Japanese Homeless Find Refuge at Internet Cafes

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


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."

"Then you are in this vicious circle If you do not have a permanent address, employers will not hire you. If you do not have a stable job, you do not get a permanent address."

Some say the actual number of Internet sleepers may be even higher than the government's estimate.

Since their existence came to light, those living in cafes are now socially known as Internet cafe refugees.

An association of Internet cafe owners complains those people are not refugees but customers.

"I do not know what to call them but we do have people who spend night after night at our cafe," said Michito Chonan, a manager at an Internet cafe in Tokyo.

"On any given night, we have about 15 people spending the evening at our cafe. There was a man who stayed for as long as six months," Chonan said.

The Health Ministry added $2 million to its latest budget to tackle the problem. The money is aimed at helping those cafe sleepers break into the work force.

Although the issue has made headlines across the country, the overall trend is not exactly new.

Osamu Maebashi, a 38-year-old who was formerly homeless, saw a need for temporary housing for 'Net cafe users a few years ago.

"People were spending nights in those cafes even back then. There are also people staying at cheap inns like what is called a capsule hotel," said Maebashi.

"These people always existed in today's society. Some may do so out of necessity, but some do so because it is easier for them rather than having to worry about monthly rent," Maebashi said.

Maebashi now runs a social venture called M Crew. The company offers day jobs at building sites in the Tokyo metropolitan area and runs temporary housing called "Rest Box" at 21 sites in central Tokyo.

A bunk bed at a Rest Box costs roughly $12 a night. The idea is to help those without homes save money to get their own apartments. A few thousand people have signed to use the Rest Box since it opened in 2003.

Maebashi still makes rounds in Tokyo to check the status of homeless people. He said the attention on the so-called Internet refugees masks a bigger problem -- Japan's homeless population on the street is getting older.

The government said there are roughly 18,000 homeless living on Japanese streets, and their average age is now 58 and climbing -- up from 56 four years ago.

"Many are sick and they cannot get jobs," said Maebashi. "Those cafe sleepers are not the ones the government should be throwing tons of money on."

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