24 hours as a Tokyo Internet café refugee

24 hours as a Tokyo Internet café refugee

What life is like in Tokyo's Internet cafés, which increasingly provide shelter to the city's homeless, runaways, divorced husbands and others
Tokyo internet cafe
These photos unfortunately cannot capture the smell of a place like this: stale cigarette smoke, fried croquettes and body odor seeped into leather. (Photo by Flickr user zeraien)

The homeless in Tokyo are always haunted by sleep. You see them trying to scrape together a few minutes or hours of decent rest in cardboard caves or nodding off while riding the endless Yamanote loop line. Harder to see are the sleeping rituals of the working poor, an emerging group of workers, sometimes homeless, who make up 7.5% of the Japanese adult population, according to a 2007 study by the Health Ministry of Japan.

The Ministry's report claims that at least 5,400 of these working poor have adopted Tokyo's Internet cafés as a temporary home. Dubbed 'Internet Café Refugees,' these (mostly) men are human fallout from an expensive city filled beyond its capacity.

First opened in 1995, the Internet cafés of Tokyo are no longer just rows of PC's and swivel chairs. They are pragmatic alternatives to renting an apartment. For ¥1,500 a night, or ¥300 per hour, you can have a private compartment complete with access to the Internet, games, DVDs, comics and an endless supply of soft drinks.

As the government focuses their new research on the refugees, I wanted to experience a taste of their living quarters for myself. To do so I spent 24 hours between four cafés in the city to create an anecdotal 'quality of sleep' index, ranking Manboo! in Shinjuku, EZcafé in Kamata, Gran Cyber Café Bagus in Shibuya and Media Café Popeye in Ogikubo.

manga cafeRows of manga for reading. (Photo by Flickr user <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/1yen/" target="_blank">1yen</a>)11pm: Manboo! in Shinjuku

Through the sliding entrance of Manboo! lies a windowless, smoky expanse of tight corridors and squashed cubicles, with rows of shoes outside each door. The cashier guides me through the cubicle options -- I choose a non-smoking flat seat -- and shows me the time options. One hour will cost ¥290, but I choose the 8 hour "nightpack" for ¥1,380. So does the older, clean shaven man in trackpants next to me. Older customers are not rare, but the majority are office workers under 40. Day laborers stay further outside the city center where it's cheaper.

I head to the mens' area. The space is small, roughly 1x2 meters. Where would a refugee leave their baggage in a place like this? Jun Koike, a part time video editor and DJ in his early 30s who spent a year on and off as an Internet café refugee, explains that he would leave his "belongings at a friends house and only take what I needed for that month." It's a necessary technique, any less space would make sleeping even more difficult. 

I am unprepared for three things: the noise, the heat and the light. There is colored ambient lighting which you can't turn off. There is a constant symphony of coughing, snoring and tapping keys. I wake up frequently. My attempt to use my scarf as an all-in-one eyemask/earmuffler has failed miserably. Finally arising, dazed and dehydrated from the perpetual AC, I head for the shower. But there is an hour long queue. The cashier shows me the names on his list, so I decide to step out into the cold. But Shinjuku's morning rush hour is so overwhelming after a sleepless night that for a full two seconds I almost want to go back inside my cubicle.

Manboo! Cafe: Tokyo Generation Sansei Bldg. 3F, Yoyogi 2-10-13, Shibuya-ku, tel. 03 5304 7911, www.manboo.co.jp

9am: EZcafé in Kamata  

Kamata is next. This is an area adopted by Internet café refugees for its cheap prices and singled out by the media for its sensationally decrepit living. I choose EZcafé, a minor chain, with minimal facilities but free showers. The eight hour nightpack here costs an unjust ¥1,800.

The space is significantly smaller -- impossible to lie down in -- and much brighter, lit by an enormous fake chandelier. The only way to sleep would be to hire one of the double spaces, which when I was there, three people were doing. Their cubicles were filled with comics, used paper cups, clothes and blankets. Perhaps workers using the café's cheap day rates. Tokyo's Internet cafés are used by all types, from divorcées kicked out of a house, to young runaways to journalists doing endurance reporting.

For serious Internet café refugees, however, it all comes down to simple economics. Koike's life as a net café refugee began when he couldn't pay the annual one month rent's worth of gift money to his landlord, but he shrugs: "At least I had somewhere to go."

That seems like unnecessary optimism when you see places like EZcafé: lacking facilities, overly lit, with sticky keyboards and a slow Internet connection. Avoid Kamata's Internet cafés unless you want a dose of some backward realism.

EZcafé Kamata: Miyabe Bldg. 2F-4F, Nishikamata 7-66-5, Ota-ku, tel. 03 5710 9330, www.ez-cafe.co.jp

2pm: Gran Cyber Café Bagus in Shibuya

With 180 cubicles Gran Cyber Café Bagus is one of the largest Internet cafés in Japan. And the interior is anything other than 'refugee.' The eight hour nightpack is ¥1,600, for a small space and a vast range of free facilities: an extensive comic, magazine, newspaper library (including one science journal), eight vending machines, massage chairs (¥150 manga cafeA row of booths in a manga cafe. (Photo by Flickr user <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/simonk/" target="_blank">simonk</a>)per 30 minutes), and unexpectedly, a soft serve ice cream machine. Bagus provides the prototype for the Internet café's future: Much more than just a cubicle and a computer, something more like a comfortable, facility rich, media immersion capsule. Koike recommends the Bagus cafés, especially the Kichijoji branch.

Their popularity means most compartments are full by 3pm. I am curious to see what people are doing with their time, so, in a flagrant invasion of privacy I peer over the five foot high partitions as I walk through the mens area. About a third are playing online games, another third are reading comics or watching movies (sometimes at the same time) and, predictably, the final third are enjoying some carnal self abuse. 

Bagus is completely built around relaxation and pleasure. How hard can living as an Internet café refugee really be? "It is hard," says Koike, "I hope I never need to do it again." The worst part? "You can't sleep, you're always tired, and eventually you start to go a little crazy."

Gran Cyber Café Bagus Shibuya: Mitsuyoshi Bldg. 6F, Udagawacho 28-6, Shibuya-ku, tel. 03 5428 3217, www.bagus-99.com/netcafe

8pm: Media Café Popeye in Ogikubo

I am starting to feel a little dizzy myself -- the claustrophobia, bad air, bad nights' sleep and endless free coffees are taking their toll. Heading out of the city again I enter Media Café Popeye in Ogikubo. Popeye is one of the most expensive chains (the 10 hour nightpack can cost up to ¥3,000) and also the most comfortable. Aside from providing a tanning bed, the facilities here are the same as in other chains. But everything is a lot more comfortable and spacious, including the cubicles, where you can easily lie out flat. The light is dim and soft jazz is even piped in to block out the tapping keys, breathing or snoring. In terms of quality of sleep, Popeye is the winner. But sadly, with such high prices, those who need the rest most will probably miss out.

Media Café Popeye Ogikubo: Roof Ogikubo Bldg. 3F, Amanuma 3-2-7, Suginami-Ku, tel. 03 5335 0320, www.media-cafe.ne.jp

11pm: Home again

Riding the last train home through Shinjuku station the neon lights seem more aggressive than usual after the net cafés' cramped claustrophobia, and it's easy to understand why Tokyo is a labeled a '24 hour city.'  For the homeless and other Internet café refugees though, Tokyo isn't so much the city that never sleeps, but the city that can't sleep, even though it desperately, desperately, wants to.