Kazushi Takahashi, a 22-year-old student in Tokyo, likes the privacy provided by closed individual rooms in Internet cafes, where he can surf the Web, play online games and read manga.
“I wouldn’t be able to relax if people peek in a room I am in,” he said.
What Takahashi doesn’t know is that since last April people like him in Osaka and a few other prefectures don’t have the privacy he enjoys in Tokyo’s Internet cafes.
Privacy is out of reach for Osaka Internet cafe fans because operators had to make the rooms viewable from the outside, for example by changing door materials from wood to transparent acrylic or altering the doors so they can’t be closed.
This was at the instruction of the Osaka Prefectural Police, who view the individual rooms as likely sites of serious crimes, including sexual assault.
Industry observers say the police in Osaka are excessive in their enforcement of existing restrictions compared with most other prefectures, but the reason remains unclear.
What is clear is that the pressure is affecting the industry, and Internet cafe operators are trying to come up with ways to avoid further control by authorities.
Sales at Osaka Internet cafes dropped 20 percent last year, compared with a 2.6 percent decrease nationwide, according to Osamu Wakamatsu, an adviser to the Japan Complex Cafe Association, an industry group for Internet cafes.
“Lack of privacy is definitely the reason for Osaka’s slump,” he said.
Pretty much from their inception, Internet cafes drew fire as potential hotbeds for crime. But the situation improved after cafes in 2008 began requiring customers to register as members and started making photocopies of their identification cards in compliance with prefectural ordinances and the rules adopted by the industry association, Wakamatsu said.
Cafe operators can also now identify people who use a specific computer at a specific time. Such information is very useful for police in pinpointing criminal suspects.
However, last April the National Police Agency, which still views the private rooms in Internet cafes with suspicion, sent out instructions to prefectural police forces across the country to determine if the Internet cafes with closed rooms in their jurisdictions should be regulated by the law controlling the sex industry, pachinko parlors and similar entertainment establishments.
A restaurant or a bar that has a room measuring 5 or less sq. meters that is difficult to look into from the outside should be regulated under this law.
Police regard most Internet cafes with private rooms as such an establishment, because at the very least they serve free soft drinks. Some also offer free milk and ice cream and have vending machines selling cup noodles and snacks.
But having to register as a restaurant under this law would prohibit them from operating 24 hours. For the Internet cafe operators, this would mean losing lots of customers, who use the space as a cheap hotel with free access to the Internet and manga.
Thus, most operators in Osaka have opted to make the rooms less private, said Wakamatsu, who travels across Japan advising cafe operators on how to deal with local police.
Mitsuhiro Tada, an official in the Osaka Prefectural Police’s public safety department, told The Japan Times that Osaka’s “translation of the NPA’s instruction is that we need to make Internet cafe operators fix a situation in which shop employees patrolling the floor have to stop and try really hard in order to look inside individual rooms.”
The walls of the rooms generally don’t go all the way to the ceiling. Therefore the height of the walls, and the ease with which staff can peer over them to see what’s going on inside is a factor.
Despite the strong pressure, seven Internet cafes in Osaka refused to modify their rooms. The local police responded by turning their cases over to prosecutors, alleging failure to register as businesses regulated by the law controlling the sex industry and pachinko parlors, Tada said.
“There were many reports of sexual assaults and theft in Internet cafes and we received many requests from Osaka residents to tighten restrictions,” he said.
Internet cafes in Aichi Prefecture have meanwhile installed glass windows at eye level in their doors at the instruction of the prefectural police.
But the police in Tokyo have a different take on the NPA’s instructions.
“We sometimes go into Internet cafes as part of general patrolling, but we didn’t find any of them that should be regulated by the law controlling the sex industry and other entertainment establishments,” a Metropolitan Police Department spokesman said.
Industry adviser Wakamatsu said because of this difference in the perception of Internet cafes between police departments, those establishments in Tokyo and other prefectures get away with having individual rooms that wouldn’t be allowed in Osaka.
For example, an Internet cafe in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, has dozens of individual rooms partitioned by black plastic doors and walls as tall as 160 to 170 cm. The doors can also be locked from the inside.
Runsystem Co., which runs 188 outlets of the Jiyuu Kuukan Internet cafe chain in 42 prefectures, has changed the doors from wood or plastic to transparent acrylic or made them unable to close in prefectures where police instructed it to do so, spokesman Tsuyoshi Watanabe said. No such order has come from Tokyo police, he said.
“Customers complain, but we have no choice,” he said of opening up the individual rooms.
A spokeswoman for Diamond Dining Co., operator of the Bagus Internet cafe chain, declined comment on how the company deals with police instructions.
Wakamatsu observed that only a few other prefectural police forces have approached the level of enforcement in Osaka, where the police are by far the most aggressive in restricting Internet cafes.
Their rationale for the clampdown is that sex crimes are committed in the individual rooms.
There is, however, scant evidence to prove sexual crimes have been increasing. There were 11 reported sexual assaults in Internet cafes in the first half of last year, compared with eight in 2010 and 18 in 2009, according to NPA statistics. The agency did not compile such statistics before 2009.
“However, Osaka police are saying sexual assaults don’t happen in regular cafes, and therefore Internet cafes are bad,” Wakamatsu said. “They also say Internet cafes have turned into ‘love hotels’ for kids.”
The attitudes between the different police forces toward Internet cafes may stand in sharp contrast now, but there is no guarantee that Tokyo police will never be as strict as Osaka police, according to Wakamatsu.
“Not just Tokyo, but other prefectures may follow Osaka’s lead. There is no concrete standard as to what makes private individual rooms too private,” he said.
Internet cafes raked in ¥226.6 billion at their peak in 2008, up from ¥120 billion in 2001, the first year such statistics were compiled, according to the industry association. Sales started falling in 2009 due to the recession, dropping to ¥198.6 billion last year.
There were 2,481 Internet cafes nationwide as of last June. By prefecture, Tokyo had the most, at 407, followed by Aichi with 318 and Osaka with 185, according to the association.