The "Hidden Homeless" in Japan's Contemporary Mobile Culture
Since its inception, mobile telephony and all it ensues has gained attention due to the massive impact it has had on the organization of daily life as well as on popular and youth cultures. However, the phenomenon is more complex than many perceive. In the context of recent critical discussions on neo-liberal capitalism, there are other contemporary socio-political issues at stake around the mobile telephone, especially in relevant social formations among younger people in different cultures.
In this text, I focus on one specific phenomenon in Japanese society which the media have termed the “hidden homeless.” Jobless and homeless persons, for various reasons, have to (or, in some cases, have chosen to) live in mostly self-built, mobile shelters made of cardboard boxes and containing only the bare necessities for urban survival. Images of these shelters-surprising in their extremity-have been presented in media around the world. The mobility implied here, the central concern of my discussion, is not only on the level of a kind of bricolage survival in improvised shelters as found in earlier decades and the topic of a famous 1973 novel by Abe Kobo, Hako otoko (The Box Man). Today, in order to regain access to jobs or to maintain contact with society, box dwellers have to rely on and strive for access to mobile phones and other contemporary network media. In this text, I want to explore the ambivalent space opened up by their encounter with the mobile telephone.
This term addresses those impoverished members of society who are rendered invisible, a contemporary socio-political problem affecting especially the youth in Japanese society. In March 2007, the issue was even brought before the National Diet Committee. The hidden homeless are, literally, those who cannot be recognized as homeless by their appearance-they are often neatly dressed and carry mobile phones, sometimes PCs and portable music devices as well. However, in many cases, they are employed on a day-to- day basis-but cannot earn enough money to pay the rent for a flat on a regular basis. They usually combine different places to stay, such as their friends’ flats, or 24-hour spots such as Internet cafes, McDonald’s restaurants, and saunas. Because of this, they are also called “Net Café Refugees” or “McRefugees.“1
The hidden homeless became particularly noticeable after the Japanese government, under the Koizumi/Takenaka Cabinet, diminished the legal regulations for employers in 1999 and permitted production industries to hire short-term temporary workers through mediated agencies in 2003 in order to stimulate the Japanese economy and decrease the official number of jobless. At first, this spectacular strategy seemed to work-on the surface level of statistics. According to Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, 600,000 more people found jobs, and the percentage of jobless dropped to less than 4 percent.2 However, the government’s policy was more beneficial to big corporations and companies. It led to full-time employment being transformed to cheaper contract-based work, and even to a large amount of day-to-day employment with no legal insurance for the employed whatsoever.
Government data show that the average number of non-permanent workers rose to 17.3 million by March 31, 2007. This was up 19 percent compared to five years earlier and more than 50 percent compared to a decade before. Nearly a million workers have to live their lives on day-to-day employment.3 Inaba Tsuyoshi, a representative of MOYAI Independent Life Support Center, a non-profit organization working to support the homeless, warned about the significant changes among the homeless as early as 2004, when he commented in an interview, “The overall situation is becoming more complicated. Ten years ago most of the homeless people were day-laborers, construction workers. Now people who have worked at different kinds of jobs have become homeless. Some of them are young people.“4 According to a survey report by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, compiled following an urgent request from the National Diet Committee, there were 5,400 hidden homeless in August 2007.5 Of these, 26.5 percent were in their twenties, and 23.1 percent in their fifties. It is generally assumed that the actual figures are higher still.
Attention-getting, popularized names such as “Net Café Refugee” or “McRefugee” are provocative, not the least because they mark a division among citizens of the same nationality. In 2002, when recognition of the phenomenon began to grow, there were many other names to describe it, such as “cyber homeless” (dennou furosha 電脳浮浪者)-which literally means “homeless with an electric brain”-or “one-call worker.” On January 29, 2007, a documentary program titled Net Café Refugee-The Poor Floating around in the City by Nihon TV was aired. It addressed the situation of Japanese youth without a fixed residence who receive daily job offers from temporary work companies on their mobile phone or through their e-mail account. The program gained a great amount of attention. Since then, the media have frequently used the label refugee, and the term now prevails in discussions of the problem.
While Mizushima Hiroshi, director of the Net Café Refugee documentary, commented that such a shocking title was intended to help draw the public’s attention to the problem and to put pressure on the Diet to discuss the issue, I question the continued use of this label, especially after the phenomenon became widely recognized. Although it may have helped to gain attention at the beginning, it now mostly implies and creates a strong sense of discrimination against the hidden homeless. It produces the impression that the cause for the phenomenon lies not within Japanese society, but in others. Under conditions of a severe economic crisis in the country, the refugee label supports a discourse that the poor are not a function of the social structure. Accordingly, I intend to use the term hidden homeless, or one-call worker, to refer to the phenomenon.
