Living in Internet cafes

Japan is the country with the biggest comics market in the world; people read manga in trains, in coffee breaks at work, laying down on the grass in parks… The obsession is such that in the 60’s some cafeterias saw a business opportunity and started to offer a catalog of different manga volumes for which clients had to pay per reading hours.

The business of this kind of cafeterias called Manga Kissa hasn’t stop growing until the Internet arrived, when they had to change and offer more services apart from reading manga. Since around ten years ago Manga Kissa also offer computers connected to the Internet. Nowadays most of them have private booths where the client can surf the net, read, watch movies or play video games with certain privacy.

One time I visited a Manga Kissa with my friend Yamamoto who usually frequents this kind of places. “It’s much cheaper to spend two hours in a Manga Kissa and read 10 manga volumes than buying them” he tells me as we are entering in one of the biggest Manga Kissa in Tokyo, which occupies more than four floors of a building. At the entrance we are asked how many hours we want to stay and we receive the keys to our respective personal booths. Then we walk through several hallways with bookshelves loaded with thousands of manga volumes, DVD movies and video games. Yamamoto chooses five volumes of a classic manga from the 70’s; I feel overloaded with such an amount of information, with so much entertainment to choose from, and walk to my booth without anything to read.

I go inside my booth, it only has enough space to accommodate a seat and a computer in front of it. The seat is a quite comfortable reclining seat in which it would be easy to fall asleep. The computer has some preinstalled video games, not much different from the ones I would find in Europe. But just beside the computer there is also a PlayStation 3, a Wii and a Cable TV set-top box. After five minutes I feel again lost among so many entertainment options and I decide to go out of the booth to check what other options are available. Billiards, ping-pong, massage service, a room to play board games, etc. Eventually Yamamoto and I end up playing ping-pong. When we go out they charge us 800 yen, around €6.5/$9, for two hours. While going out I also realize that there is a locker room with showers!

Since the Japanese bubble burst at the beginning of the 90’s, more and more Japanese people can’t afford to pay rent in the big cities. Many people that lost their jobs ended up homeless living on the streets but others decided that a cheap way to have a place to sleep was to spend the nights in a Manga Kissa booth. Manga Kissa owners quickly realized the new trend and introduced cheaper rates like for example “8 hours for €10/$14”. The trend became even more marked when some of the most important Manga Kissa chains in the country installed shower services. With the current economic woes, more and more people are becoming homeless and spending their nights in a Manga Kissa; they are temporary workers that earn a low wage and can only afford to spend around 300 euros / 400 dollars per month for accommodation. They are cybernomads, the product of the long Japanese economic crisis, that after almost 20 years still hasn’t gotten any better.

Article originally published in the Spanish newspaper El País.

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