With work scarce in Japan, some call a tiny berth home

 Tokyo — For 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, Hotel Shinjuku 510’s capsules, no larger than 2 meters long by 1.5 meters wide, and not tall enough to stand up in, have become an affordable option for some people with nowhere else to go as Japan endures its worst recession since World War II.

Once-booming exporters laid off workers en masse in 2009 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.

Nakanishi considers himself relatively lucky. After working odd jobs on an Isuzu assembly line, at pachinko parlors and as a security guard, Nakanishi, 40, moved into the capsule hotel in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district in April to save on rent while he worked night shifts at a delivery company.

Nakanishi, who studied economics at a regional university, dreams of becoming a lawyer and pores over legal manuals during the day. But with no job since Christmas, he does not know how much longer he can afford a capsule bed.

The rent is surprisingly high for such a small space: 59,000 yen a month, or about $640, for an upper bunk. But with no upfront deposit or extra utility charges, and basic amenities like fresh linens and free use of a communal bath and sauna, the cost is far less than renting an apartment in Tokyo, Nakanishi says.

Still, 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 only with a light, a small TV 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. But the hotel staff does its best to put guests at ease: “Welcome home,” employees say at the entrance.

“Our main clients used to be salarymen who were out drinking and missed the last train,” said Tetsuya Akasako, head manager at the hotel.

But about two years ago, the hotel started to notice that guests were staying weeks, then months, he said. This year, it introduced a reduced rent for dwellers of a month or longer; now, about 100 of the hotel’s 300 capsules are rented out by the month.

After requests from its long-term dwellers, the hotel received special government permission to let them register their capsules as their official abode; that made it easier to land job interviews.

The government says 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 that sleeps overnight in the country’s many 24-hour Internet cafes and saunas.

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

The government has poured money into bolstering Japan’s social welfare system, promising cash payments to households with children and abolishing tuition fees at public high schools.

Still, Naoto Iwaya, 46, is on the verge of joining the hopeless. A former tuna fisherman, he has been living at another capsule hotel in Tokyo since August. He most recently worked on a landfill at the city’s Haneda Airport, but that job ended in December.

“I have looked and looked, but there are no jobs. Now my savings are almost gone,” Iwaya said, after checking into an emergency shelter in Tokyo, where he can stay temporarily.

After that, he said, “I don’t know where I can go.”

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