The Other Side of Micro-Coordination
Research on mobile telephony has greatly increased over the last ten years in multiple fields-sociology, media studies, economics, cultural studies, and others. Some researchers have focused on the emerging phenomenon of mobile culture as part of popular culture, emphasizing the effects of a “micro-coordination” of life through technology.6 Conceiving the device as a medium of life, some scholars have addressed how it influences the formation and presentation of self and self-identity, along with the social imperative of being connected. However, when the phenomenon of the hidden homeless is engaged, the significant influence exerted by the device requires a more complex perspective, rather than vague utopian speculation. The popular ways in which mobile telephony is conceived- “micro-coordination,” “intimacy,” or “camouflaged new identity”-require reconsideration. How do these concepts function within certain discourses? Are they legitimate in their reaffirmation of capitalized structures within the act of communication?
Not so long ago the functionality of the mobile office or the portable home / living room7 was seen as an important part of the capabilities of such portable gadgets, in extension of the concept of mobile privatization proposed, for instance, by Raymond Williams.8 However, a vision such as this seems too simple to aptly describe, with any precision, the realities of post-Fordist capitalism. There are many studies of mobile telephony in relation to distanced intimacies, youth culture, and popular culture, including amateur (media) productions. However, these tend to distract us from the serious question of how mobile telecommunication has exerted a bio-political and bio-economical impact on contemporary lives. Taking a closer look at the phenomenon of the hidden homeless in Japan, my focus in this text is on bio-political aspects of mobile telephony.
Having no fixed address has effects on many levels of life, but it also makes the mobile telephone more important in the pursuit of temporary working and living solutions. Almost all job arrangements made by the hidden homeless-search, offer, confirmation-are today executed with mobile phones. The hidden homeless also use mobile phones for reporting their arrival at a meeting point. For them, the mobile phone guarantees market availability, but this availability spells dependency rather than so-called freedom, for simultaneously they are also managed by the capitalist rationale that is embodied in the mobile gadget. The individual subject becomes a socialized body, targeted as a new form of capital, in addition to the old notions of consumer.
In his analysis of telecommunication advertisements in the Wall Street Journal between 1980 and 1982, American media theorist Jerry L. Salvaggio shows that strong emphasis was placed on advertising telecommunication as a technology that had become just as important for the general quality of life as face-to-face communication.9 From such an idealistic claim, advertising soon shifted to conveying the bare necessity of possessing the personal assistance of a telecommunicative network-to enrich and refine one’s lifestyle, a role once fulfilled by art and culture. Advertising also tried to instill a sense that telecommunication networks were already highly diffused within the information society, so that, as a consequence of competitive consumption (networking) habits in late capitalist societies, they were virtually indispensible, in addition to being status symbols of an advanced lifestyle.10 While these analyses were done in the 1980s on advertising for landline telephony, their results still seem relevant today. Notions such as new lifestyle, life enhancement, and the micro-coordination of everyday life can be recognized in major advertisement campaigns for mobile telephony from the 1990s until the present day, as well as in some studies on mobile culture. This profoundly shapes the extreme life style and values exemplified in the hidden homeless.
Mobile connectivity is widely represented as the symbol of a new freedom from location, certain hierarchies, and social structure, emphasizing values of informality, immediacy, and a sense of play. However, relationships within the structures and architectures of media vary. For the hidden homeless of Japan, the mobile phone is a necessary device to become, and to remain, available to the market. It is therefore necessary to question what kind of bio- economic and bio-political effects are resulting from the micro-coordination of society. Are they comparable to what has been discussed in the negative utopias of the 20th century or social analyses of the disciplinary function of electronic devices of control and surveillance?11 What kind of freedom do mobile phones actually represent and bring to their users? Why is it so difficult to imagine alternative ways of communication and organization? Does an emphasis on micro-coordination function as a motor to create an illusion that all has to be done immediately?
Bio-economics and Bio-politics around Mobile Telephony
The fact that the hidden homeless cannot vote without a physical address is continually ignored within the political sphere, but extreme capitalist solutions seem to react quickly enough, with the emergence of new businesses exploiting the poor. These new industries- such as one-night residences for the homeless, 24-hour manga/Internet cafés, real-estate agencies dealing in low-rent properties requiring no deposit, and others-rely on the existence and the functioning of a BoP (Bottom of the Pyramid) in society. They grow in parallel with the poor population. Such camouflaged social venture businesses target population segments that the government used to address with social welfare. The more the mobile phone is considered an essential tool, the more the fluency of information exchange through the mobile phone plays a key part in sustaining new conditions of labor and social discipline.
