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DEVELOPMENT: Japan’s Rude Awakening: Poverty Hurts

TOKYO, Jan 8 2010 (IPS) - Japan may be one the world’ biggest economies, but it is not immune to poverty.

“Poverty has long existed in Japan and it is deteriorating in scale and depth dramatically in the past several years,” says Dr. Aya Abe, senior researcher of the Department of International Research and Cooperation at the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research in Tokyo.

“Today, many children are living under extraordinary levels of poverty in Japan, as data show,” he says.

According to Masanori Matsumura, a primary school teacher for 30 years, a growing number of children in Japan today cannot even afford classroom supplies “such as paints or craft materials.” He adds, “The expanding poverty is hitting the most vulnerable victims – children.”

Matsumura, who is also an executive committee member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Teachers’ Union, one of the biggest organisations of public school educators in the country, said his union conducted a survey in 2008 of its 30 local chapters on the problems confronting poor children. The emerging indicators of poverty were the same across city.

For instance, some parents, for fear of losing their jobs, could not take a single day off from work, preventing them from showing up at school meetings and related activities. Some of them were found to be working simultaneously on two or three different jobs.

Such a situation has its social costs. Children grow frustrated – even turn violent in some cases – when their parents are not around to take care of them because of the resulting neglect by parents. “The children consequently lose hope for the future, something they need,” says Matsumura.

The same survey showed many children could not even afford to pay for school lunches or join field trips. It cited the case of a 10-year-old boy who was found staying home to take care of an infant brother, since his single mother was out working.

Matsumura says no similar survey was conducted after 2008, but he believes the situation of the respondents has not only changed but has even gotten worse since then.

Although single-mother households accounted only for 4.1 percent of all household respondents with children, 66 percent of them were in relative poverty, with incomes less than 50 percent of the median net household income.

Most of these mothers take on more than one part-time, low-paying jobs, leaving them little time to spend with their children, says a social worker, who spoke to IPS on condition of anonymity, at the Welfare Section of the Kita- Ward Office in Tokyo.

“I have more inquiries from troubled parents, particularly from single mothers, year after year, asking about social services available to them,” she adds. Many of them are not aware of government subsidies to which they are entitled, she says, adding these are not being disseminated enough, the publicity budget for this purpose having been cut.

Japanese economy has suffered a lingering recession since the economic bubble burst in the early 1990s. In the past several years it has seen feeble flickers of recovery. The ensuing global financial crisis triggered by the stumbling of the U.S. financial system in 2007 and the collapse of its giant financial institutions in 2008 severely affected Japan alongside many other countries. Japan’s unemployment, for instance, rose from 3.8 percent in December 2007 to 5.7 percent in July 2009.

“The employment structure has drastically transformed in the past ten years,” points out Prof. Haruo Asai of the Community and Social Services Department at Rikkyo University (St. Paul University) in Tokyo.

Many employers shifted from once-traditional lifetime, full employment practices to hiring more contract workers, or temporary, part-time workers to avoid giving social service benefits, leaving non-regular workers unprotected.

By late 2008 part-time and contract workers had ballooned to nearly 35 percent of all workers, up from 20 percent in the 1980s, based on government data. Today, about half the country’s labour force under 24 years are non-regular workers, who have no job security as they are arbitrarily hired and fired with no standard employee benefits.

Japan’s rude awakening to the reality of poverty amid seeming affluence in some sectors of its society came about when, for the first time in 45 years, the government released in October 2009 data showing the extent of poverty gripping the country. Health, labour and welfare minister Akira Nagatsuma announced then that 15.7 percent of the Japanese people and 14.2 percent of Japanese children and teenagers under 17 were in relative poverty, citing a 2007 survey.

The first disturbing warning sign of Japanese children living in poverty came in 2006 following the release of the report, ‘Economic Survey of Japan 2006′, by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which undertakes such studies every five years.

Of the 30 OECD member countries, it said Japan ranked second to the United States in terms of children living in relative poverty, with 13.7 percent, up two percent from the l990s. Until then the Japanese public had long distanced itself from the notion of poverty, especially where it involved children.

The Japanese, along with the government, used to view poverty in absolute terms, that is, as a critical state of hunger or survival. It was only in 2006 when the East Asian country began to recognise the idea of “relative poverty.”

“For a long time the Japanese had maintained a firm belief that everyone was more or less in middle class, with no one having anything to do with poverty,” says Dr Abe. Children in poverty were often viewed as isolated cases, notes the author of a widely acclaimed book, ‘Poverty of Children’.

The seeming affluence of Japanese society belies images of children starving on the streets or children unable to go to school. After all, the law provides for compulsory education for children aged six to 15, and more than 90 percent of junior high school graduates belonging to the middle class are able to move on to senior high school. The nation’s medical insurance system covers everyone – in theory, at least – and millions of Japanese tourists are known to go each year on shopping sprees abroad with children in tow.

Yet, there are subtle yet very real indications of poverty, which afflicts children in particular. These are based on findings that have pointed to increasing poverty and widening economic disparity in Japan, based on the latest available data generated in 2008. Thousands of contract workers and part-time workers lost jobs, as the manufacturing industry cut production and the service industry shrank.

The local media, for instance, reported that 33,000 children across the nation did not have health insurance. There have also been reports that many parents could not pay for school lunches, bringing the total unpaid bills nationwide to two billion yen (23 million U.S. dollars).

Most elementary and high school students eat school lunch or ‘kyushoku’, with parents paying 250 to 300 yen (two to three dollars) for the ingredients and local authorities shouldering the labour costs.

Aggravating parents’ woes are what labor specialists described as “very poor social safety nets,” particularly for the emerging working population. The Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry’ survey conducted in 2008 indicated that the average annual income of households with children was 6.91 million yen (74,000 U.S. dollars) on average, 92 percent of which came from wages. Only 0.8 percent of their income was from social security services.

Prof. Abe says Japan views the poor “as failures in competition who should be punished instead of cared for.”

Starting in 1995 the government, under the Liberal Democratic Party, began to cut social service budgets, which severely affected the poor. By 1998 suicide rates had risen for the first time to over 30,000. Many of the victims were family breadwinners.

Government did not recognise the need for social safety nets, resulting in disparity even for children, Prof. Asai tells IPS. “We need a society where people are taken care of well and children are provided equality in well- being,” he says.

The government’s decisions beginning in 2005 to reduce budgetary allocations to support children in need became one of a string of new policies transferring financial responsibilities to local municipalities.

For example, the national government used to provide school expense subsidy for qualified children at half the total cost, leaving the remainder to the local municipalities. Today, the government assumes only one-third of the subsidy, forcing some cash-strapped cities and towns to cut down their subsidies, thus deepening the disparity between rich and poor children across the country.

In an apparent attempt to address the prolonged economic difficulty confronting many Japanese families, the new government has enforced what are touted as “people-friendly measures and policies.” One of these is the grant of children’s uniform allowance equivalent to a monthly payout of 26,000 yen (300 dollars). A total of 5.3 trillion yen (56.85 million dollars) is being allocated for this purpose in the fiscal 2010 national budget.

Another policy guarantees free senior high school education for everyone, with the government pledging to pay 120,000 to 240,000 yen (1,287 to 2,574 dollars) for each student, depending on the schools’ and parents’ incomes.

Many, however, doubt if government can secure the needed funds to enforce these policies. “Simple payout or charity may be effective, but is not going to provide a final solution,” says Dr. Abe.

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