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No smartphone, no job: Pandemic-hit people in Japan cry out for mobile 'IDs'

A woman is seen holding a smartphone she borrowed, in Tokyo's Nakano Ward on April 19, 2021. (Mainichi/ Satoshi Tokairin)

TOKYO -- As the COVID-19 pandemic takes a heavy toll on citizens' daily lives in Japan, an increasing number of people are finding it hard to get by without smartphones -- from attempts to find work to securing apartment rentals -- after they have lost access to the now universal communication tool due to financial difficulties.

    A Tokyo-based group supporting those in need has been receiving a stream of consultations from people who have lost their jobs and homes due to the economic downturn triggered by the spread of the coronavirus across the country.

    "I had no dwelling or point of contact. I felt lonely, wondering if I really existed in this world," recalled a woman in her early 30s, about her three-year life at an internet cafe in Tokyo's Adachi Ward after being kicked out of her apartment due to not paying her rent.

    Around the time she started "living" in the internet cafe, calls on her smartphone were blocked due to her not paying the phone bill. She could get in touch with her friends via the free messaging app Line at places with Wi-Fi connections. But because smartphones without access via calls could not be used as a point of contact, she was unable to find a day labor job, ending up primarily working at a restaurant that paid her by the day. She had no choice but to continue to live from hand to mouth.

    Over the past year, however, it became difficult to even work at restaurants as the industry was severely hit by the pandemic. In March this year, she decided to go on welfare, so she could put her life together from scratch. It was after she borrowed a smartphone from Tsukuroi Tokyo Fund, a Nakano Ward-based general incorporated foundation, that she was finally able to start looking for an apartment.

    "I came to realize how hard it is not to be able to use a smartphone after stumbling. I'd like to return this smartphone as early as possible, after stabilizing my livelihood," she told the Mainichi Shimbun.

    A similar sentiment was echoed by a man in his 30s living in Tokyo's Toshima Ward, after he lost access to a smartphone.

    He had signed up with a staffing agency and had been living in a company dormitory in the Ueno area, until he was forced to move out in October last year due to decreasing job offers amid the pandemic. He began to spend his nights at an internet cafe, while seeing his savings plunge due to an unstable income. Day after day, he would use his smartphone's e-money functions to purchase rice balls and other items at convenience stores.

    "After the payments snowballed, I became unable to pay them off, and my smartphone service was terminated," he said.

    With no job offers coming from the staffing agency, he had no choice but to sleep on the streets from around December. He would walk around in the town at night, and nap at a library or elsewhere in the day. At the end of last year, he visited a consultation desk set up to provide meals and livelihood advice for those financially affected by the pandemic. He decided to go on welfare and start over.

    "It drove home to me that you shouldn't lose access to a smartphone. Once its service is terminated, you can't do anything about your life," he said.

    Daishiro Sasaki, a member of Tsukuroi Tokyo Fund, revealed that an individual who borrowed a smartphone from the group told them, "Once your smartphone service is stopped due to not paying the monthly fees, your life is in checkmate (beyond control)." Sasaki noted, "Without a smartphone, it'd become difficult to get a job or rent an apartment. It's tantamount to being unable to lead a social life."

    So why does the unavailability of smartphones accelerate people's struggle to make a living so much?

    A real estate dealer in Adachi Ward, who says he often introduces those on welfare to property, explained, "As it stands, you can't rent property unless you own a smartphone. As a rental contract involves a credit guaranty company and a management firm, those who don't have a point of contact will be turned down." His comment suggests smartphones are indeed treated like de facto IDs.

    According to a report released by the organizing committee of the consultation desk for pandemic-hit workers, of the 344 people who visited the service to seek advice during the year-end and New Year period, 65% did not have a smartphone or had no access to their devices. Overall, about half of the visitors had either lost their homes or did not say whether they had a dwelling.

    Some people point out that once an individual loses access to their smartphone, it becomes even difficult to own a new one under their name. Shuhei Ogura, a member of the Adachi Ward Assembly who has provided support to needy individuals, commented, "In most cases, if a user has their smartphone service (terminated once), they cannot make a new contract with any carrier. I wonder if major carriers have some common blacklists."

    Several groups including the consultation desk organizers are soon set to file a written request to the government, demanding that welfare offices at local bodies lend smartphones for a certain period to those who became unable to use their mobiles.

    Lawyer Ichiro Natsume, a member of the consultation desk organizing committee, commented, "Through consultation services, I've become keenly aware that smartphones are a tool for survival, such as in securing jobs and dwellings. The devices should be lent to people in dire straits for free."

    (Japanese original by Satoshi Tokairin, Tokyo City News Department)

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