TOKYO Takeshi Yamashita does not look like a
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
Like Yamashita, the freeter, many of the cyber homeless
fade into this colorful crowd, finding anonymity as well as
"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
"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
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.