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February 27, 2009 11:54 PM   Subscribe

Newly jobless and homeless former members of the Japanese upper or upper-middle class are turning to a distinctly 21st century version of the flophouse, the net room: a tiny cubicle, rented by the day, with that all-important feature... an internet connection and a computer.

See this video followup on Ito Hidefumi, who, ironically, has been able to move into somewhat nicer accommodations, thanks to his new job cleaning temporary dwellings for other jobless/homeless displaced workers in Tokyo.

Here's some bite-size infobits on Japan's current economic/jobs malaise.

Oh, and none of this is to be confused with this Net Room, which caters to foreigners, but may well decide to change their name if the "net room" phenomenon really takes off and becomes a household word...
posted by flapjax at midnite (41 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
out of all the asian countries affected by the current economic crisis I can't help but feel that Japan could end up the worst affected. If it goes on long enough manufacturing may be significantly reduced and there aren't yet the service industries to replace them.
posted by awfurby at 12:06 AM on February 28, 2009

At last, my coffin hotel is ready. *chews dex, punches deck*
posted by loquacious at 12:18 AM on February 28, 2009 [19 favorites]

All I need is a body sized space for a monitor and for me to type and click. This giant (by world standards) house around me is mostly superfluous. Japan again shows the way.
posted by telstar at 12:21 AM on February 28, 2009

Didn't I read about this in Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash, except it was inside a self-storage unit?
posted by crapmatic at 12:41 AM on February 28, 2009

Is this the thread where we make Neuromancer references?
*looks around*
Ahhh, just in time.
posted by lekvar at 12:43 AM on February 28, 2009

Also, anybody curious about Japan's Lost Decade should read this AskMe.
posted by lekvar at 12:49 AM on February 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

Things are getting pretty ugly in South Korea as well. The government is installing glass doors in subway stations to keep people from jumping onto the tracks (SK and Japan having the highest suicide rates in the world if I'm not mistaken).
posted by bardic at 1:33 AM on February 28, 2009

I am with you, telstar. I am in a small apartment, but all I really need is the little room where my sofa and computer live. If I could find two other like-minded individuals my place could easily accommodate us all.
posted by Meatbomb at 1:45 AM on February 28, 2009

netrooms are brilliant because they can slice up empty and unrentable office space into a zillion tiny rooms -- no plumbing or cooking facilities required.

But $600/mo seems a bit steep for that closet! yahoo's japan apartment search utilty (wish they had this 15 years ago!) brings up 173 real apartments built after 1998 for rent under Y55000 within 40 minutes of Roppongi.

I was struck by the janitorial work denouement, given that here in California we invariably recruit illegal/immigrant minorities for this sort of work; Japan doesn't have that population of labor.

Japan still imports its sex workers mostly from SE Asia, and the infamous 3K jobs of the 1980s -- kitsui, kiken, kitanai (stressful, dangerous, dirty) tended to be more industrial in nature but I think now the path going forward is for Japan to offshore its industrial labor to China and just share in the ownership of the means of production there. (That's partially why I'm taking Mandarin now -- Japan & China are going to HAVE to become more integrated economically & socially; China has the labor surplus and Japan has the capital and need).

In 1990 there were 10M highschool-age kids in Japan, now it's 6M and by 2050 it will be down to 4M.

One thing that strikes me is that there are an uncountable number of buildings in Tokyo -- it's ironic that so much wealth made so many people so poor!

Japan is so screwed; politically, socially, economically and demographically.
posted by troy at 1:47 AM on February 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

Oh! That's what was missing all these years people were running around trying to figure out how to get housing for the homeless- they needed money!

Snark aside, I'm curious after the economy recovers (whether a few years or generations) whether any of these netrooms will get converted for use by folks who haven't had homes even before this mess, or if it'll just get torn down for something more profitable as soon as the tides turn.
posted by yeloson at 1:58 AM on February 28, 2009

I just read that "Lost Decade" AskMe the other day. This has really got to suck for them.
posted by delmoi at 2:07 AM on February 28, 2009

The retired Japanese accountant that I have English conversation classes with informed me of many workers who lived in their company's dormitories--so when their jobs went their living space went as well. He's currently bummed because his favorite model train manufacturer went under. I also feel for the rural Japanese kids that I tutor too--by the time they grow up there won't be much left of their hometown.
posted by incompressible at 3:02 AM on February 28, 2009

The highest suicide rates in the world are in Eastern Europe according to wikipedia.

You have to wonder what is happening to all the places these folk used to inhabit, are they empty?
posted by sien at 3:30 AM on February 28, 2009

This is heartbreaking:

Disgraced, his wife divorced him and now his three children won’t speak to him, Ito says.

