotel and even offer showers, microwaves and large libraries of manga to read. Picture taken May 2, 2007. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Men make use of the internet service in the private rooms of an internet cafe in Tokyo May 2, 2007. Some low-wage earning young people who cannot afford apartments in Tokyo are choosing to live in internet cafes, which are cheaper than a hotel and even offer showers, microwaves and large libraries of manga to read. Picture taken May 2, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

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TOKYO (Reuters) - Takeshi Yamashita does not look like a homeless person.

From his carefully distressed jeans to his casual-cool navy striped T-shirt, he is every bit the trendy Tokyoite.

Yet the 26-year-old has been sleeping in a reclining seat in an Internet cafe every night for the past month since he lost his steady office job and his apartment.

It's cheaper than a hotel, offers access to the Internet and hundreds of Manga comic books, and even has a microwave and a shower where he can wash in the morning before heading off to one of his temporary jobs ranging from cleaning to basic office work.

Asked how long he plans to go on living like that, Yamashita smiles and shrugs.

"I hope the situation in Japan will improve. The new Japanese generation doesn't have any money, and many young people don't have any motivation. I don't have money, but I have a dream," he says, sitting in a cubicle with a PC and a stack of comic books.

So what is his dream?

"I don't know. Maybe some ordinary job in an office."

Yamashita is one of Japan's many "freeters" -- a compound of "free" and "Arbeiter," the German word for "worker."

A by-product of the economic crisis that hit Japan and its lifelong employment guarantees in the 1990s, freeters drift between odd jobs.

Earning around 1,000 yen ($8) per hour, they often struggle to pay the rent in Tokyo, one of the most expensive cities in the world where a modest 30 square meter (320 square foot) flat in a central location can easily cost 150,000 yen ($1,250) a month.

Now the economy is recovering, but many freeters are missing out on the upswing after years of unskilled work. Most expanding companies prefer to recruit fresh university graduates or transfer basic jobs to low-wage countries such as China.

CYBER HOME

As an Internet cafe owner in Tokyo's Ueno district, Masami Takahashi has had a close-up view of social change in Japan.

Around the corner from his cafe, homeless people who cannot even afford a reclining seat sleep in cardboard boxes.

Chinese prostitutes in Japanese kimonos prop up drunken office workers, or "salarymen," who will stumble into Masami's cafe for a nap later in the night.

The salarymen were the first to discover net cafes as a cheap alternative to hotels after companies hurt by the economic crisis stopped funding team drinks -- an essential part of Japanese corporate culture -- followed by a night in a hotel.

And then there are customers for whom Takahashi's Internet point is home. Takahashi, an affable host sporting a mullet and a blue track suit, regularly sees freeters taking refuge at his cafe. He has even lent money to some of them out of pity.

"It shows how the social system is changing. It's a bit sad for us Japanese," he told Reuters, scratching his head.

At about 1,400 to 2,400 yen ($12-$20) for a night in a central Internet cafe -- free soft drinks, TV, comics and Internet access included -- prices beat those of Japan's famous "capsule hotels," where guests sleep in plastic cells.

This means that on a Friday night in Shibuya, one of Tokyo's main entertainment districts, the dimly lit cafes are packed.

At 3 am, there is loud snoring from salarymen in suits, their shoes lined up neatly outside each individual cubicle containing a reclining seat or sofa, a computer and a clothes hanger.

There are fashionable young women wearing high heels and short skirts, who missed the last train after a night out.

And there are those who use the discretion of a net cafe to their own advantage.

"I often come here with my boyfriend. Today we escaped from high-school and came here," said 16-year-old Naomi, a schoolgirl in a white shirt, tartan miniskirt and knee-high socks.

Shyly sweeping aside her long brown fringe, Naomi said she started going to net cafes with her boyfriend at the age of 15, telling her parents she was sleeping at a friend's place.

"We usually spend all night talking and reading mangas, and in the morning we go to school."

"WORKING POOR"

Like Yamashita, the freeter, many of the cyber homeless fade into this colorful crowd, finding anonymity as well as shelter.

"The younger ones don't look any different from other young people," said Kazumasa Adachi, a manager at one of the more elegant net cafes where staff wear suits and receive customers with the polite efficiency of hotel receptionists.

He recognizes cafe dwellers by the heavy bags they lug around.

"They are different from the real homeless because they belong to the working poor, so they do have some money, whereas the ones on the street have no money at all," he added.

There is no official data on the cyber cafe homeless. Japan's Welfare Ministry plans a wider study on the phenomenon, according to a newspaper report, but in the meantime, it is hard to gauge the scope of the problem or its social impact.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many are freeters in their mid-to-late-twenties, who stay in a net cafe for a couple of months before settling for a more permanent housing solution.

Those who are older, poorer, with fewer chances of escaping their drifting lifestyle, and sometimes too embarrassed to return home, find themselves at the very bottom of cyber society.

They congregate in run-down Tokyo suburbs such as Kamata, renting poorly ventilated, smoke-filled cubicles with reclining seats for 100 yen an hour.

"It's very uncomfortable. You can't really sleep," said one Kamata cafe guest who preferred not to be named.

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