Late one cool, breezy evening last May, Kenji Nakamura paid around $15 for an eight-hour stay at an Internet cafe in Tokyo's Shibuya neighborhood. He spent his first hour preparing for the uncomfortable night ahead—instant ramen noodles to slake his hunger, green tea for his thirst, and a 10-minute shower to wash off the day's grime.
"There's no extra charge for showering, but sometimes there's a long wait and I don't get to clean up," he said. "Tonight I was lucky."
The 32-year-old works as a part-time laborer, pouring cement and swinging a sledgehammer, with irregular work hours and irregular pay that have forced him into an irregular existence: employed but penniless, homeless but not on the streets. Like several thousand other underemployed people surveyed by the Japanese government in 2007, he scrapes together just enough cash to spend most of his nights sleeping in one of the country's more than 3,000 Internet cafes.
After showering, Nakamura pulled on a pair of pajama bottoms and a plain white T-shirt, and grabbed a clean blanket from a pile stacked near the entrance to his cubicle. Once inside, he plugged his mobile phone into a charging dock near the computer, which sat atop a small shelf that acted as a desk when he sat on the padded vinyl floor. Cigarette smoke rose from the stall to the left and poured into Nakamura's space. Ceiling lights burned bright. In the cubicle to the right, a woman gabbed on her cell phone. Around midnight, the sound of snoring began to rise like a chorus nearing its crescendo.
"I'm so exhausted," Nakamura said as he stretched out in a sleeping space smaller than a twin-sized mattress. "Not even the noise or the lights will keep me awake tonight."
Earlier that same day, the Shibuya Internet cafe was filled mostly with the kind of people that made these establishments ubiquitous during the more prosperous economic climate of the 1990s: young men looking to surf the Web, watch television, or read the latest manga (comic books) while sipping bottomless free drinks; young suburban women in need of a place to change clothes and do their make-up after work, before heading to a restaurant or club in the city; and teenage couples looking for a place to make out after school.
During these hours, when people are coming and going, there is more snacking than smoking, and the bright lights above are less irritating. Light conversation and occasional laughter hang in the air. These hours are for people seeking a brief retreat from whatever obligations await them at work or home—like karaoke cubicles, Net cafes provide some of the only private spaces many people know in a city like Tokyo.
Overnight stays at cafes like this were once a last resort for drunks and workers who had missed the last train home, but decades of economic decline in Japan have produced a growing class of underemployed workers like Nakamura. Some of them eschewed the salaried rat race after witnessing what it did to the previous generation, while others sought dream careers that didn't pan out. Others simply failed to pass the entrance examination necessary to get into a good high school, which, in turn, hurt their chances of doing well on the tests required to get into a good college. Without the kind of training or education that might have made him an attractive candidate for a permanent, full-time job, Nakamura found himself on the same precarious path as many other so-called "Net cafe refugees," whose ranks seem to have swelled beyond the several thousand estimated by Japan's government a decade ago.
The 2007 government survey offers a glimpse into the lives of Net cafe refugees: In Tokyo, 58 percent of them are short-term day laborers, like Nakamura, and most of them get just enough part-time work to earn, on average, $1,000 per month. Nearly half of them reports sleeping on the streets at some point. They are mostly men, and mostly under 50 years old. A lot of them, like Nakamura, are still registered to addresses they haven't slept at for years.
"I got kicked out of my apartment almost two years ago," Nakamura said. "I could afford the rent some months, but other times I was late, and eventually I got evicted."
Even if he were able to scrape together enough cash to rent a cheap apartment in Tokyo, he'd never be able to afford the exorbitant deposits and fees associated with moving into a new place in Japan.
"Honestly, I have no idea how I'll ever get out of this situation."
Just after one o'clock in the morning, a wave of fresh overnight guests stumbled loudly into the neon-lit lobby, rousing Nakamura from his rough slumber.
"Drunks," he said. "And idiots who missed the last train home."
Nearly 30 minutes passed before the commotion died down, and, a few hours later, another wave of late-night drinkers barged in. Some of them were still humming the tunes they'd been singing at a nearby karaoke bar. These busy hours between sundown and sunrise account for three-fourths of the money brought in by most Internet cafes in Japan.
Around six o'clock in the morning, people lined up near a vending machine that dispenses free coffee, tea, and juice. Nakamura stumbled toward another one selling a selection of rice balls, two of which he ate for breakfast before packing his large backpack and setting out for another day of work.
Nakamura checked out at the front desk, where a clerk bowed and politely asked him to come again. As he made his way for the door, he smiled and said, "I'll be back." When he said this, he used a Japanese verb that means "to return," which is distinct from a separate verb that means "to return home."
A few months later, when I rang the cell phone number Nakamura had given me, the line was dead.