Japan’s capsule hotels now coffin-sized homes

January 07, 2010|By Kyung Lah, CNN

Satoshi Miura crawled into his rented room, dropping his bag in the corner. It didn’t take long to get settled — home tonight is a capsule. The rooms are boxes in this capsule hotel about the size of a coffin.

But no matter, says 45-year-old Miura. He’s only there to sleep before looking for work.

For Miura, it has everything he needs for the night: a bed, a TV and radio. At the ground floor there’s a shared bath and sauna.

Most importantly, it’s cheap. The capsules cost about $30 a night. If he had to stay for a month, it would cost $700 to $1000, a housing bargain in Tokyo, ranked by Mercer as the world’s most expensive city.

The cost is why capsule hotels are finding a new resident: the working poor. Once a symbol of Japan’s prosperity, the capsules were built for the businessman who worked too late to catch the train or stayed out drinking all night. At Miura’s capsule hotel this night, there are no successful businessmen renting capsules. Only men like him, people looking for work.

Miura snapped his mobile phone shut, saying he’d just gotten some good news. His temp agency has set him up with a book binding job the next day, which will pay him about $70. That’s enough, Miura says, to buy him another night indoors and a fast food dinner. It’s a cycle Miura has been on for some time. He’s been working steadily since he was 18, primarily in construction jobs.

Despite that, he can’t afford the deposit on an apartment, which is usually thousands of dollars upfront. Japan’s recession last year made finding work even tougher. Japan’s corporations laid off thousands of temporary, part-time workers. These workers, who make up a third of Japan’s workforce, have fewer legal protections than full-time employees. When those temporary workers got fired, says Makoto Kawazoe of the Young Worker’s Union, they lost their homes.

“When people lose their jobs in Japan, they fall into poverty immediately,” says Kawazoe. “Rents are extremely expensive. Due to the lack of affordable housing, underpaid laborers can’t rent a room. They end up homeless, even if they’re working.”

Japan’s new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, went to visit a government run shelter in the New Year. The shelter opened for a week, to help laborers who can’t find a place to stay during the holidays.

“I want everyone in Japan to have basic living rights guaranteed by our Constitution,” the prime minister said in his New Year’s address to the nation. “People want a place to live, they wish to work, but there’s no where to work. I want to build a government this year that supports workers and protects their lives.”

The emergence of the working poor in the world’s second largest economy has shocked a public used to the image of a rich and egalitarian nation with lifetime employment for its workers. The latest figures from the government reports a 15.7 percent poverty rate. Compared to other industrialized nations, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says Japan ranks fourth, behind Mexico, Turkey and the United States.

“Japan is not a rich country,” says Miura. “There are rich and poor and a great gap between.”

The first capsule hotel to open was the Capsule Inn Osaka, designed by Kisho Kurokawa and located in the Umeda district of Osaka. It opened in 1979.

About Adriana Siso

Adriana Siso launched Molecule Design in September 2010, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Molecule is the extension of a previous furniture design store that was founded in 2003 as an expansion on a career in fine art, which she pursued for more than 30 years. She brings her talents and uncompromising quest for practical and original products to the world of home furnishings and space design. Molecule carries contemporary industrial designer products that are approachable, remarkable, cutting edge, made to last, life enhancing, sometimes irreverent, and timeless. Later in 2006, Adriana started the process of conceiving the new showroom space that would house the store. Partly sustainable, the structure was built out of 11 recycled 40′ cargo containers. Completed in December 2010, it became the first cargo container building in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Always an explorer, Adriana loves to engage in the realms of discovery and innovation. InContext/Molecule Design's Magazine, launched in December 2011, is the venue where she collects the great stories of creative thinkers, who in our current state of affairs, sometimes under great pressures and working outside the realm of imposed standards, achieve the impossible. It has been known that in times of great crisis, design flourishes. It is Molecule's mission to show this light.

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