Japanese Homeless Find Refuge at Internet Cafes

An estimated 5,400 homeless people live in Japanese Internet cafes.

ByABC News
September 7, 2007, 5:33 AM

TOKYO, Japan, Sept. 7, 2007 — -- As office workers rush home on a late Tokyo evening, others start to show up on the streets carrying duffel bags containing all their belongings. Their destination -- Internet cafes where they can spend an evening for a little more than $10.

The Japanese health ministry said these Internet cafes are no longer just places for people to enjoy surfing the Web. Instead, they are doubling up as bedrooms for more than 5,400 Japanese homeless people.

In the first survey of its kind conducted in June and July, the ministry gave questionnaires to 1,200 Internet cafes out of 3,600 across the nation. Officials also spoke to roughly 1,700 cafe users at 86 locations. The ministry found that 60,900 Japanese people spend the night at cafes on any given night.

Roughly 8 percent of the respondents told officials they spend more than half the week at these cafes because they do not have homes. Based on those figures, the ministry estimated that about 5,400 people in Japan now live in Internet cafes.

As they check in, the users try to find comfort in a small cubicle with a reclining chair and a computer. Many cafes offer comics, soft drinks and even showers for free.

"You just go day by day. You find a job for the day, work all day, get paid and sleep in a cafe. When you get up, you start that cycle again," said one man in his 30s who wished to remain anonymous.

He said he used to be homeless and lived in a cafe in Tokyo not too long ago.

"You can't quite stretch your legs in those cubicles. You hear other people. You cannot totally relax," he recalled. "It is far from being in your own home. Little things used to tick me off."

Support groups for the homeless say those who live in Internet cafes are a new type of homeless compared to those who live in parks and on the streets.

They say that with comprehensive support -- from stable employment to comfortable housing -- this new type of homeless people could become productive members of the work force.

About half of those "Internet sleepers" already work in low-paying day-hire jobs, according to the government survey.

But supporters say the unstable employment situation makes it difficult for those day workers to have permanent homes. They say some government support could help the Internet sleepers change their lives.

"You need a permanent address or ID to get most full-time jobs, which I do not have," said the formerly homeless man. "You need to save money to pay for a deposit for an apartment. But my day job does not give me enough to do so."