When Capsule Hotel Shinjuku 510 opened nearly two decades ago, Japan was just beginning to pull back from its bubble economy, and the hotel’s tiny plastic cubicles offered a night’s refuge to salarymen who had missed the last train home.
Now, Hotel Shinjuku 510’s capsules, no larger than 6 1/2 feet long by 5 feet wide, and not tall enough to stand up in, have become an affordable option for some people with nowhere else to go as Japan endures its worst recession since World War II.
Once-booming exporters laid off workers en masse in 2009 as the global economic crisis pushed down demand. Many of the newly unemployed, forced from their company-sponsored housing or unable to make rent, have become homeless.
Those little cubbies--hardly bigger than the crate in which my lab sleeps--don't come cheap. According to the article, the upper cubbie costs the equivalent of $640 a month. Ouch. And that's an relatively affordable option.
Still, it is a bleak world where deep sleep is rare. The capsules do not have doors, only screens that pull down. Every bump of the shoulder on the plastic walls, every muffled cough, echoes loudly through the rows.
Each capsule is furnished only with a light, a small TV with earphones, coat hooks, a thin blanket and a hard pillow of rice husks.
Most possessions, from shirts to shaving cream, must be kept in lockers. There is a common room with old couches, a dining area and rows of sinks. Cigarette smoke is everywhere, as are security cameras. But the hotel staff does its best to put guests at ease: “Welcome home,” employees say at the entrance.
“Our main clients used to be salarymen who were out drinking and missed the last train,” said Tetsuya Akasako, head manager at the hotel.
But about two years ago, the hotel started to notice that guests were staying weeks, then months, he said. This year, it introduced a reduced rent for dwellers of a month or longer; now, about 100 of the hotel’s 300 capsules are rented out by the month.
After requests from its long-term dwellers, the hotel received special government permission to let them register their capsules as their official abode; that made it easier to land job interviews.