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Japan's capsule hotels now coffin-sized homes

By Kyung Lah, CNN
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Living in a capsule
  • Once a symbol of Japan's prosperity, Tokyo's capsule hotels are finding a new resident: the working poor
  • Cost $700 to $1,000 a month -- a housing bargain in Tokyo
  • The latest figures from the government reports a 15.7percent poverty rate

Tokyo, Japan (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."