People live in tiny cubicles in Japanese cyber-cafe

The BBC reports on a cyber cafe outside Tokyo that has a dark room divided into tiny cubicles where 60 people "who rarely emerge" live. These folks are called cyber drifters and "they have just enough money to stay off the streets." It costs $500 a month to live in one of these "coffin-size booths," which have no natural light or fresh air. "In Tokyo it doesn't get any cheaper than that, or more claustrophobic." The owner of the cyber cafe is making a tidy sum off the rent: 60 X $500 = $30,000


  1. I predict outraged comments, so let me just point out right at the beginning that if there weren’t accommodations like this, they (apparently) would be on the street.

  2. You know, in a way this is the very image of the dystopian future some have depicted in which some people’s existence is limited to living in a tiny box, their only interaction with the outside world through a computer.

    It’s damn close to being “The Matrix” — the only thing that’s missing is the feeding tube and the harvesting of body heat.

    Don’t tell their slumlord that, though. He might like the idea.

  3. Outside Tokyo or in Tokyo? Either way, $500/month is the price of a decent (cheap) real apartment in many cities I’ve been in the USA. (The cheapest “slumlord” apartments, that still weren’t that bad, just a tad spurious about how utilities such as heat were being paid for, hovered over $300/month.)

    You know, in a way this is the very image of the dystopian future some have depicted in which some people’s existence is limited to living in a tiny box, their only interaction with the outside world through a computer.

    I fully support ultra-cheap living in Storage Units ala Snow Crash. In fact, I’m giving good odds that the USA becomes almost exactly like the world in Snow Crash within 50 years; hyperinflation and all.

  4. Sounds like terrible slumlord business practice. Is it really not possible to find a shared apartment in Tokyo for less than $500?

  5. Anything like this in the Bay Area?

    Based on what I know about the property market in Tokyo, $500 rent there would equate to something extremely cost effective in Oakland, Berkeley, even Palo Alto or San Francisco. The cheapest hugbox I’ve found so far is in Davis for $185 but you have to put up with a bunch of hippies and there’s a chore rota that and “political involvement” so no thanks.

  6. And let me point out that this is not at all new. People have been living in cyber-cafes for at least the last twelve years I’ve been in Tokyo.

    The amply available gov’t housing I live in is $500/month, but perhaps the $1000 up-front for deposit/rent is still too much for some people.

    Japan’s homeless issue is a complicated one and interestingly quite different from the West’s. Here is an example:

  7. better off there than in the flophouses or parks where some minimal social functionality is needed to survive. These are otaku and need to be protected.

  8. The owner of the cyber cafe is making a tidy sum off the rent: 60 X $500 = $30,000

    But he used to rent out villas.

  9. Do people in Japan actually call them ‘Cyberdrifters,’ or is that just something that some BBC producer dreamt up?

  10. Reminds me of the rented space that Case has in Neuromancer. What they called it in the book escapes me right this second, but if you have read the book, you know what I mean.

  11. In the town I’m currently living in, $500 can get you a two bedroom house with a yard and a garage. Last year in Santa Barbara I was shelling $1150 a month for a studio. Hence, the move.

  12. When I was in Japan I had to spend a weekend on my own during a homestay. I decided to go to a hostel, despite being told by friends that a cyber cafe was a better deal for a weekend (showers and everything, you know). Afterwards (with more experience with cyber cafes) I realized they were right.

  13. This is sad, but you (as a native Japanese) can actually get cheaper accommodations in Tokyo. A 3 tatami mat place (about 6′ x 9′) with shared toilets and sink, maybe a window, no kitchen or bath, can cost as little as $280/mo. This is pretty common for students and sleeping rooms for salarymen. There would be a sento (public bath) or gym in the area. However, traditional upfront move in costs of first, last, key money, and deposit as well as some utilities fees apply, putting them out of reach for people living payday to payday, especially freeters (temp workers). At the cafe you get a PC with net connection included, which would be crucial to these folks’ lifestyle, and what looks to be an on-site conbini serving cup noodles and manga – what more could an out of work otaku want?

    The poor guy at the end is browsing job postings which pay $1760 to $2500/month, at recent exchange rates.

    I was surprised to see a female resident.

  14. Warabi is actually in Saitama, the prefecture north of Tokyo, which is a relatively cheap place to live. So $500 a month seems a bit expensive for where they are. However i agree with #7. The key money + Agents fee + Deposit can usually equal 4 or 5 months of rent before you even move in!

    Another thing to note is, house sharing in Japan is very uncommon, so you could think of this like living in a dorm.

    *** Saitama is renown for being “Uncool” and is often called “Dasai-tama”. “Dasai” meaning uncool.

    *** Warabi is also the most densely populated area of Japan with a density of 13,928.24 persons per km² (stolen from Wiki but known prior because of working there)

  15. $30,000 is a tidy sum, if you ignore the fact that it’s expensive to own and operate a place of that size in Tokyo with all the services a typical internet cafe offers. The operator probably barely makes any money off of it.

    If the ‘tenants’ left Tokyo they could easily find good real apartments for much less than $500/month. One of my friends spent a few months in a $100/month apartment in rural Osaka. The toilet was shared and there was no kitchen or bath (had to use a bathhouse) though.

    I had a decent sized (for a single person) apartment in a brand new building on the 環状線 2 stops from Umeda in Osaka for ~$700 after utilities. If I went to a branch line I could have gotten a bigger place at like half the price.

  16. ‘cyber drifter’ is definitely a bbc creation. .

    Second, this is not an isolated phenomenon. Manga cafe’s all over Japan have these small dark rooms where people squat.