Drawing on Foucault, Giorgio Agamben has described mobile telephony as an example of a contemporary “dispositive.“12 Amparo Lasén observes, “Agamben claims that mobile phones are contributing to the growing abstraction in personal relationships and that modern dispositifs only entail de-subjectivation processes without contributing to . . . new subjectivities.“13 Lasén recognizes a nostalgic attitude towards face-to-face communication in Agamben’s treatment of mobile telephony. Using examples of love letters transmitted by text messaging (SMS), she goes on to develop the notion in a more utopian and personal manner, while questioning the assumption of abstraction.14
In general, an approach more or less similar to Lasén’s can be observed in “pro-media” studies, while Agamben’s comments exemplify the classical techno-pessimistic view. In light of the hidden homeless, it is clear that conceptualization of mobile telephony as a dispositive requires consideration of bio-economic and bio-political factors. How frequent SMS communication is required between lovers to maintain a relationship, and how does it relate to their personal economies? How much does one need to contribute to the telecommunication industry in order to find a new partner? When reconsidered in a bio- political context, Agamben’s comment on mobile telephony may offer us reasons to reconceive the notion of the “imaginary space” produced by the device. By so doing, we can start to perceive the relationship between the ontology of the mobile phone user and the politics of the economic structure (media architecture), centering on the example of the hidden homeless.
Once it is acknowledged that the hidden homeless can be expected to carry their own mobile phones, a great number of social and economic transactions are performed exclusively through the network of mobile telephony. These include automatically initiated cycles, which introduce differences or hierarchies among the homeless according to whether they have a mobile phone. All the supporting systems are also developed heavily around the device. A new dynamic of social forces emerges as a form of governance which may be totally different from that imagined in Foucault’s era of the 1970s, in that it strongly reaffirms the significance of a personal relationship towards economy-in-general, and to the general economy of life. Lazzarato claims that modes of subjectivation no longer tend to remain expressed through generality and the abstraction of social class.15 However, the existence of the hidden homeless phenomenon points to the fact that modes of subjectivation are still strongly under the control of new forms of capitalism and organized around social class. In other words, the hidden homeless phenomenon pointedly illustrates that economic power literally penetrates the human body. It means that the problem today is not solely an economic one, but an ontological matter, since it touches on the economy of life.
In the shift from industrial to informational society, capitalism has changed its nature just as the concept of capital itself has changed. As is widely known, Gramsci pointed out that two major characteristics of Fordism-de-skilled labor and mass production-had a great impact on twentieth-century American society.16 In the post-Fordist era, together with (global) mobile networks, immaterial labor initiates new forms of capital and circulation of labor. The hidden homeless phenomenon obviously leads us to at least two important points: first, the influence of mobile networks is not limited to immaterial labor and has to be seriously considered in the field of material labor as well. In many cases, so-called one-call workers are engaged in temporary manual labor which can be cancelled anytime to adjust to the condition of the micro-economy. Connectivity now occupies higher priority for survival than being resident and perpetually invites more competition. In addition, as temporary employment becomes more possible with mobile networked conditions-anytime and anywhere-salaries in some Japanese workplaces are treated not as wages but as material costs, which replicates the conceptualization of machine parts.
While Agamben views mobile telecommunication as the “abstraction of a personal presence,“17 such abstraction can be translated as a profile-deprivation of sensual information in a displaced condition-or it can also be explored further to engage the treatment of human subjects as products, exemplified well in the one-call worker. When mediated communication is conceived as a pattern of data extracted from acts, mobile communication may increase the level of abstraction for dehumanizing imaginaries in communication, navigating users to treat people as data-a form of capital-for categorization and evaluation. The hidden homeless are situated in a system of labor, demanded by one call to work, and by another call to cancel a contract without notice in order to adjust to market fluctuations. Under such consequences, the notion of de- subjectivation provides insight into the process of treating people as data-objects.
