“Kenta Ochiai” – all the names in this story are pseudonyms – lives in a storage locker. Floor space is 1 ½ tatami mats. There’s no window. The ceiling light bulb is on 24 hours a day. It can’t be turned off. “Without my cell phone, I wouldn’t know if it’s day or night.”
It’s no place for a person to live. In fact, living in it is illegal. But one of the things about living on 1 million yen a year, as Ochiai is doing, is that, having fallen through just about all the cracks in the social system, you pass pretty much unnoticed, for better or for worse.
Spa! (Sept 3) notices – and reminds us – that there are people living at this level of extreme poverty. It doesn’t provide numbers, but warns that Japan’s spreading gap between rich and poor is making the poor more numerous, and more wretched.
Ochiai’s storage space is in a two-story building in central Tokyo. Rent: 10,000 yen a month. He has no idea what goes on in the 50 or so other rooms in the building, but the footsteps and other sounds that penetrate his thin walls lets him know he’s not alone.
He’s 44, a day laborer – actually a night laborer. He used to do various part-time jobs, but three years ago, for reasons not specified, he lost his hold on the tenuous stability they provided and found himself unemployed. He lived with this friend, with that friend, until after a few months he ran out of friends and hit rock bottom. We’re not told what kind of night labor he does to ward off starvation. He earns roughly 100,000 yen a month. Working nights, he spends his days dozing in a public library or some such venue. He sleeps in the storage space only on nights he’s not working. In midsummer heat – 35 degrees at times – it must be unbearable. It contains, of course, no cooking facilities. He lives on the cheapest convenience store fare, and cools his pillow with cans of ice-cold tea.
“Shinji Yamakita” is an “internet cafe refugee.” It’s a breed said to number some 4,000 in Tokyo alone. It’s better than sleeping rough, presumably, but it’s life stripped to the bone all the same. Spa! meets Yamakita at the cafe. It’s in an 8-floor building. The cafe is on the ground floor. Its sleeping quarters are spread from the 4th to 8th floors – 150 tiny rooms, thinly partitioned, full of people sleeping on plastic sheets on the floor. Privacy -- there is none. The premises smell of sweat, dust and instant noodles. “I’ve been living like this for a month,” Yamakita says. Sleep doesn’t come easily. The mass snoring keeps him awake.
He’s 37, and was in construction, until illness made that kind of work impossible. Like Ochiai, he survives on day labor. He finds it on a website posting the relevant contacts. Currently he’s working at a warehouse, earning 110,000-130,000 yen a month. He hopes the employment will turn steady. He’s had enough of internet cafe life.
“Aika Honma,” for her part, seems content with her lot. She’s 19. Two months ago she ran away from her home in Kanagawa Prefecture and ended up, as many homeless young women do, in Tokyo’s Kabukicho entertainment district. Spa! meets her first thing one morning on the sidewalk outside an “encounter cafe.” It opens at 10. She doesn’t mind waiting an hour if it means being the first one inside and having a choice of tables. “Here they have nail polish and make-up, and it’s free,” she says.
Installing herself, she absorbs herself in her smartphone. Maybe a man will invite her out for a meal; maybe he’ll give her some pocket money. “If I didn’t have to do anything for it,” she smiles, “it would be paradise.” It must be pretty good anyway. “In the two months since I left home I haven’t been out of Kabukicho,” she says.
She’s met girls who earn 30,000 yen a day; she’s happy with 5,000 yen: “There’s nothing I want, just enough to live day by day.” The day’s work done, she retires to a capsule hotel for the night. First thing next morning will find her outside the encounter cafe.© Japan Today