Homeless, jobless forced to take refuge under Golden Arches

January 31, 2013


OSAKA--Japan’s long-moribund economy has spawned a new breed of jobless and homeless people dubbed “makudo nanmin,” or refugees at McDonald’s.

Mostly in their 30s and 40s, they typically spend the night at a McDonald’s restaurant or other late-night establishments.

“It takes 1,000 yen ($11) or so if I sleep at an Internet cafe,” a 37-year-old woman said. “I can stay at a McDonald’s for 100 yen over a cup of coffee.”

Many of the makudo nanmin graduated from school during the employment ice age from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, joined the labor market as temporary workers and eventually lost their jobs.

The hamburger chain they grew up with has become a place where these economically disadvantaged young people take a temporary rest amid constant worries about their futures.

They are most conspicuous in Osaka, which attracts young job-seekers with its lower cost of living compared with Tokyo.

About 45 percent of workers in Osaka Prefecture are hired as temporary employees, and are vulnerable to job cuts when the economy stalls. The figure is far higher than the national average.

At a McDonald’s near JR Nanba Station in southern Osaka, the clientele changes when midnight rolls around.

Gone are the office workers and students. In their place, several men come in, many with unkempt hair, clad in black or gray jackets and carrying worn-out shopping bags.

With nothing else to do, they idly lay their heads on the table or put their feet on the sofa.

A 35-year-old man who used to work as a contract worker at a Panasonic Corp. factory said he has been staying mainly at a late-night establishment for nearly a year.

He catnaps on a sofa at a pachinko parlor or similar facilities during the day and goes outside in the late afternoon. He buys prepared food that has been marked down at supermarkets and eats his meals in the corners of buildings.

He kills time by making the rounds of convenience stores and settles in at a McDonald’s for rest at the end of the day.

“I never dreamed that I would be living this way,” the man said. “I do not have money to stay at an Internet cafe.”

At the Panasonic factory, he was the leader of a team of four workers on an assembly line for vending machines.

He was frequently summoned by phone at night after his shift when something went wrong with the production line. He became sick due to stress and a lack of sleep.

His monthly take-home pay was 200,000 yen, as he was not entitled to overtime wages.

“I could hardly continue working,” he said.

The man was born in Hokkaido and attended a vocational school on information technology. He could not land a job when he graduated in 1997 because Hokkaido was in an economic slump.

He came to Osaka to work, but could not find a full-time post. He lost his job at Panasonic during the financial crisis set off by the collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers in autumn 2008. He has not been employed since.

He left an apartment near the Panasonic factory and began wandering the streets at night.

“I do not have any expectations from the government,” he said.

A 40-year-old man who calls himself simply "Okita" was a temporary worker at a Sharp Corp. factory in Kameyama, Mie Prefecture, until March.

He was dismissed after Sharp lost a share of the market for liquid crystal display panels to South Korean rivals and production at the factory declined.

He came to Osaka to work at an electronics-related factory, but to no avail.

He occasionally works as construction day laborer to subsist. He tends to feel depressed and has been treated by a psychiatrist.

He now often waits out the night until dawn at a McDonald’s restaurant, munching on a 100-yen hamburger.

Just before 2 a.m., loud music suddenly sounded at the restaurant, and the eat-in space was closed for cleaning. The men trudged out and moved toward the outlet of a secondhand bookstore chain 50 meters away.

Well-paying jobs are few and far between even in cities like Osaka. The economy has remained in the doldrums for many years, and public-works spending has been slashed.

In early January, a man carrying three bags entered a different McDonald’s in southern Osaka. He had only 300 yen with him. He had been unsuccessfully looking for a job since late last year. He was at a loss over a cup of 100-yen coffee.

Another man came in around 4 a.m. and asked him if he would work during the day. Brokers rarely come in to recruit day laborers. They usually approach him on the street.

The man declined the offer that day.

“I was worried about where I might be taken,” he said.

People who seek refuge at McDonald’s or other late-night establishments have not been on the radar of welfare officials at central and local governments.

Katsuhiko Tabuchi, who heads an Osaka municipal center to support the independence of homeless people, said they are different from older homeless people.

“They do not live in tents on the street or other ‘fixed’ places,” he said. “We do not even know where they are and how many of them there are.”

Homeless people can stay at municipal centers free of charge for up to six months while looking for jobs. City officials also go out of the office to approach homeless people and help them find homes.

McDonald’s Co. (Japan) said it has not experienced a major problem with people taking shelter at its restaurants.

A spokesman said the company plans to expand the number of restaurants open around the clock, citing an increase in late-night customers.

Most employees at McDonald’s restaurants are also temporary workers, with about 170,000 hired on a part-time basis.

The ranks of jobless and homeless at McDonald’s could swell, with younger people also facing difficulties finding jobs.

“Even if the economy recovers, new graduates in their teens join the labor market every year,” said a 28-year-old man searching for jobs on a computer at a public employment security office in Osaka’s Yodogawa Ward. “I wonder how long jobs will be available for someone like me.”

He had been working at an electronics parts factory as a temporary worker for two years and 11 months. The employer refused to renew his contract and kicked him out of a dormitory because companies are required to directly hire all workers who are working for more than three years.

His parents are deceased and he is staying with a relative.

“I cannot stay there forever,” he said, suggesting that he may have to wander the streets if he fails to find a job.

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A man sleeps at a McDonald’s restaurant in Osaka’s Chuo Ward early on Jan. 11. (Shinichi Iizuka)

A man sleeps at a McDonald’s restaurant in Osaka’s Chuo Ward early on Jan. 11. (Shinichi Iizuka)

  • A man sleeps at a McDonald’s restaurant in Osaka’s Chuo Ward early on Jan. 11. (Shinichi Iizuka)
  • A man enters a secondhand bookstore that is open until 4 a.m. in southern Osaka on Jan. 11. (Shinichi Iizuka)

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