    Third, I’ve lived at dorm-like situations before in Tokyo for $250/month so the declaration that $500 near Saitama is the cheapest is ridiculous. The problem a lot of these people have is that legitimate dwellings exist in a $250-400 price range without showers or in very bad areas but the key money and deposit is often exorbitant and out of the price ranges of these people. I have a friend here who to move into a proper apartment went to live in a teepee on top of the roof of the bar he was working at for six months so he could afford the key money for his new place.


  17. Cyber/Manga cafes are great for short term accommodation. The last time my wife and I were in Tokyo we went clubbing at Womb until 6am however couldn’t check in at our hotel until 2pm. Even though Japan is probably the safest place in the world to sleep in public, we just couldn’t do it so we got a cubicle for a few hours and crashed out.

  18. If anything, this reminds me of “Ghost in the Shell” rather than “The Matrix”. I wouldn’t mind living in a Cubicle like that for a few weeks.

  19. I went to a cybercafe like this in Osaka a few years ago, which not only included your own little booth, but also shower facilities and a tanning bed (!). Even in a good economy, I would imagine it’s a common solution to the low income/high rent cost problem.

    Actually, now that I think about it, perhaps the tanning bed was in there to compensate for the lack of windows in the place. Those Japanese, they thnk of EVERYTHING!

  20. This reminds me more of Gibson’s “Cheap Motel” than anything else. What a profoundly humbling existence.

  21. I wish we could offer something like this in the States for people who clearly need an alternative to expensive hotels and cost-prohibitive apartments.

  22. Holy m@t73rRfV2k3r

    I have a 2bdrm/2 bath apt in the NW at $795 1100 sqr feet – all to myself.


    I live in metro, 30 min by mass transit to downtown, with hipster development all around the city. You could work at Burgerville for minimum wage (which was bumped up a few cents) full-time and still make just under 3x the rent for that closet. You could get a 1 BEDROOM APARTMENT for $650 in the so called “bad part of town.” And we’re one of the states with highest unemployment.
    I live a privileged life.

  23. Small? Yes. But location, location, location!

    There are tons of folks here in Venice Beach, CA who live in shabby RVs so shabby the “V” part doesn’t apply anymore. Why? Location!

    WTF do we Americans need with so much individual space anyways? Single people are living in 4000 sq.ft. homes when we have 1 out of every 50 of our childrenn HOMELESS?

    Puleez. I love you BB. But yer getting a bit ethnocentric these days.

    Disclaimer: I was born in Tokyo.

  24. Just to chime in: You can find plenty of places for $500/mo or less, especially as far from Tokyo as Warabi (30min away from Tokyo Station), but yeah, it’s the startup cost that kills you.

    I had a couple students who were sharing an apartment. Their friends thought they were crazy. I pointed out that that is totally normal for college students in every other country I’ve been to. I’m not even sure what the stigma is.

    My wife lived with her sister for a year while their college years overlapped. My father-in-law still seems to be ashamed that he couldn’t put them in separate places, even though they were going to schools within 5 minutes of the apartment. Then again, my father-in-law is batshit insane (according to his daughters, and I’ve spent enough time with him to back them up in that assertion).

  25. “I had a couple students who were sharing an apartment. Their friends thought they were crazy. I pointed out that that is totally normal for college students in every other country I’ve been to. I’m not even sure what the stigma is.”

    I don’t know, they may be on to something. I shared a few apartments with friends. It pretty much ended our friendships.

    Sharing a living space for long periods of time is difficult.

  26. I wonder what they do when someone gets sick and starts sneezing and coughing for a week, or if someone gets a bad case of smelly farts. I would imagine both are of an increased frequency among a group that close to the street.

  27. Reminds me of the J.G. Ballard story, ‘The Concentration City`. In that story, which is set in a far future where the earth is so crowded that it has become effectively one vast multi-layered city, a kid dreams of flight and building a flying machine. This is a world where flying is not only no longer possible, but the very concepts of `free space` and `flight` are no longer understood or have any meaning.

  28. there are parking spots that go for more than the equivelant of $500 a month in tokyo. it’s most likely a fairly extreme case, meant to make you think at least it’s not that bad in “enter town name here”.

    i for one would like to be one of the frogs that jump out of the water before it boils, than the happy few working their way towards 100C

  29. I’m reading a book called “shutting out the sun”
    It’s about how one million young japanese men have shut themselves away from the world by staying in a room in their parents house. Very strange and sad…the term is called “hikikomori”

  30. Japanese national here. The term ‘Cyber drifter’ is not not something BBC created out of the blue.
    We call them “net cafe nanmin” in Japanese, I guess the direct translation of this would be “cyber cafe refugees,” so close.

  31. Personally I feel the article is a bit too dramatic.

    If these people as the article says, emerge so rarely, why all the umbrellas?

    Also, as far as I could see, the room did have a large window and while there was no natural light in the cubicles themselves, certainly that is true for any cubicle, as that is the nature of a cubicle. Besides, many houses in Tokyo (and many large towns in Japan) are build so close to one another, that you will generally be able to touch the wall of your neighbour anyway.

    As for no “fresh air”, during the summer in Japan you don’t want fresh air because it contains 80% humidity and a ton of bugs and heat. Most modern buildings in Japan live off air conditioned all year round, since they also use for heating… You emerge from your air conditioned house into an air conditioned waiting room at the train station, into an air conditioned train, into an air conditioned underground mall, into an air conditioned office, rince repeat.

    Drama, drama, drama.

  32. In Japan I came across this saying regarding living space: “You need one tatami mat to lie down, and a half a mat to stand up.” The Japanese people are no strangers to living in tiny spaces…I suspect those folks are a lot more upset about not having a job than the necessity of living in a shoebox.

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