Dec 27, 2008

Lifestyle - Japan cyber cafe offers residential address to unemployed, homeless

Tokyo: In a country where a street address is key to getting a job, an Internet cafe near Tokyo is offering the unemployed and homeless more than just a virtual, email address.

In addition to the usual Internet services, comic books and unlimited beverages offered by most Japanese Internet cafes, Cyber @ Cafe offers its residents long-term lodging and an official registered address.

This simple service is vital for the 50 semi-permanent residents of the cafe, many of whom have taken refuge here after being laid off abruptly during the current recession.

Takemitsu Karitachi, a contract worker at a nearby factory, is one of the many people who have been sleeping at the cafe every night for the past two months since he lost his office job and his apartment.

Karitachi, who used to roam the streets and hopped between various Internet cafes for months, says he is now relieved to have found a more permanent home -- even if it’s a cubicle just slightly bigger than the back seat of a car.

“Before I came here, I would sit around on chairs in front of places like supermarkets and eat rice balls during the day. But when I really didn’t have any money or work, I had to sleep on park benches at night,” Karitachi said.

Like Karitachi, many of people who frequent cyber cafes are unemployed and homeless who are looking for shelter, but unlike the residents of Cyber @ Cafe, they can’t call these places home. “Human resources agencies used to hire contract workers like me without an official address, but that has changed,” Karitachi said. “Now you need an official address and a guarantor.”

Cyber @ Cafe has a microwave and shower and lodgers pay about $20 a day, much less than budget hotels. Japan’s jobless rate is still at an enviable—by Western standards—3.7%, but according to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, about 30,000 contract workers will be laid off across the country between October 2008 and March 2009.

The economy is also in recession and analysts predict this slowdown may be perhaps the longest on record, as global demand for Japanese cars and technology dries up.

Since late October, 50 cubicles in the dimly lit Cyber @ Cafe have been packed with jobseekers, giving cafe owner Akihiro Sato a close-up look at the economic recession.

He said younger lodgers in their mid-to-late-twenties tend to stay for a couple of months before finding a home and a job, but older and poorer residents, with little chance of finding work, are almost permanent fixtures. “People who lost their jobs in this recession have absolutely no where to go so this cafe is their last resort,” Sato said.

“The government just announced that they’ll build some kind of housing for contract and temporary workers, but the process is too complicated. They need a place right now and we can offer that and that’s why there’s a great demand,” he said.

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