Hard Times In Japan: 'Home' Might Be an Internet Cafe

Shiho Fukada's four-part photo series documents the effects of Japan's changing economy on both the young and the old. Here, Cocoa, 21, shows off her business card for her job as a "hostess." Working as a hostess is a popular job for Japan's young women. But it comes with an expiration date — when they get too old, they are no longer wanted, leaving them with no skills and few options. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2012.

People wait in line to receive a charity meal in Kamagasaki, Osaka, Japan. Once a thriving day laborer's town, Kamagasaki is now home to about 25,000 mainly elderly day laborers, with an estimated 1,300 who are homeless. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2009.

Yasu, an unemployed day laborer, drinks $1 sake in Kamagasaki. It used to be called a "laborers town" but is now called a "welfare town" — a dumping ground of old men. Alcoholism, poverty, street death, suicide, TB and most of all loneliness prevail here. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2009.

Men mop the floor of a labor center, which is sponsored by the government and provides the main source of income to a select few in Kamagasaki. People used to be able to get high-paying jobs in this town, but now there is no work, especially for the aging male population. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2009.

A picture of Mount Fuji hangs under a highway where a homeless man sleeps in Osaka, Japan. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2009.

Syunsuke Fujii, 64, an unemployed carpenter, is seen in Osaka, Japan. It is almost impossible for graying men of the construction industry to get work here. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2009.

The remains of workers with no relatives sit in a locker room of an NGO in Osaka, Japan. Many men here don't have family ties, and live and die alone as social outcasts from the mainstream "salaryman" culture. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2009.

Suicide and karoshi — death by work — is increasingly common among white-collar workers as a reaction to stress. Emiko Teranishi, 61, lost her husband, Akira, from suicide 14 years ago. He was a manager of a restaurant chain but became depressed from excessive overwork. He ended his life by jumping from a building. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2012.

Japanese businessmen play pachinko after work in Tokyo. Japanese white-collar workers, also known as "salarymen," increasingly work longer hours because of the fear of losing jobs and a shortage of manpower. Excessive overwork causes depression, and in some cases leads to suicides. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2012.

A Japanese businessman waits for a train under LED lights, which are designed to calm people and prevent them from jumping onto the tracks in Tokyo. Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2012.

Cocoa, 21, prepares for work in the dressing room of a bar in Tokyo. Customers pay large sums of money to hostesses for the pleasure of their company, but not for sex. Japanese women's employment opportunities are often limited, and many see hostessing as a path to financial independence — even though they can only do it while they are young. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2012.

Aya, 21, sends text messages to her clients as she brushes her teeth before work. She emails about 50 clients at least three times a week. "I'm increasingly depressed and closed off, but I have to keep smiling," she says. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2012.

Ku, 24, entertains her customer in Tokyo. She wanted to be a hostess from the time she was 16 years old. Many hostesses suffer from various health problems such as liver disease and alcoholism, caused by late nights and constant drinking. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2012.

Fumiya, 26, a security guard, has lived in an Internet cafe for 10 months. People live in the 24-hour cafe's small rooms, unable to afford rent anywhere else. Fumiya pays about $25 a day for a tiny private booth, a shared bathroom and laundry service. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2012.

Tadayuki Sakai, 42, worked for a credit card company for 20 years, and now is a telephone operator and computer temp. He lives in this Internet cafe. The number of temporary low-paid workers without benefits and job security has surged in the past decade, reaching a third of Japan's workforce. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2012.

Story by Coburn Dukehart, for NPR's The Picture Show

In 2008, photographer Shiho Fukada read a story in The New York Times about a town in Japan that was filled with destitute old men. Having grown up in a prosperous Japan, she says she couldn't stop thinking about them.

She traveled to the Kamagasaki district of Osaka to document the collapse of the labor market, including the old and sick day laborers who had been abandoned by an economy they had given their lives to.

That essay sparked a four-part photo series documenting people who have made hard choices in the wake of Japan's declining economy. Over the next few years, Fukada sought out people who were struggling, although they still tried to maintain a brave face.

"[Japanese] people suffer in private, in their homes, so I thought it was a really important story to tell," Fukada says.

"The lnternet cafe workers — they put on tie, go to work — you couldn't tell," she says. "The amount of effort people put in is really heartbreaking to me."

The four parts of Fukada's project highlight the aging population of Kamagasaki; the rise of white-collar suicide; the increasing popularity of hostess jobs; and the rise of 24-hour Internet cafes — where people actually live.

"Japanese [people] are so private, so it was really hard for me to approach them and to get access to them," she says. "And on top of that, these are people in extreme conditions who are not necessarily proud of their situations."

Fukada, who splits her time between China and New York, temporarily moved back in with her parents in Japan to work on the project. Her father worked the same job his whole life and is now comfortably retired. But she says those opportunities are fading in Japan, making her work deeply personal.

"I can relate," she says. "I'm a freelance photojournalist. I'm totally disposable. I could be any one of these people. People think, 'I'm not going to end up like that.' But now, given the economy, anyone could end up in this situation."

Fukada's project was funded in part by grants from the Pulitzer Center and the Alicia Patterson Foundation. You can see more of her work on her website.