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Japan Subculture Research Center

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Homes and hotels during the recession


Jan 7, 2010

The talented Hiroko Tabuchi of the New York Times published an article recently focusing on a group of Japanese people who have been forced out of their homes and into capsule hotels due to the recession.

For Atsushi Nakanishi, jobless since Christmas, home is a cubicle barely bigger than a coffin — one of dozens of berths stacked two units high in one of central Tokyo’s decrepit “capsule” hotels.

“It’s just a place to crawl into and sleep,” he said, rolling his neck and stroking his black suit — one of just two he owns after discarding the rest of his wardrobe for lack of space. “You get used to it.”

When Capsule Hotel Shinjuku 510 opened nearly two decades ago, Japan was just beginning to pull back from its bubble economy, and the hotel’s tiny plastic cubicles offered a night’s refuge to salarymen who had missed the last train home.

Now, Hotel Shinjuku 510’s capsules, no larger than 6 1/2 feet long by 5 feet wide, and not tall enough to stand up in, have become an affordable option for some people with nowhere else to go as Japan endures its worst recession since World War II.

Read “For Some in Japan, Home Is a Tiny Plastic Bunk” [via The New York Times]

This looks to be a continuation of the ‘net cafe refugees‘ that the media picked up on in 2007 and early 2008, before the recession had even hit Japan. It’s undeniable now, walking around places like Shinjuku Station and Ueno Park, that the number of homeless have very apparently increased. During the day, rather normal looking, if not slightly disheveled, middle age and older men can be seen loitering about public spaces, while more and more folded-up cardboard boxes and carts wrapped in tarps — presumably holding belongings — can be spotted in the cracks and crevices between light posts, fences and buildings.

As cited in Tabuchi’s article, Prime Minister Hatoyama published a public service announcement on the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare’s YouTube channel, calling out for those who have found themselves in precarious living situations over the New Years holiday to call a special hotline to help the jobless make use of Hello Work and social welfare programs.

On the other hand, this trend of living in capsule hotels may be good for the businesses that may be finding themselves with new competition from neighboring love hotels, as the latter begin to strategically push themselves as inexpensive and convenient places to stay for businessmen and tourists.

5 thoughts on “Homes and hotels during the recession”
  1. I am turning into a big Tabuchi fan. Your earlier comments on her in your JT interview were spot on.

    I don’t see why the government doesn’t try and find a happy balance and deregulate the hotel industry to better reflect circumstances. If the government allowed Net cafes to have actual beds, they’d be much a more comfortable option than capsule-coffins.

    1. She is the best writer to work for the NYT in years, maybe a decade. Inspiring. Makes me kind of miss being a newspaper reporter. But then again, not being chased by deadlines every day is kind of nice.

  2. I’m not sure what is worse, the new trend of using capsule hotels or the more conventional option that came to my mind the ドヤ . Which has been around a long time for day-labor workers. The subject in Tabuchi’s article is probably much more accessible to the English-speaking audience, so that is a plus.

    I am kind of glad there is at least some public response from the government acknowledging the problem.

  3. When I was in Japan last (2007-2008) the sub prime loan crisis was the big story. The financial world was yet to implode and the amount of homeless I saw were few in numbers in Shiga-ken and Kyoto. But I am sure that when I return to Kyoto this year it will be much more evident just how things have economically changed in the last two years.

    Perhaps one of the most frustrating things in dealing with the homeless issue in Japan is a lack of enough shelters and the common stigma among many homeless men and women that makes the idea of even staying at a shelter seem insulting. From a Japanese point of view I understand why one’s pride would take such a hit from moving from living on one’s own (even if you’re out in Ueno Park) to a shelter. But living outside while under nourished in the middle of a winter night can make these people sick or even kill them on a particularly bad night.

    Hatoyama’s visit to see the homeless was a nice gesture, but an even better gesture would be an attempt to do something conrete in the order of offering housing to them. One would think that there have to be some vacant buildings which could be outfitted cheaply to act as sufficient homes for homeless individuals and families. New York City has been experimenting with this, and so has Boston to a lesser extent. Tokyo should give it a try.

  4. Homelessness in Japan absolutely baffled me when I was there 01-04. I could not fathom the blue tents around osaka jo and the efforts the authorities were using to clean it up prior to the world cup. Also, I was shocked, given the visibility of the problem, that I never once was asked for a single yen. I remember giving some cash to a desperately homeless man and the ensuing shock that both my Japanese colleagues and the man whom I gave the money were in. I remember some efforts like the big issue being published, but nothing large enough to combat the problem. I remember the day I found out that I, along with thousands of others, had walked by a deceased man near Osaka station who had been there for months. No one had ever bothered to see if he was ok.

    I realize this problem is to a great extent cultural, and that many homeless are too ashamed of their status to seek help and many people who would be inclined to help don’t because they don’t know where to begin. Hopefully more people will shed light on this issue and find creative ways to help the homeless while maintaining their dignity.


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