In these Japanese cafes, it's more than manga
You have probably at least heard of Japan’s ubiquitous Internet or manga (comic book) cafés. They are everywhere and hard to miss. But there are also some out there that have been supersized – and they are well worth checking out.
While your typical midsized to hole-in-the-wall manga “kissa” (café) may throw in Internet access, soft drinks and snacks with your cubical, their mega-counterparts may offer that as well as darts, karaoke and more on a much grander scale.
What do you call these palatial “cafés”? Well, it’s complex. Literally.
“We call cafés like Internet or comic book cafés that offer all these kinds of entertainment combined ‘complex cafés,’” says Daisuke Hidaka, president of Japan Complex Café Association. He is also president of Runsystem Co. Ltd., which operates a large chain of complex cafés. The term is not as widely used as “Internet” or “manga” café, or a major facility’s brand name, but that doesn’t mean they are not well known.
“Complex cafés are part of Japanese culture. There is no place outside of Japan where you can find them.” Hidaka says, adding that Internet café’s abroad pale before what they have to offer. “They don’t have the variety of entertainment nor individual booths.”
I cannot verify what Internet cafés overseas offer, but I can vouch for Japan’s big-box cafés. I recently toured Jiyu Kukan Ikebukuro Rosa, one of Runsystem’s cafés in Tokyo, and I found what looked more like an amusement center than a café.
Besides several complimentary soft drink dispensers, I saw a seemingly endless amount of PCs and monitors in open areas as well as individual booths, divided into smoking and non-smoking areas. Amenities included billiards, table tennis and darts along with karaoke rooms, showers and electric-massage-chair booths.
The comic book selection in this manga café was huge. There were not only endless volumes of comics, but also magazines and newspapers filling dozens of eight-storied bookshelves in a comic book “corner” that looked more like a community library or bookstore.
In addition to all this, I was surprised to learn they also offered private soundproof rooms for business meetings or language lessons.
Anyone can use these facilities 24 hours a day, 365 days out of the year for just 1,000 yen (about $9) an hour. The fee covers the use of all the available equipment as well. The café also offers discount packages for longer stays, including overnight.
The cafés most popular attraction are its individual seat booths. These are a partitioned areas with a reclining chair or floor mat, where you can enjoy the Internet, TV and comic books without being disturbed by others. You can even take a nap in there.
The seat is cleaned and all computer activity is deleted after each user is finished, according to Hidaka.
It was easy to see why these mega cafés are popular and have been growing number in recent years. There are currently about 2,091 so-called complex cafés from Japan’s northern most island of Hokkaido to the southern isles of Okinawa. They attract 145 million people and generate 150 billion yen ($1.4 billion) annually, according to the Complex Café Association.
Hidaka says about 70 percent of the users are between the ages of 20 and 30; 80 percent are male. The association hopes to up the number of female customers with added perks.
“Some complex cafés set aside a third of their space exclusively for female users,” Hidaka says. The areas come with gorgeous, feminine powder rooms, showers and makeup facilities equipped with cosmetics, hair irons and nail treatments. Only women with card keys can access these areas, so they can lounge safely and comfortably even at night.
“I was surprised to see how clean the facility was,” says Ai Suzuki, a 22-year-old college student in Tokyo who recently tried one out. “I used to think these kinds of cafés are dirty and dangerous, but I was relieved to see how safe and comfortable it was. I think I could even stay at one overnight alone.”
“I noticed that most of daytime users are high school students,” she added.
During late nights, as with manga cafés, these larger cafés are frequented by commuters who miss the last train and are in need of an inexpensive alternative to a hotel. Law prohibits them being furnished with beds or lockable booth doors, but a reclining seat and shower are good enough for many until the trains start running in the morning. At about 1,500 yen for 6 hours overnight, it is much cheaper than even a capsule hotel.
Manga and Internet cafés have also become the semi-permanent residences for many of Japan’s homeless working poor, known as “net café refugees” or “cyber-homeless,” according several media reports. It has caused some to worry how safe these cafés are for overnight stay.
In response, Japan Complex Café Association introduced a membership system requiring registration with ID bearing a permanent address, according to Hidaka. Ostensibly, anyone who associates poverty or homelessness with criminal threat will find refuge at one of the associations 1,006 member facilities that can be identified by a displayed “JCCA” decal.
For most regular users, however – whether manga, Internet or complex café – worry is the farthest thing from the mind. In fact, these facilities bring just the opposite to mind.
“Over the years, I have always felt safe and comfortable at every cafe I have ever experienced,” says Ryo Oikawa, 44, a Tokyo ramen cook who has been frequenting them for the past decade. “I enjoy reading reviews of the newest comic books, the comics themselves or an entire series at once in cafés. It is really a great place to spend few hours on my days off.”
Biggest of the big
Jiyu Kukan at Big Box in Tokyo’s Takadanobaba is the largest complex café in Japan. It has 27 karaoke rooms with the latest machines, 150 PCs, 50,000 comics and more than 100 different kinds of free soft drinks. It has individual Internet booths with reclining chairs or mats, massage chair booths and family rooms. It also has large space for digital darts, table tennis and billiards.
Jiyu Kukan also has an exclusive women’s area (smoking and non-smoking). Its automated entrance system enables the customers to select a room by themselves through a touch panel screen without consulting any staff.
Jiyu Kukan at Big Box in Tokyo’s Takadanobaba
Location: 1-35-3 Beg Box Takadanobaba 7F, Takadanobaba, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Charge: (3 hours) 1140 yen ($10.5), (6 hours) 1960 yen ($18)
Comic cafés near your base
Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture (near Misawa AB)
Jiyu Kukan Hochinohe Numadate
Location: 4-7 Hachinohe Numadate
Tokyo (near Yokota AB)
Kaikatsu Club, Mizuho
Location: 824-4 Dangaya, Mizuho-cho, Nishitamagun, Tokyo
Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture (near NAF Atsugi)
Kaikatsu Club Atsugi Hayashi
Location: 5-23-5 Hayashi, Atsugi City
Yamato, Kanagawa Prefecture (near Camp Zama)
Yuyu Kukan Yamato
Location: 2-10-12 Yamato Minami, Yamato City
Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture (near Yokosuka Naval Base)
Moopa Yokohama Nishiguchi
Location: 1-8-6 Kitasaiwai, Nishi-ku, Yokohama City
Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture (near MCAS Iwakuni)
Location: 1-7-18 Odu-cho, Iwakuni City
Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture (near Sasebo Naval Base)
Tomato Club Sasebo
Location: 14-26 Daito-cho, Sasebo City
Beats living on the street
“Net café refugees,” or “cyber-homeless” are a growing class of homeless people in Japan who do not own or rent a residence and sleep in 24-hour Internet cafés or manga cafés.
A Japanese government study estimated that over 5,400 people are spending at least half of their week staying in net cafes. It has been alleged that this is part of an increasing wealth gap in Japan.
According to the Japanese government survey, those staying have little interest in manga or the Internet, and are instead using the place because of the low price relative to temporary housing such as business or capsule hotels, hostels or any other option besides sleeping on the street.
It was also estimated that about half of those staying have no job, while the other half work in low-paid temporary jobs, which paid around 100,000 yen ($900) per month - lower than what is needed to rent an apartment and pay for transportation in a city like Tokyo.
– Stripes Japan