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Japan's lost and unemployed

Last updated on March 15, 2011


Did you know at least 30,000 people live on the streets of Japan, most of whom are single, older men. Private developers and corporations run massive work programs which “hire” these same people who have been displaced, to work on job sites where they have to pay for every meal as well as their housing.

CNN’s Kyung Lah reports that Japan’s unemployed are finding few ways out of the cycle of joblessness and homelessness. Lah is the reporter that interviewed some of the BT’ers for her piece on my “Obama is a monkey in Japan” story. Check out her report, Net rooms boom with Japan’s jobless.

TOKYO, Japan — As a reporter, I often meet someone whose story stays with me long after the interview is over and I’ve filed my story. Such was the case of my interview with Hidefumi Ito, a 54-year-old unemployed man whom I met six months ago.

Hidefumi Ito sits in his net room, a cheap and efficient option for Japan’s growing unemployed.
Ito had agreed to do an interview from his “net room,” a rental room the size of a closet. The room costs the equivalent of US $20 for 24 hours and has two essential job seeking items: a computer and internet hook-up.

The space was so small that Ito and I sat cross-legged in the room, taking up the whole area. My cameraman had to open the door and shoot into the room. What struck me at first is that all of Ito’s possessions — just a few items of clothing – filled the room. Then he began to share his story.

Often talking through choked tears, Ito spoke candidly and at length, describing how his upper-class life had slipped away so quickly. He was an art gallery director, selling high-priced items to the richest people in the world. The economic recession quickly killed the business and his job. Ito lived in a five-bedroom house and owned two cars, an incredible level of financial wealth in space-starved Japan. He lost his home in months to bankruptcy. Disgraced, his wife divorced him and now his three children won’t speak to him, Ito says.

Ito took what he had left and stayed with friends as long as he could, before turning to the net rooms. These rooms, he told me, were a cheap and efficient option for someone like him.

There are a lot of people like Ito in Tokyo. Tsukasa, the company that created these net rooms, says it’s running at 100 percent occupancy at all of its buildings. Tsukasa’s general manager, Koji Kawamata, says the company is currently building more of the rooms but struggling to keep up with demand. Because of the number of people who need these rooms in Japan’s recession, it led to a job for Ito.

Tsukasa, impressed with Ito’s ability to communicate with us and his determination to find work, hired him as a custodian. The job is not glamorous. For eight hours a day, he scrubs toilets and makes beds for a monthly salary of US $1600. Tsukasa is giving him a deal on a small apartment so his take-home salary ends up being closer to US $1400 a month.

But having any sort of job has meant a significant turnaround for Ito’s life. Talking to him again six months after our first meeting, he did say he continues to grieve for what he once had. But now he can think about life beyond unemployment. He hopes to start his own business someday utilizing his managing skills. Ito considers himself lucky because he never had to live for weeks at a time on the streets, as do the growing number of unemployed filling Tokyo’s parks.

Just having any sort of step towards tomorrow, says Ito, gives enough hope to keep moving forward in this global economic slowdown.

Watch my followup on Ito after he had to resort to a net room home.

One Comment

  1. steven_alexander steven_alexander March 2, 2009

    I am curious to know if Japan have any social services like we do in America (i.e. Food Stamps, Dislocated Worker Services such as training for another career, etc) or is people like Ito that considered shameful in Japanese society and is kept hidden such as the Orphan (koji)?

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