'Net cafe refugee' population put at 5,400

Compiled From Kyodo, AP

Around 5,400 people with no fixed address spend their nights at 24-hour Internet cafes across Japan, of whom 27 percent are in their 20s, the health ministry said Tuesday.

In its first survey on so-called Net cafe refugees, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry also determined that people in their 50s comprise 23 percent of the total, and half of them work low-paying day-hire jobs.

In the survey conducted in June and July, the ministry gave questionnaires to about 1,700 sleepover customers at 87 Net cafes across Japan, while separately interviewing 362 people outside Net cafes in Tokyo and Osaka.

The ministry found that 8 percent of the respondents sleep in Net cafes because they have no home. Based on this figure, the ministry estimated that about 5,400 people in Japan use Net cafes as a home substitute.

In Tokyo, 58 percent are short-term laborers and 17 percent are unemployed.

The monthly income of those in Tokyo averages ¥110,000, compared with ¥80,000 in Osaka, with more than 40 percent of the respondents having experienced sleeping on the streets.

In Tokyo, 33 percent lost their home after quitting work and 20 percent said they left dorms and live-in housing after leaving their jobs.

The survey also found 66 percent of the respondents experience difficulty in saving money to rent an apartment while 38 percent were concerned whether they could continue paying rent.

Many said looking for a job is difficult because they lack a fixed address.

“We are just beginning to understand the underlying dynamics,” ministry official Jun Teraoka said. “This survey will help us identify and tackle the many labor and welfare issues involved in this phenomenon.”

Takeshi Ikuta, who heads a support group for homeless people in Osaka, said Net cafe refugees should be considered homeless, and the younger ones should be viewed as vulnerable.

“The government should take support measures for people working under unstable labor conditions before they are trapped in a pattern of sleeping in Net cafes,” Ikuta said.

Customers at a typical Net cafe can stay overnight for ¥1,000 to ¥2,000 in a small cubicle equipped with a reclining chair, computer and TV. Many cafes offer free soft-drink refills and some even have showers.

The ministry attributes the rise in people making such cafes their home to the ballooning number of young people who hop from one temporary job to the next. Estimates put the figure at 2 million.

The job-hoppers are a byproduct of the economic crisis that hit a decade ago, as well as a shift in values among younger generations less ready to conform to Japan’s more traditional corporate work ethic, analysts say.

Many Net cafe inhabitants rely on their cell phones to arrange day jobs that don’t require a fixed address. But the casual nature of the work means they often receive low wages and no training, social security or health insurance.

The phenomenon has also raised health concerns. In 2005, 13 people contracted tuberculosis at a Net cafe in Kawasaki that health officials suspect originated from the cafe’s homeless population.

Refuge sought by the homeless is not limited to Net cafes. Many also congregate in all-night saunas and 24-hour fast food outlets, according to the study.

A government survey released earlier this year found about 18,500 people — mostly 40 or older — live on the street nationwide, down 27 percent from a similar survey four years ago.

But analysts say the Net cafe refugees signal the existence of hidden forms of homelessness not counted in previous tallies, especially among younger people.