Hidden Homeless-From Bio-politics to Popular Culture
The issue of the hidden homeless has not remained only in the sphere of media spectacle. Interest in the issue grew as part of the longstanding frustration with the monopoly governance by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for 60 years after World War II.18 The phenomenon was subject to intense political debate in Congress, especially by the Japanese Communist Party (JCP). Increasing numbers of young people associated themselves with support for the party,19 while the Japanese government appeared to be more supportive of capitalists and corporations.20 In the Upper House convention in February, 2008, there was considerable support for the chairman of the JCP, who strongly requested a revision of the labor law at that time. The debate was uploaded at user-generated websites, such as Nico Nico Doga, 2 channel, and YouTube. Out of these Internet platforms, which closely monitored the convention debate over current labor conditions, new tags-“CSGJ” (Chairman, Super Good Job), “Cool, JCP”-emerged and circulated, creating a new image of communism in Japan that enhanced its appeal. An article entitled “Communism Is Alive and Well and Living in Japan” in Time illustrates the international media focus on the revitalization of the JCP during the economic crisis.21
The impact of the phenomenon spread further into the sphere of popular culture and literature, especially among the young generation who hardly know Marx. It is almost ironic, but in the age of neo-monadological ontology in the mobile network, communist devaluation of capitalism grew in mass culture. Articulating growing anxiety about job security and social conditions represented by the hidden homeless, in 2008 there was a boom of materials related to communism in a wide range of media-books, films, theaters, comics. A key example is the proletarian novel, Kanikosen (Crab processing boat), which was written in 1929 by Takiji Kobayashi, a communist intellectual who was tortured and murdered in prison in 1933.22 The novel tells the story of a crab boat crew, struggling in brutal and inhumane working conditions in the northern sea, who are being exploited by a sadistic foreman and greedy capitalists. The crew forms a union and coordinates a strike to fight against their capitalist masters. However, they are violently suppressed by the army. After 75 years, Takiji Kobayashi’s work was understood to be relevant to contemporary conditions, especially the phenomenon of the hidden homeless and the problem of poverty in Japanese society. Within a month from May to June 2008, the novel became a best seller, and 357,000 copies were sold that year. Its boom continued, causing not only the reprint of the novel but also various spin-off productions, such as books related to the novel (including Das Kapital by Marx), three versions of manga, a theater play, and a movie, along with international conferences, talks, and symposia on Kobayashi throughout the year.
With great attention to the hidden homeless, an ideology of communism has revived in contemporary mass culture. Although it grew from the questioning of capitalism, some have contended that it is just a fashion lacking any serious understanding of the ideas of communism and the critique of capitalism.23 Communism has a lengthy history in Japan, even surviving beneath the strong influence of the United States after World War II. I find the chain of associated phenomena very interesting as a concrete example of neo-liberal global capitalism-how it penetrates a society socio-politically and socio-technologically and transforms even communist discourse into entertainment to be consumed. In other words, a dynamic series of phenomena around the hidden homeless reveals how bio- political phenomena become multiple forms of entertainment.
The hidden homeless today represent not only an economic but also an ontological problem. In modern societies, control is exerted through institutions, the architectural environment, and the economy.24 Today’s media architecture, together with the (voluntary) profile data system, has become one of the strongest forces influencing peoples’ lives. Portable wireless network devices, such as mobile telephony, have deeply penetrated daily lives to the degree that their very power passes through our bodies. When the phenomena around mobile telephony are reconsidered bio-politically and bio-economically, another level of understanding of the device emerges, beyond techno-pessimism and utopianism.
Joblessness as a problem is nothing new, and job hunting always used to be based on human communication. However, today it is based more on mediated communication, or on a search on the Web. When a specific form of communication is heavily capitalized by industry, it not only subordinates other forms of communication, but also centralizes itself as the highest priority and aesthetics of life-that means, it even takes away certain crucial basics of life-and simultaneously shapes a new system of capital as well as labor circulation. This represents the problematic aspect of fluid organization and circulation in networked systems of labor, in de-skilled material labor, as well as the dehumanization of labor.
In addition, a series of phenomena associated with the hidden homeless-industries targeting the poor, brought to attention by the Japanese Communist Party- has created a boom in proletarian literature with multi-commodification in different media as a result of the specific mode of governmentality by mobile network technologies in society. This suggests how the issues around the mobile telephony embody a complicated and expanding nature. It is a question, therefore, not only of youth pop culture but also a new profile society and economy. What I discussed in this text is only one aspect of mobile communication, but I would provocatively suggest that mobile communication may be a reason for the very existence of the hidden homeless. Its impact on the structure of future social development must be examined. Mobile telecommunication is a capitalized form of communication and absolute commodity. Therefore, it is crucial to consider bio- economic as well as bio-political effects more seriously in mobile telephony research.
- According to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is "a person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of their nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."
- "The Gap between Employments-Difficulties in Gaining Jobs: Either Die of Over-Work or Poverty," Asahi Shinbun, July 24, 2007: 8. Unless otherwise indicated, translations are the author’s.
