Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Presenting Japan’s Internet cafe refugees...

Kwan Weng Kin
SINGAPORE, Aug. 25: It sounds like the ultimate solution for the low-cost traveller looking for a place for the night: a cubicle featuring a computer to surf the Internet plus a reclining chair to sleep in, though with barely enough room to stretch one's tired legs. But for only 1,500 yen (US$13) a night in high-cost Tokyo and shower facilities thrown in, who can really complain?
I know of young Singaporeans who have tried it to save some money and also just for kicks. But for thousands of Japanese, both young and old, such cubicles are 'home'. These people are the so-called netto kafe nanmin, or Internet café refugees in English. They are part of a much larger group of economically disadvantaged Japanese, numbering in the millions, collectively referred to as the 'working poor'. Internet café refugees are Japan's new 'unseen homeless'. According to a government survey last year, there are some 5,400 of these people around the country, nearly half of them in Tokyo. A quarter of such people are in their 20s, another quarter in their 50s. Their average income is a paltry 100,700 yen ($98) a month, just over half the typical starting pay of a high school graduate.
Without a permanent job, they are unlikely to persuade most landlords to rent them a room, which incidentally is likely to cost more than half their income. The only link Internet café refugees have with the world is their mobile phone, through which they receive calls from brokers or job placement agencies when work is available, or which they use to scour Internet classifieds for the next opening.
Incredibly, until about 20 years ago, Japan was a workers' paradise. Jobs were for keeps and employment security was a social given. Employers at companies with a reputation to watch could not routinely sack under-performing workers as public opinion just would not allow it.
Neither could employers adopt a hire-and-fire policy in bad economic times either. An employer and his staff were supposed to ride out a business downturn together. In the earlier part of this decade, with the economy in the doldrums, Japanese companies sought desperately to trim their manpower bills so as to compete internationally. The reform-minded Koizumi administration of the day decided to tacitly recognise retrenchment if it would save Japan.
In typically obtuse Japanese fashion, employers started to talk about 'restructuring'. The word suggested the reorganisation of a company, but was in fact a euphemism for the widespread dismissal of unwanted workers, often replacing them with cheaper part-time alternatives.
These days, one out of every three Japanese is a part-time worker. For people aged 24 years or under, it is one in two. No more can young Japanese join a company upon graduation and assume they would be there till retirement. Neither do employers feel obliged to keep a worker till he gets to draw his pension.
But despite a much more volatile job market these days, the attitude of most Japanese employers remains unchanged. A person who has been through a string of temporary positions often finds himself ineligible for full-time work because employers still prefer to hire fresh graduates as they are cheaper and considered easier to train. As a result, many young people are forced into dead-end, part-time work with few prospects of improving their lot. Yet at the same time, older Japanese who reach retirement age now receive generous pensions for as long as they live. The younger generation, however, cannot reasonably expect the same when their turn comes to call it a day.
One solution calls for raising the sales tax to offset decreasing premiums, which merely spells more hardship for low-income earners. In the face of soaring prices of crude oil and other commodities and prospects of a recession in the USA, which is a huge market for Japanese products, Japanese economists are now saying that the bad times are back.
Most of the netto kafe nanmin and millions of other 'working poor' probably did not even know that the good times were here.

The Straits Times/ANN

Source: The Statesman, 26 August 2008

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