Japan’s Homeless Cyber Drifters

Last Saturday I happened to have a three-hour gap between two of my English classes because another of my clients had requested that we postpone our meeting from lunchtime to early evening. It was too early to make use of the spa facilities at one of the city centre hotels, so I headed down to the station and rented a cubicle in a nearby cyber-cafe, close to the designated meeting place for my next English lesson.

I was able to chill out in “my own” private space drinking free coffee, checking my email, surfing the Internet, reading the latest edition of the London Review of Books and snoozing in the reclining chair, with LRB serving as a convenient “blanket”.

Very cosy, and very refreshing!

In a typical Japanese cyber-cafe there are usually shelves full of Japanese manga comics as well as newspapers and magazines for the customers to read in their cubicles.

You can also order food and alcoholic drink via an intercom in the cubicle.

If you prefer computer games to Internet surfing you can rent a gaming cubicle, and if you want to do that with someone special, you can rent a double cubicle, but mind you keep the noise down…

Although a cubicle offers a degree of privacy, you cannot completely shut yourself in. The cubicles have no ceilings and the walls are about 6 feet high. The doorway into a cubicle is protected by an 18″ sliding hatchway that preserves your privacy from passers-by, provided they don’t stoop down to peep under the hatch! If blankets are provided, some privacy seekers throw a blanket over the hatch to cover up a larger area of the doorway.

Anyway, for me an occasional hour or two in a cyber-cafe is a pleasant way to while away dead time between appointments; but for some unfortunate people cyber-cafes are the only places that are keeping from having to sleep on the streets.

Cyber-cafes are usually open 24 hours a day and offer cheaper packages if you want to stay for several hours and therefore offer a low-cost alternative to staying in a hotel. For those who can’t find or afford permanent accommodation, they have become alternative “homes”. Here is the new generation of Japanese credit-crunch victims: meet the “cyber drifter“ generation.

Check out this BBC report by Matt Frei to see what I mean:

I arrived in Japan 20 years ago, right at the end of the bubble when “jobs for life” was effectively dead, but there was lag between that reality and people’s thinking.

I remember when the “jobs for life” lie was exposed in the UK banking sector in the mid 1980s. “Jobs for life” might work for a few generations, where expansion and optimism are the watchwords, but no-one should bet their life on it; a pessimistic situation requires a more prudent and pragmatic approach.In short, in good times or bad, the moral of the story is never to believe someone who offers you a “job for life”.

Machiavelli’s advice to Lorenzo the Magnificent is pertinent for us today too, for we also live in uncertain times:

Those defences alone are good, are certain, are durable, which depend on you alone and on your own ability. – The Prince, XXIV

I feel a great deal of sympathy for the computer programmer in Matt Frei’s report. I want to reach out to him and say, “Look, a guy with your computing ability could make a very nice living running your own business on the Internet. For heaven’s sake, you could start your online business from your cyber-cafe cubicle, with cheap and reliable webhosting it’s something that most people can afford to do…

If time is plentiful and money is scarce, starting your own business on the Internet has to be the best solution if you really don’t want to end up stuck in a cyber-cafe for anything more than an occasional couple of hours to kill time and email your business contacts between appointments.

David Hurley