- "The Gap between Employments-Difficulties in Gaining Jobs: Either Die of Over-Work or Poverty."
- G. Read, "Interview with Makoto Yuasa," 2004, (accessed September 24, 2008).
- The Ministry of Health, Japan, Jukyososhitsu Fuantei Shurousha no Jittaini kansuru Chosahoukokusho [Labor and welfare report], August 2007, (accessed September 24, 2008).
- Rich Ling,The Mobile Connection: The Cell Phone's Impact on Society (San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 2004), 71-76; Amparo Lasén, "History Repeating? A Comparison of the Launch and Uses of Fixed and Mobile Phones," in Mobile World: Past, Present and Future, ed. Lynne Hamill and Amparo Lasén (Berlin: Springer, 2005), 47; Amparo Lasén, "Mobile Culture and Subjectivities: Mobile Phone Trans-personalisation in Young Couples," Conference Paper, in Towards a Philosophy of Telecommunications Convergence, coordinated by Kristóf Nyíri, "Towards a Philosophy of Telecommunications Convergence Conference" (The Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest, September 27- 29, 2007), 176-77; George Goggin, Cell Phone Culture: Mobile Technology in Everyday Life (London: Routledge, 2006), 80-83
- Timo Kopomaa, The City in Your Pocket: Birth of the Mobile Information Society (Helsinki: Gaudeamus, 2000), 4-8; Michael Bull, Sounding Out the City. Personal Stereos and the Management of Everyday Life (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2000), 55-59; Michael Bull, "The Seduction of Sound in Consumer Culture: Investigating Walkman Desires," Journal of Consumer Culture 2, no. 1 (2002): 81-101; Kenichi Fujimoto, "Keitai as a Territorial Machine-Anti-Ubiquitous Manifesto," in Territory Machine, ed. Gendai Fuzoku Kenkyukai (Tokyo: Kawade Shobo Shinsya, 2003), 6-15.
- Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (London: Routledge, 2003), 121-32.
- Charles Steinfield and Jerry L. Salvaggio, "Toward a Definition of the Information Society," in The Information Society: Economic, Social and Structural Issues, ed. Jerry L. Salvaggio (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1989), 5-6.
- Jorge Reina Schement, "The Origins of the Information Society in the United States: Competing Visions," in The Information Society, 31-32, 37-44.
- Hans G.Helms, "Freundschaftskettchen vom Großen Bruder. Mobile elektronische Überwachungssysteme im Strafvollzug und anderswo," Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, 12 (October/November, 1986): 1416-18.
- Giorgio Agamben, Was ist ein dispositiv? (Berlin and Zürich: Diaphanes, 2008), 29-31.
- Lasén, "Mobile Culture and Subjectivities: Mobile Phone Trans-personalisation in Young Couples," 177.
- Ibid., 178.
- Maurizio Lazzarato, "Immaterial Labor," in Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, ed. Michael Hardt and Paolo Virno (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 133-47.
- Antonio Gramsci, "Selections from Cultural Writings," ed. David Forgacs and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1985), 3-9, 186.
- Agamben, Was ist ein dispositiv? 36-38.
- In August 2009, the LDP lost a general election for the first time and the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), led by Yukio Hatoyama, won.
- According to statistics in an official report by the Japan Communist Party, 1,000 youth signed up per month in 2008. Japanese Communist Party, October 24, 2008, (accessed June 25, 2009).
- In the election on August 31, 2009, the political situation in Japan dramatically changed, when the DPJ won.
- Bryan Walsh, "Communism Is Alive and Well and Living in Japan," Time, June 22, 2007, (accessed September 24, 2008); Danielle Demetriou, "Japan’s Young Turn to Communist Party as They Decide Capitalism Has Let Them Down," The Telegraph, October, 17 2008, (accessed June 25, 2009).
- Takiji Kobayashi, Kanikosen (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1929).
- This phenomenon was reported internationally: Y. Kubota, "Japan Economy Angst Boosts Sales of Marxist Novel," August 14, 2008, (accessed June 12, 2011); Daniel McNeill, "Japanese Discontent Voiced in Novel Sales," The Independent, August 21, 2008, (accessed June 12, 2011). Media in Singapore, South Korea, China, and other countries also reported this issue.
- Lazzarato, "What Possibility Presently Exists in the Public Sphere?" 2005, (accessed September 24, 2008).
Miya Yoshida is an independent curator based in Berlin. She received a PhD in Fine Arts at the Malmö Art Academy, Lund University in 2007. Currently she works as a postdoctoral researcher/ lecturer at Leuphana University, Lüneburg, Germany.