Not really surprising, I guess, but heartbreaking nonetheless.
posted by nosila at 6:13 AM on February 28, 2009

out of all the asian countries affected by the current economic crisis I can't help but feel that Japan could end up the worst affected. If it goes on long enough manufacturing may be significantly reduced and there aren't yet the service industries to replace them.

No. Putting aside Taiwan and Hong Kong as not-countries, South Korea and Singapore both rely on manufacturing and export more than Japan does. The mood across East/Southeast Asia is very, very grim these days.
posted by fatehunter at 6:25 AM on February 28, 2009

But $600/mo seems a bit steep for that closet!

True, you could find a closet like this in Tokyo for Y25,000 ($250 a month), but I imagine he didn't have enough money for the two-month deposit, or he didn't have a guarantor, or this was temporary, or he couldn't find a landlord who would rent to him because he didn't have a job.

Housing in Japan is notoriously inflexible, which is only worsening this guy's problems.
posted by dydecker at 6:31 AM on February 28, 2009

Also: I thought it was amusing that CNN showed him "only" stepping up to one room apartment with a hotplate & toilet.

Almost everyone in Tokyo lives like that.
posted by dydecker at 6:35 AM on February 28, 2009

Things are getting pretty ugly in South Korea as well. The government is installing glass doors in subway stations to keep people from jumping onto the tracks (SK and Japan having the highest suicide rates in the world if I'm not mistaken).

I've always been fascinated by those glass doors in Singapore. On the subway a few years back, there was an ad campaign which featured a bunch of random people smiling. The tag line - "What Every fashionable Singaporean will be wearing this season". Happy Happy Joy Joy.
posted by gman at 6:39 AM on February 28, 2009

I live in Japan but hadn't heard of "netrooms" until my wife and I happened to see that CNN feature yesterday. We both said something like WTF! simultaneously. My wife hasn't complained about my income in nearly 24 hours!
posted by planetkyoto at 6:58 AM on February 28, 2009

dydecker Yup, if you're willing to live away from central Tokyo housing really isn't horribly unreasonable on a month to month basis. But the initial fees can be staggering. Your list was good, but you forgot the "key money", sometimes equal to six months rent given to the rental agency as a "gift". No key money, no apartment.

Once you can get past the initial rental nightmare, and if you're willing to live 50-120 minutes by train from central Tokyo, you can get a pretty nice apartment for $500 or so a month. And in general the utilities aren't so bad either.

Aside from the fantastic public transit, the thing I most miss about Tokyo is the internet situation. Around $50 a month can get you fiber to the home, 1gbit/sec, phone included. I don't know anyplace in the US that'll even sell you 1git/sec unless you want to go for the insanely expensive corporate type setups.
posted by sotonohito at 7:02 AM on February 28, 2009

I'm sorry, but the situation in the States is much worse than in Japan.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 8:02 AM on February 28, 2009

there is probably no correlation, but i found it mildly interesting / slightly ironic, that "Tsukasa" likely sounds a lot like "su casa"...
posted by lapolla at 8:13 AM on February 28, 2009

I'm sorry, but the situation in the States is much worse than in Japan.

Economically? Morally? Culinarily?
posted by gman at 8:24 AM on February 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think internet access should be free to the public. That might happen with WiMAX, but we will pay for it with government restrictions.
posted by rageagainsttherobots at 8:25 AM on February 28, 2009

Often talking through choked tears, Ito spoke candidly and at length, describing how his upper-class life had slipped away so quickly. He was an art gallery director, selling high-priced items to the richest people in the world. The economic recession quickly killed the business and his job. Ito lived in a five-bedroom house and owned two cars, an incredible level of financial wealth in space-starved Japan. He lost his home in months to bankruptcy. Disgraced, his wife divorced him and now his three children won’t speak to him, Ito says.

On the bright side, he is further along the road to enlightenment than his family.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:27 AM on February 28, 2009 [7 favorites]

ethnomethodologist, I think it's more correct to say that the situation here is worse than the situation in Japan has been. The lost decade didn't represent as total a systemic failure as the current economic crisis does, but the current economic crisis affects everyone in the world. Japan's situation now is probably as bad as the U.S. because it's a new collapse compounded upon a decade of stagnation.

Of course, this makes the constant optimistic refrain we're hearing in Washington laughable.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:49 AM on February 28, 2009

I wonder which of the two countries has less safety nets available. Anyone?
posted by gman at 8:57 AM on February 28, 2009

Japan gives you six months unemployment at 80% of your income if you've worked as a fulltime employee for x number of years. After that you're on your own.

