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Japan low earners living in net cafes describe threat from sales tax hike

A 48-year-old man who lives in an internet cafe is seen in his private space at the cafe in Ota Ward, Tokyo, on Sept 30, 2019. Image partially modified. (Mainichi/Koichiro Tezuka)

TOKYO -- With the Oct. 1 sales tax rise from 8% to 10% likely to put pressure on some vulnerable people's ability to cover even their most basic living costs, the Mainichi Shimbun spoke to laborers with no permanent residence who stay for extended periods in internet cafes, to find out how the hike will affect them.

At an internet cafe in Tokyo's Ota Ward, a clock shown on the computer screen has already passed midnight, and it's now Oct. 1. A 48-year-old contract worker with a dispatch company in the Tokyo metropolitan area doing sorting work at refrigerated warehouses in the ward, stares up at the tobacco stained ceiling above his cubicle. The space he's in is only about the size of a single tatami mat, around 1.9 meters by 95 centimeters. For people like him, who scrape by each month with just small change to spare, the tax hike will make living harder.

On the floor and shelves around him, bags filled with daily items and his clothes are lined up in no particular order. He has spent almost six years living in the internet cafe's cubicles, where he can't even fully stretch out his 184-centimeter frame.

The canal running through Ota Ward is lined with distribution warehouses, and many workers and others gather in the area to find day work including as unloaders. Shortly after 5 p.m. on Sept. 30, a stream of middle-aged and older men dressed in work clothes and sweat-suits flow steadily into the internet cafe where the man is staying.

Soon almost all of the 220 or so private spaces are occupied. When asked, an employee at the cafe says its prices will be updated to reflect the tax hike at 8 a.m. on Oct. 1.

After graduating from a high school in the capital, the man, who longed to live abroad, travelled to Australia. He had worked as a salesperson there for five years when he started a firm supporting students studying abroad.

The business grew steadily, and he married a Japanese woman at age 25. Together they have a daughter. But in the 2000s, the business took a turn for the worse, and he left his wife and daughter in Australia and returned to Japan.

Although he was able to stay at his parents' home in the capital, he felt no desire to work, and suffered with mental health issues. He was a shut-in there for several years, and ended up being shunned by his family. Deciding that he needed to change something, he left the house with just 30 yen to his name. With nowhere to stay, he spent the night on the banks of the Tama River.

He was fortunate to find work with a temporary employment agency, and from there he began living at the internet cafe. He makes roughly 40,000 yen per week, translating to a take-home total of about 150,000 yen (around $1,400) a month. The cafe's most economical plan has been costing him 10,500 yen per week, but from his next renewal on Oct. 4, the price will rise to 11,000 yen.

The internet cafe does not have showers, so around twice a week he goes to a more expensive shop which does. He says he eats just one meal a day, and only looks at items marked half price at supermarkets. Even so, he worries that the accumulation of small extra tax costs will make his life even more precarious than it is now.

He gets to see his daughter about twice a year, when his wife comes back to Japan. Now a university student in Australia, he has not been able to tell her that her father lives in an internet cafe. He worries he'll have to return to living on the streets due to the tax hike, and his modest dream of saving enough to rent an apartment he could invite his child to is becoming less likely.

At 10:15 p.m. on Sept. 30, another man, 60, returns to the cafe carrying a shopping bag. "I didn't get work today," he says. He has a contract with a temporary employment agency, and works at construction sites in Saitama and Chiba prefectures neighboring Tokyo. Recently the number of potential workplaces has fallen, and he often doesn't get jobs that would earn him even 8,000 yen for the day.

He was born in Miyazaki Prefecture, in southwestern Japan. He learned his trade as a cook in nearby Kagoshima Prefecture, and was promoted to manager. But relations with the company soured, and he quit.

He left during Japan's economic bubble, when labor shortages were rife, and quickly found a job at an auto plant in Aichi Prefecture, central Japan, as a contract worker. He made between 300,000 and 400,000 yen a month, but the physical demands of the work forced him to quit, and he became a day laborer, taking jobs throughout eastern Japan's Kanto region.

"When I think about it now, it would have been good if I'd gone on to another job in hospitality, which I was already accustomed to. But I was proud, because I'd been the manager before, and couldn't go back to working my way up," he said.

He's been living at the internet cafe for several years. He uses the "night package," in which customers who arrive between the hours of 5 p.m. and 2 a.m. can use the facilities for 12 hours. On days when he doesn't have work, he wanders around town to kill time.

"The rise in the sales tax has been decided by the government, and all I can do to keep living is work. I want to return to the place where I grew up someday," he said with a stiff smile, and disappeared into his private space.

At just after 5 a.m. on Oct. 1, the fluorescent lights in the internet cafe come on. Time for people to head out to work. The sound of heavy footsteps echoes intermittently in the corridor. Eventually, the cafe is enveloped in the still quiet of daytime business. The clock on the computer screen gets ready to welcome 8 a.m., and the change in prices that could affect peoples' lives in painful ways.

(Japanese original by Yujiro Futamura, City News Department)

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