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Fumiya, a Japanese worker who lives in an internet cafe, puts a blanket over his head to sleep. Image: Shiho Fukada

The Japanese Workers Who Live in Internet Cafes

Kari Paul

Kari Paul

The documentary 'Net Cafe Refugees' shows the stark choices Japanese workers have to make in the face of the country’s recession.

Fumiya, a Japanese worker who lives in an internet cafe, puts a blanket over his head to sleep. Image: Shiho Fukada

For 10 months, Fumiya, a 26-year-old Japanese security guard, has been living in a 24-hour internet cafe. In a tiny cubicle where he can barely stand, he sits hunched over a glowing screen, chain smoking and chugging soda between his work shifts. When he is able to sleep, he puts a blanket over his face to block out the fluorescent lights.

Fumiya is there because he couldn't afford to rent an apartment with his part-time wages as a security guard. Now, for the equivalent of $15 per night, he stays in the small room at the café, and considers himself lucky to find an inexpensive living place, calling the shop "well-equipped" because it has showers and laundry services.

Café-dwelling workers like Fumiya are the subject of a new documentary called Net Café Refugees by photojournalist Shiho Fukada. According to the doc, Japan's stringent work schedules and the rise of part-time employment has created countless "refugees" in the country who cannot afford apartments and live in these centers.

Fumiya is not alone: According to a 2007 survey by Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, some 5,400 people lived in internet cafés long-term because they could not find affordable living space.

These internet café refugees started appearing around the late 1990s and have largely increased in number in the last decade, according to the film. The phenomenon is part of a broader crisis for workers in Japan, in part due to Japan's partial legalization of temporary and contract work in 1986 and full legalization in 1999. Since then, the proportion of workers who have short-term contracts has risen to 38 percent, according to a union representative in the film, who said those contractors earn "less than half of full-time employees."

"This disparity leads directly to poverty," he said.

Fumiya sits in the internet cafe. Image: Shiho Fukada

But salary workers have problems of their own. One former salaryman who appears in the film named Tadayuki Sakai has lived in the internet cafe for four months. Previously, he had a full-time job at a credit card company, but says he became severely depressed working between 120 and 200 hours overtime each month. Sakai says he didn't have time to go home, and instead was forced to nap in the office before continuing to work. After his coworkers and boss shunned and gossiped about him for being weak, Sakai eventually quit.

"I think there are many people like that in Japan," he said of his depression. Sakai is right. The country has one of the highest rates of suicide in the world, in part due to work-related suicides. In fact, these suicides have become so common, a term has emerged for work-related suicides and deaths called "karōshi," translated literally as "death from overwork." Japan's first law to combat it was passed in 2014.

Tadayuki Sakai, a Japanese worker who lives in an internet café, left his job after being diagnosed with depression. Image: Shiho Fukada

Fukada, the film's director, told Motherboard by email these issues in Japan are two sides of the same coin.

"There is huge imbalance in the labor market where some feel they are forced to work to death, while others don't have enough work to survive," she said. "Unemployed people want to get jobs no matter what it is––full-time or otherwise. Temp work provides neither stability nor future career perspectives, so they want to get a full time job. But once they get a full time job, what's waiting for them is long work hours and high stress work. So no matter which path they take, there is no way out."

Sakai lies down in his cubicle. Image: Shiho Fukada

She said she thought the story was important to cover because Japanese people rarely share their problems with others, preferring to "suffer in private."

"I decided to make this series because I wanted to shine a light on some of the extreme conditions people are forced to work in Japan, and I wanted to show how people are treated more and more like disposable machine," she said.

As Japan deals with a 2014 recession that was worse than initially thought, Fukada's films document economic issues and other problems that continue to face the country's workers. Net Café Refugees is just one film in a series called "Japan's Disposable Workers."

The other three films, including one on workplace suicide called Overworked to Suicide, are also available online here.