Japan's homeless 'net cafe refugees' seek shelter amid virus woe - GulfToday

Japan's homeless 'net cafe refugees' seek shelter amid virus woe


Katsuya Asao, 54, prepares to rest at a shelter provided by Kanagawa prefecture.

Thousands of homeless "net cafe refugees" in Japan risk being turfed out onto the streets as the coronavirus pandemic forces the sudden closure of their uniquely Japanese 24/7 comic book havens.

The ubiquitous all-night internet and "manga" comic cafes offer couches, computers, comics, soft drinks and shower facilities for an overnight stay typically priced around 2,000 yen ($18).

An estimated 4,000 people down on their luck make their home in such cafes in Tokyo alone, and activists worry that shutting them down could lead to suicides and a spike in rough sleepers.

Some local authorities are now opening shelters to accommodate "net cafe refugees" and keep them from sleeping out in the open.

japanlife1  Katsuya Asao, 54, looks on at a shelter provided by Kanagawa prefecture.

One 58-year-old occasional construction-site worker told a section of the media his main aim was "avoiding getting wet", as he found a roof over his head at a shelter converted from a martial arts centre in Yokohama near Tokyo.

Renting an apartment in Japan requires a very expensive deposit and presents tricky administrative hurdles, leaving net cafes a convenient option for many of the country's hidden poor.

'Discreet and quiet'

The temporary shelters at the judo hall in Yokohama, operated by the local Kanagawa authorities, have been designed by a team led by award-winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban to offer privacy and prevent infections.

japanlife2 Katsuya Asao, 54, prepares to rest at a shelter provided by Kanagawa prefecture.

Residents sleep on camp-style cots or cardboard beds partitioned off by a frame of sturdy paper tubes with cloth hanging from the top of the cubicle to the floor.

Ban is famed for other emergency shelters and buildings, including the Cardboard Cathedral for Christchurch in New Zealand after the 2011 earthquake.

The aim is to provide a safe place to those driven out by the coronavirus crisis, said Yuji Miyakoshi, an official at the municipal government.

The free shelter has hosted nearly 40 people since opening on April 11 and one resident said it had been proved invaluable after his "capsule hotel" accommodation closed two days ago.

japanlife4 A shelter provided by Kanagawa prefecture for people who can’t afford to rent an apartment. 

 'Unsafe housing conditions'

On the surface, Japan appears a wealthy and prosperous society and visitors to Tokyo and other major cities are often struck by the relative lack of homeless people seen in other world capitals.

The Japanese economy bounced back from a recession in the 1990s, creating millions of new jobs, but critics said many of them were temporary and created a new class of urban poverty.


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The manga cafes were initially a haven for late-working -- or late-drinking -- business people from far-flung suburbs who missed the last train home, but eventually became a shelter for Japan's working poor.

Coronavirus has driven these people into a corner, said Tsuyoshi Inaba, who has long been involved in helping homeless people.

Inaba estimates there are already 2,000 homeless in Tokyo -- double the official figure -- as public surveys conducted during the day often miss people sleeping rough at night after a day's work.


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