Everyone else gets nothing.
posted by dydecker at 9:04 AM on February 28, 2009

Sorry - it appears the number of months you are eligible is tied to your age and how long you've worked for. If you're older, the unemployment benefit lasts for a bit longer. Details here
posted by dydecker at 9:08 AM on February 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Man, I wish I could rent out *my* closets for $600/month. Say, there's a solution to our housing crisis: put their rental closets in our houses and repackage them as Collateralized House Obligations. I'm tellin' yas, the CHO market is gonna be HUGE!
posted by jamstigator at 9:30 AM on February 28, 2009

Putting aside Taiwan and Hong Kong as not-countries, South Korea and Singapore both rely on manufacturing and export more than Japan does

Here's my armchair analysis: while Singapore is heavily export-oriented to the US (we can consume barely 1% of what we produce in this 5 million-strong island), it isn't that heavily dependent on manufacturing as it used to be; most of the old hardware plants have already moved to Guandong, Penang and Thailand. Financial services was the big thing here; with office-space being significantly cheaper than other urban centers in the Asian Rim, we were aiming to become both London and New York's back-office (in that call-centers, support and IT maintainence was moving here) and a central office for Asia-Pacific in general.

In short, the current crisis is actually more immediate than you'd presume a manufacturing-led export-economy would have; when Lehman collapsed, I kinda knew about it from acquaintainces of acquaintainces in Lehman Singapore, who's Blackberries stopped working one Monday morning. That lay-off bubble has increased in size and depth, and is cutting super-close now; my flatmate has just been laid off from his job in an European investment bank. Another friend was also laid off from, heck this is crazy but there are no more investment banks are they; I can't say anything about this entity without revealing exactly what firm this is.

Colleagues from an ex-client firm (a prominent government-linked company ) have been forced to take a no-paid leave every second Friday. My girlfriend works in their competing firm; this is also government-linked, and they also enforced a mandatory 10% pay-cut on all its staff. (Which pisses her off, coz she _juuust_ got a 10% pay-increment after the last review. But anyway.) The real story in either of the two firms is that the effective pay-cut is much much more than 10%, seeing as it is that both firms gave close to 8-9 months bonus in the previous fiscal.

Singapore has one of the highest ex-pat worker populations in the world, relative to its size; out of a long-term resident-population of about 5.5 million, close to 1 million are employment-pass-holders or dependents, EP's being equivalent to the American H1-B's. The rest 4 million isn't fully citizens either; it's a combination of citizens and non-citizen "permanent residents", analogous to green-card holders in the US. Out of this entire population, the estimate is that 300,000 jobs will vanish, contributing to the population contracting by 3.3% by Q2 2010.
posted by the cydonian at 9:55 AM on February 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

The "Net Room" shown in the last link looks great. I'm tentatively planning a trip to Japan some time this year, and although I have a friend in Yokohama, her place is tiny and I don't want to impose. This looks like it might be a good option for me.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:53 AM on February 28, 2009

I'm sorry, but the situation in the States is much worse than in Japan.

I strongly disagree!

The key to any economy is sufficient Wealth Production (and not much Wealth Destruction).

Our Agribusiness and Mining can create immense amounts of primary wealth, and we have the plant and skills to create secondary tier plant processing these raw resources into intermediate goods.

Domestic Manufacturing is screwed since there are seemingly enough Chinese plants to handle that for the world's needs.

On the Wealth Destruction side we arguably invest too much in war machines, spend too much on silly post-crisis medical care instead of prevention, and of course have a pretty bad crime problem with millions of people in or out of jail.

Japan's coming demographic collapse and severe urban/rural wealth divide -- in Japan the traditional method for the rural people to make ends meet was making charcoal and growing silkworms -- are going to put immense pressures on the country.

Here in the states we "just" have social problems -- figuring out how to tune the economy to work for more people, and hopefully better socialize the health, education, and transportation sectors so there's less idiocy, waste, rentierism, and inefficiency.

Also, the Japanese have invested their retirement in US gov't bonds, over $600B at last count. If we're screwed then they're screwed, since that's around Y750,000 for every man, woman and child in Japan.
posted by troy at 2:36 PM on February 28, 2009

To expand on Dydecker's point, with everyone else gets nothing: everyone else is a huge portion of the working force. Something like 50% of workers under the age of 30 are non-full time. Temp workers, part-time workers. They get no benefits. Many manufacturing positions also provide housing in company dormitories at very low rents. You lose your job, you lose your home. The government is only now (after reports of layoffs by the big manufacturers totaling tens of thousands) trying to find a way to get housing for these folks.

