YOKOHAMA, JAPAN (AFP) – Thousands of homeless “net cafe refugees” in Japan risk being turfed out onto the streets as the coronavirus pandemic forces the sudden closure of their uniquely Japanese 24/7 comic book havens.
The ubiquitous all-night Internet and manga comic cafes offer couches, computers, comics, soft drinks and shower facilities for an overnight stay typically priced around JPY2,000 (USD18).
An estimated 4,000 people down on their luck make their home in such cafes in Tokyo alone, and activists worry that shutting them down could lead to suicides and a spike in rough sleepers.
Some local authorities are now opening shelters to accommodate “net cafe refugees” and keep them from sleeping out in the open.
One 58-year-old occasional construction-site worker told AFP his main aim was “avoiding getting wet”, as he found a roof over his head at a shelter converted from a martial arts centre in Yokohama near Tokyo.
“I thought of sleeping on a bench at a train station… or subway stairs going underground,” said the grey-haired man, who declined to give his name.
His net cafe informed him at the weekend it would be closing due to state of emergency measures in Japan to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
“I used to go to work from net cafes… now I sometimes have a job, sometimes not, due to the coronavirus,” he said, adding that it was nearly impossible to find a permanent job at his age.
Renting an apartment in Japan requires a very expensive deposit and presents tricky administrative hurdles, leaving net cafes a convenient option for many of the country’s hidden poor.
“I have nowhere to go to, few acquaintances,” said the man.
The temporary shelters at the judo hall in Yokohama, operated by the local Kanagawa authorities, have been designed by a team led by award-winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban to offer privacy and prevent infections.
Residents sleep on camp-style cots or cardboard beds partitioned off by a frame of sturdy paper tubes with cloth hanging from the top of the cubicle to the floor.
Ban is famed for other emergency shelters and buildings, including the Cardboard Cathedral for Christchurch in New Zealand after the 2011 earthquake. The aim is to provide a safe place to those driven out by the coronavirus crisis, said Yuji Miyakoshi, an official at the municipal government.
The free shelter has hosted nearly 40 people since opening on April 11 and one resident said it had been proved invaluable after his “capsule hotel” accommodation closed two days ago.
“I went to work, slept at the hotel and went back to work. I moved to this place but nothing has changed so much,” said the man in his 30s who works in construction.
Miyakoshi said the people in the shelter were “quite discreet and quiet… My feeling is that many of them are obviously not good at asserting themselves”.
On the surface, Japan appears a wealthy and prosperous society and visitors to Tokyo and other major cities are often struck by the relative lack of homeless people seen in other world capitals.
The Japanese economy bounced back from a recession in the 1990s, creating millions of new jobs, but critics said many of them were temporary and created a new class of urban poverty.
The manga cafes were initially a haven for late-working business people from far-flung suburbs who missed the last train home, but eventually became a shelter for Japan’s working poor.
Coronavirus has driven these people into a corner, said Tsuyoshi Inaba, who has long been involved in helping homeless people.
Inaba estimates there are already 2,000 homeless in Tokyo – double the official figure – as public surveys conducted during the day often miss people sleeping rough at night after a day’s work.
Combined with 4,000 net cafe refugees, “some 6,000 people are in unstable, unsafe housing situations” in Tokyo alone, Inaba told AFP.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which ordered establishments such as net cafes closed amid a spike of coronavirus cases in the capital, is trying to find a solution for the hundreds abruptly made homeless.
But activists said not enough accommodation is being provided and that the conditions are too onerous – such as requiring applicants to prove they have been in Tokyo for six months or longer.
Many kicked out of net cafes have no option but to sleep on the street if they can’t find a proper shelter, Inaba said, adding, “This could cause social confusion and suicides are feared to increase.”
If official aid remains inadequate, Inaba foresees a “big problem” that could even contribute to a further spreading of coronavirus.