Monday, January 4, 2010

Jobless find refuge in capsule hotels

Jan 3, 2010
Japan's record high 5.2% jobless rate sees at least 15,800 living on the streets

Since April last year, Mr Nakanishi has been calling this 2m by 1.5m space home. Each capsule is furnished with a light, a small TV set with earphones, coat hooks, a thin blanket and a hard pillow. Originally meant for workers who had missed the last train home, capsule hotels are now seeing more long-term guests. -- PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Tokyo - For Mr Atsushi Nakanishi, jobless since Christmas, home is a cubicle barely bigger than a coffin - one of dozens of berths stacked two units high in one of central Tokyo's decrepit 'capsule' hotels.

'It's just a place to crawl into and sleep,' he said, rolling his neck and stroking his black suit - one of just two he owns after discarding the rest of his wardrobe for lack of space. 'You get used to it.'

When Capsule Hotel Shinjuku 510 opened nearly two decades ago, Japan was just beginning to pull back from its bubble economy, and the hotel's tiny plastic cubicles offered a night's refuge to salarymen who had missed the last train home.

Now, the hotel's capsules, no larger than 2m long by 1.5m wide, and not tall enough to stand up in, have become an affordable option for people with nowhere else to go as Japan endures its worst recession since World War II.

Once-booming exporters laid off workers en masse last year as the global economic crisis pushed down demand. Many of the newly unemployed, forced from their company-sponsored housing or unable to make rent, have become homeless.

The country's woes have led the government to open emergency shelters over the New Year holiday in a drive to help the homeless.

'Help can't wait,' Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said when he visited a Tokyo shelter housing 700 homeless people last Friday.

Mr Nakanishi, 40, considers himself relatively lucky. After working odd jobs on an Isuzu assembly line, at pachinko gaming parlours and as a security guard, he moved into his current abode in Tokyo's Shinjuku district last April to save on rent while he worked the night shift at a delivery company.

The rent is surprisingly high for such a small space: 59,000 yen (S$890) a month for an upper bunk. Still, with no upfront deposit or extra utility charges, and basic amenities like fresh linen and free use of a communal bath and sauna, the cost is far less than renting an apartment in Tokyo, Mr Nakanishi said.

But it is a bleak world where deep sleep is hard to come by. The capsules do not have doors, only screens that pull down. Every bump of the shoulder on the plastic walls, every muffled cough, echoes loudly through the rows.

Each capsule is furnished with a light, a small TV set with earphones, coat hooks, a thin blanket and a hard pillow of rice husks.

Most possessions, from shirts to shaving cream, must be kept in lockers. There is a common room with old couches, a dining area and rows of sinks. Cigarette smoke is everywhere, as are security cameras.

Mr Tetsuya Akasako, head manager at the hotel, said that two years ago, the hotel started to notice guests were staying for weeks, then months. Now, about 100 of the hotel's 300 capsules are rented out by the month.

The government said about 15,800 people live on the streets in Japan, but aid groups put the figure much higher, with at least 10,000 in Tokyo alone. Those numbers do not count the city's 'hidden' homeless, like those who live in capsule hotels. There is also a floating population who sleeps overnight in the country's many 24-hour Internet cafes and saunas.

The jobless rate, at 5.2 per cent, is at a record high, and the number of households on welfare has risen sharply. The country's 15.7 per cent poverty rate is one of the highest among industrialised nations.

These statistics have helped shatter an image, held since the country's rise as an industrial power in the 1970s, that Japan is a classless society.

'When the country enjoyed rapid economic growth, standards of living improved across the board and class differences were obscured,' said Professor Hiroshi Ishida from the University of Tokyo. 'With a stagnating economy, class is more visible again.'

New York Times

[When critics of Singapore's "Growth at all costs" policy question the need, necessity, and costs of the policy, they imagine a kinder, gentler Singapore, where growth is enough to sustain both needs and human dignity. Perhaps such a balance can indeed be found. But the danger is also that we lose our balance.

MM Lee (among others) has noted that Singaporeans are less "hungry" and less driven than new Singaporeans/immigrants. So new Singaporeans are coming in to continue to drive Singapore's growth. So is Singapore for Born and Bred Singaporeans (BBS) or for anyone who would drive growth in Singapore? If the true son of Singapore depends solely on his birthright and contributes only 70% of his effort, what should the new Singaporean get for contributing 120%?]

No comments: