In Japan, Digital Wage Slaves Live in Internet Cafes

Director Shiho Fukada sheds light on a growing problem in Japan, internet café refugees. For most temporary workers, a stall in one of these net cafés is all they can afford.

Internet cafés are nothing new, but over the past decade in Japan these 24-hour stalls have been adjusting their services to cater to a new clientèle — temporary workers that make too little to afford an apartment. Director Shiho Fukada has created an insightful video about these “internet café refugees” or “cyber homeless,” which began cropping up in the late 1990s. However, it has been a growing issue in the new millennium.

Some temporary workers dream of gaining security at a full-time job, however, “what's waiting for them is long hours and high-stress work,” says Makoto Kawazoe, who is a part of the Young Contingent Workers Union.

It's estimated that around 5,400 people spend half their week in net cafés, according to a 2007 survey. However, this video seems to indicate that the trend is growing. Net cafés have even introduced showers, and other living necessities to accommodate this new working class that makes up 7.5 percent of the adult population.

CNN reporter Cameron Allan McKean experienced the internet cafés first-hand, writing:

“They are pragmatic alternatives to renting an apartment. For ¥1,500 [$12.50] a night, or ¥300 [$2.50] per hour, you can have a private compartment complete with access to the internet, games, DVDs, comics, and an endless supply of soft drinks.”

However, McKean later writes that he was “unprepared for three things: the noise, the heat, and the light. There is colored ambient lighting which you can't turn off. There is a constant symphony of coughing, snoring, and tapping keys. I wake up frequently.”

Many of the residents in Fukada's short documentary echo these same complaints. A restful night eludes most residents of these cafés. But for some they are a haven that brings hope for a better life. 

Tadayuki Sakai used to be a salaryman at a credit card company, but his work-life balance was severely off-kilter. He says he would put in as much as 120 to 200 hours of overtime every month. He didn't have time to go home, so he would nap at the office. Eventually, he became depressed, took a month off of work to recover, but when he returned, his boss and coworkers shunned him for being weak. There is a saying among salarymen, he says: “It's better to bend than to break.”

Sakai handed in his resignation after working for the company for 20 years. He said in the video:

“My heart was singing when I quit.”

Watch the entire documentary short at Vimeo.

Photo Credit: Dick Thomas Johnson / Flickr

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