Furthermore, the manufacturing structure here is much more... difuse than in the States. In the States, parts makers for any kind of manufacturer are usually quite large companies in their own right (and, of course, have seen massive layoffs as well). In Japan, however, many large manufacturers put out large orders that are filled by dozens and dozens of very small factories (sometimes even in your neighborhood) that have perhaps a handful of workers. When there is work, the workers get paid. When there's no work, the workers don't. The mini-factories were set up during the boom times, when there was the assumption that there would always be work, and now, these positions, which aren't even close to full-time, and therefore eligible for unemployment, are drying up. When Honda (or was it Toyota?) talks about the possibility of halting car production for up to a month, these guys feel the pinch more than most. And there's a lot of them.

Lastly, about the housing thing. Yes, most single people living in Tokyo live in tiny one or two room apartments. At the same time (going back to the winner-tribe and loser-tribe discussion in the AskMe), you have all of the shiny new buildings going up, Roppongi Hills, being a prime example. Tokyo is being 'gentrified,' in the sense that gentrification means shiny new apartment buildings for the wealthy. All over Tokyo, huge buildings and modern condos are being built, with absolutely absurd prices (or, no listing of price at all, because if you have to ask...) that most people can't afford. Before the widening gap in income, flaunting wealth was considered unseemly here. Now? Even the weekly free English magazine, Metropolis, has shifted it's aim away from the English teachers who pretty much are the main readers (looking for used furniture in the classified section) towards the expat crowd, reviewing products and restaurants that most teachers can't afford.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:05 PM on February 28, 2009

After spending 15 months living in Japan a few years back, I left thinking that the West was doomed. Unlike the eikaiwa teachers I worked with, the Japanese people I befriended worked HARD. Some slept for only 3 hours a night on average between multiple jobs, and still hit the izakayas and karaoke joints in their free time. The Japanese staff in our "school" worked longer hours for less money than us. Japan has cooler consumer goods, more selection, and what looked to me like a more ravenous appetite to buy the latest, coolest, most expensive/fancy new toy/handbag.

I guess it speaks to my ignorance of economics that I still can't understand why Japan doesn't own us yet. I hope it isn't as bad as I've been reading in this thread, because people in Japan need to sleep, too. Gambatte, nihon!
posted by Hoopo at 7:34 PM on February 28, 2009

Similar story in the US in today's New York Times. No change in accommodation as yet, though, nor in marital status.

Was watching the CNN clip once again, and it just struck me: I _did_ see an ad for a 'space for bed' going for about S$10 a day, somewhere in central Singapore. I'm now hoping that was some colourful Singlish expression and not, say, actual netrooms for rent. Coz that would suck immensely; not only would it mean that netrooms are making an entrance in Singapore, it would also mean that they're vastly expensive: used to share a condo with two other folks way back in 2003 for S$1100 per month, or about $350 for me, only slightly more expensive than the S$300 a 'space for bed' would cost.
posted by the cydonian at 12:24 AM on March 1, 2009

Hey I live in a 3-bedroom place 30 minutes from Tokyo, my mortgage is only about $700 a month, and I get 1gig Fiber for only 1000 yen a month; there's already three people living here but maybe I should rent out the extra space to another 10?
posted by donkeymon at 5:07 AM on March 1, 2009

Have any body seen "Slumdog "Millionaire"? There are millions of people in this world living without even having a permanent roof over their head. Forget about the size of the "roof".
posted by thinkDifferent at 3:33 PM on March 1, 2009

Japan is so screwed; politically, socially, economically and demographically.

Don't bet on it. Japan has existed, more or less, as a unified, homogeneous polity for more than 1500 years (we're unsure what was happening in Western Europe at that time, for example), which indicates surprising cultural resiliency.

Think of all the change Japan has encountered in just the past 150 years: renewed European contact (Perry), resisting European colonialism (Russo-Japanese War), utter defeat and occupation as the result of mechanized total war (WWII). And, while the Japanese "economic miracle" was largely financed by the Korean and Vietnam wars, it's nothing short of astonishing how the country was able to rebuild and reinvent itself in just 25 years.

Usually it takes the Japanese a while to get their shit together, but when they do they act decisively and successfully.

Despite what the Western media says about the coming demise of the LDP, I don't think decisive change is at hand. The Democratic Party may form a government, but nothing will change. But, perhaps another five years from now we'll start to see some sort of positive change.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:27 PM on March 1, 2009

And let's not forget how divinely-powered winds smacked down 75% of Kublai Khan's army on its way to Japan, where they were ultimately defeated.

Susanoo - the wrong god to screw with.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:34 PM on March 1, 2009

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