Precarious workers and the cyber-homeless - Mayday march in Japan

Internet Café cubicle
Internet Café cubicle

There are 2.3 million young casualised and part-time workers in Japan.

Submitted by Red Marriott on May 8, 2007

Takeshi Yamashita does not look like a homeless person. From his carefully distressed jeans to his casual-cool navy striped T-shirt, he is every bit the trendy Tokyoite. Yet the 26-year-old has been sleeping in a reclining seat in an Internet cafe every night for the past month since he lost his steady office job and his apartment. It's cheaper than a hotel, offers access to the Internet and hundreds of Manga comic books, and even has a microwave and a shower where he can wash in the morning before heading off to one of his temporary jobs ranging from cleaning to basic office work.

Yamashita is one of Japan's many "freeters" -- a compound of "free" and "Arbeiter," the German word for "worker." A by-product of the economic crisis that hit Japan and its lifelong employment guarantees in the 1990s, freeters drift between odd jobs.

Now the economy is recovering, but many freeters are missing out on the upswing after years of unskilled work. Most expanding companies prefer to recruit fresh university graduates or transfer basic jobs to low-wage countries such as China.(yahoo news, May 7 2007)

Comprising freelance workers who live on earnings split between several jobs, and other temporary workers, day labourers, over the past two decades the numbers of freeters keeps increasing. The economic downturn that hit Japan in the 1990s has lead to permanent changes in employment practice - like elsewhere, jobs for life are long gone. Casualised low wage work has become the realityfor a wide range of young workers today; Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world and high rents mean that a short period of unemployment can soon put workers on the streets. Dubbed the 'cyber-homeless', an unknown number of workers now survive for varying periods by sleeping nightly in internet cafe cubicles.

Paying 1,400 to 2,400 yen ($12-$20/£6-10/EU8.8-14.7)) for a night in a central Internet cafe, each cubicle provides a reclining seat or sofa, a blanket, computer and clothes hanger. Free soft drinks, TV, comics and Internet access are included -- and prices are cheaper than those of Japan's famous "capsule hotels," where guests sleep in plastic cells.

There is no official data on the cyber cafe homeless. Japan's Welfare Ministry plans a wider study on the phenomenon, according to a newspaper report, but in the meantime, it is hard to gauge the scope of the problem or its social impact. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many are freeters in their mid-to-late-twenties, who stay in a net cafe for a couple of months before settling for a more permanent housing solution.

Those who are older, poorer, with fewer chances of escaping their drifting lifestyle, and sometimes too embarrassed to return home, find themselves at the very bottom of cyber-society. They congregate in run-down Tokyo suburbs such as Kamata, renting poorly ventilated, smoke-filled cubicles with reclining seats for 100 yen an hour.
"It's very uncomfortable. You can't really sleep," said one Kamata cafe guest who preferred not to be named.

Those who are poorer still, both homeless and workless, live in the 'cardboard cities' of the major towns.

(All this is not so very different from what is happening now in London, an even more expensive city. Last week it was reported that East European immigrant workers were sleeping in public toilet cubicles in Hackney - at 20p a night with free washing facilities, by far the cheapest rent in town for the low-paid casualised worker. Dreams of economic advancement can quickly shatter against hard reality...)

'Rengo', the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, comments on the freeters;

Emerging Problems of Freeters (Freelance Part-Time Workers) and NEETs (Young People Not in Education, Employment or Training)
Due to high turnover (the so-called 7/5/3 phenomenon*) among young workers, their unemployment ratio remains as high as 10%. Freeters amount to 2.13 million, increasing by 100,000 a year, while NEETs are reported to number 640,000. 40% of freeters receive financial assistance from their parents and siblings, and their marriage rate is lower than that of non-freeters. They have emerged as a social problem not only from the concern of their impoverishment due to low wages but also because they could gravely undermine the social security system through their positioning outside of the coverage of pension and health insurance plans.

(* 7/5/3 phenomenon: 70% of secondary school graduates, 50% of high school graduates and 30% of university graduates terminate employment within 3 years of entering a company.)

The proportion of youth NEET has more than doubled since doubled since 1990. This includes those suffering from the 'Hikkomori' (literally; 'shut-ins') syndrome; "One million Japanese, or almost 1 percent of the population, are estimated to suffer from hikikomori, defined as a withdrawal from friends and family for months or even years. Some 40 percent of hikikomori are below the age of 21." Western psychologists have compared it to extreme social anxiety and agoraphobia (fear of open spaces). On the Mayday march described below a banner declared "Hikikomori also have a right to life".

On April 30th in Tokyo a march entitled “MayDay for Freedom and Lives” took place in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Subtitled “Resistance of the Precariat”, over 400 people took part, including freeters, part timers, day labourers and homeless, who all live with neither security nor stability. The May Day march has been organised for the past four years by the “Freeters’ General Union” to publicise and protest the problems of the precariat.

Despite tight policing the procession marched through the city to a busy shopping centre. The main feature of this event was a "Sound Demo"; the 400 demonstrators dancing to music while yelling and voicing their discontent.

A demonstrator commented;
"Talking does not make any difference, and I had to take action, so I went to a demonstration for the first time in my life. I learned and discovered so many things.
.... More than one third of the entire working population is made up of non-full time workers. In other words, even if they wish, one third of all people cannot be employed full time. .... Is this such a serious fault that they deserve to become homeless or even starve to death?"

After the march, a "Precariat talk session and interchange" took place where many different experiences and views were exchanged.