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For Tokyo poor living in net cafes, virus state of emergency could mean homelessness

A sign for the internet cafe where a 52-year-old man lives is seen in Taito Ward, Tokyo, on April 8, 2020. (Mainichi/Buntaro Saito)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's April 7 state of emergency declaration over the novel coronavirus pandemic has put poor Tokyoites living at internet and manga cafes on edge. The reason: recreational facilities may be asked to close, including the cafes, which would leave these already vulnerable people with no place to stay.

Just after 7 p.m. on April 7, in an internet cafe on the seventh floor of a commercial building in Tokyo's Asakusa district, a 52-year-old day worker put a pair of 100-yen headphones into a TV set to watch Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declare the state of emergency. "It's finally come," he murmured. Now he has to worry about whether the cafe will close, and force him onto the street.

The man started living at the internet cafe around three years ago. It costs him around 80,000 yen (about $734) a month in fees to be there, and because the business offers "totally private" rooms which can be locked with a key, he has a space equivalent to some 2 tatami mats (about 3.65 square meters) to put his belongings. There is also a shared area with coin-operated showers and washing machines, and he says that he has no trouble leading a regular life staying there.

The man was born in the suburbs of Tokyo, and he told the Mainichi Shimbun that he used to work as a construction worker. But a gambling habit led him to bankruptcy. He lived previously in the construction company's dormitory, but found that he couldn't get used to being in a large room with others, and eventually gravitated toward internet cafes instead. His parents have both passed away, and he has no one he can turn to.

He now receives the details on the next day's job by text from a dispatch company. He is mostly dispatched to construction sites, but perhaps due to the effects of the spread of the coronavirus, since late March he's had more and more days without work.

What used to be six days work a week has shrunk to three, and he expects his income for the month to be around 120,000 yen (about $1,102), half his usual earnings. When considering the cost to stay at the internet cafe and his daily expenditures, it leaves very little leeway.

He has tried to find a new place to live with the help of real estate agents before, but he ran into problems when it came to moving-in costs. He doesn't have the savings to cover a deposit or the customary "key money" gratitude payment to the landlord. Because his driver's license has also expired, and he's not sure where to obtain his residence certificate, he says realtors gave up on him.

A shopping district with signs for internet cafes, which may all be asked to close in the capital over virus transmission fears, is seen in Taito Ward, Tokyo, on April 8, 2020. (Mainichi/Buntaro Saito)

"A long time ago I had a Shih Tzu. I had wanted to rent a place sometime, and be able to keep another dog," he said quietly.

In response to the state of emergency declaration, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government intends on April 10 to request that entertainment facilities and other businesses shut temporarily. It is doing so over concerns that they could harbor the "three Cs" of confined spaces, crowded places and close contact with people that are all said to increase chances of contracting the coronavirus.

Although the kinds of businesses and facilities that will be asked to close are still under consideration, internet cafes have been mentioned as likely to fall under the requests. Some have already closed, and people living in the cafes are in a difficult position.

The metropolitan government is preparing a relief package that includes renting hotel rooms and private apartments for 500 people to stay in. However, a 2018 survey by that same government showed that there were some 4,000 people just in Tokyo living in internet cafes and similar establishments. There are concerns that the aid measures will not be sufficient for the numbers they will need to be ready to handle.

A 33-year-old man who has been living in net cafes in the capital for around 7 years told the Mainichi that he has decided to ask a friend in western Japan's Kansai region to put him up.

"Twice in the past I've been homeless. There's no way I want to go back to that," he said.

He also voiced his concerns about the environments at internet cafes, saying, "At net cafes, the air is dry, and there are a lot people coughing persistently indoors. It wouldn't be strange if I got infected there some time." But he added, "For people like me living hand-to-mouth, this is the only place they can hold on to for support. There are lots of older people too, and if they (the cafes) close, many will end up on the streets. I really hope someone can help them."

Just before midday on April 8, the man living at the Asakusa internet cafe received a message from his dispatch company about a job for the next day while he was working at a construction site in the capital's Nerima Ward. "Great! I'm grateful just to be able to work," he said, and slipped the prepaid mobile phone he calls his "life line" back into his pocket. The next day he'd be working in Ueno. He went back to his small room that night with a fleeting sense of relief.

A man living at an internet cafe is seen searching for cheap hotels on his phone, in anticipation of the cafe he lives in being closed amid state of emergency measures, in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, on April 6, 2020. (Mainichi/Buntaro Saito)

Kaori Muto, a professor specializing in health at the Institute of Medical Science at the University of Tokyo and a member of the government's expert panel on the new coronavirus, has stressed the dangers closing internet cafes could pose to some members of society.

"People including domestic violence victims or those who don't have a place where they feel safe often end up at internet cafes. If these businesses are asked to temporarily close, then accommodation facilities and other provisions should be secured for them," she said.

Muto added, "There is also a possibility that cases of domestic violence and abuse will increase as people become unable to leave their homes. Novel coronavirus countermeasures should include fully realized support for these people."

Tsuyoshi Inaba, the representative director for the Tsukuroi Tokyo Fund to support people living in internet cafes or on the streets, also stressed the potential dangers of closing facilities.

"If there is an increase in closures of internet cafes and similar businesses as part of attempts to avoid creating spaces where people crowd close together, then those sleeping in them will lose the places where they live. If they then start decamping to fast food restaurants and places like that, then crowding will start in those places instead. A plan to provide housing support is essential," he said.

About the Tokyo government's plans, he commented, "In addition to existing aid projects and the provision of hotels and empty homes as living support, I want to see the eligibility requirements widened and for consultation services on this to respond quickly."

(Japanese original by Buntaro Saito, Yujiro Futamura, City News Department, Go Kumagai and Mami Yoshinaga, Lifestyle & Medical News Department)

CAP 1:

A sign for the internet cafe where a 52-year-old man lives is seen in Taito Ward, Tokyo, on April 8, 2020. (Mainichi/Buntaro Saito)

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