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Starving to Death in Japan

Friday, February 11, 2005 Posted: 12:41 PM JST

The Asia Times Online carries a disturbing article by GLOCOM fellow J Sean Curtin about the rising number of poor people in Japan. "Hungry women and their children," he writes, "are not an exception in the land once known for rising wealth, but now plagued by rising poverty."

Recently, a Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry survey estimated that the number of fatherless families increased by 28 percent five years ago to 1.22 million in fiscal 2003. It is the highest number recorded in Japan. The vast majority of children in these households live far below the poverty line.

Curtin blames the "complete failure of government policy to address important social changes that have occurred over the past decade, particularly the massive rise in divorces involving children."

"Over the past decade, low wages for women, a non-functional child support payment system, an inadequate social welfare policy, and a weakening of traditional family support networks all have contributed to redrawing the Japanese poverty map. Previously, elderly households constituted the bulk of the poor, but today the balance has firmly shifted to mother-headed families."

The average annual income of a lone-mother family in fiscal 2002 was about 2.52 million yen (USD 23,850). In comparison, an average household income in 2000 was about 6.17 million yen. The Japanese media are increasinly reporting about mothers and their children dying from malnutrition.

According to the article "the three primary causes of single-mother poverty are low wages, non-payment of child support money by absent fathers and inadequate social services, such as welfare programs, tax credits for poor families, free child care for poor mothers or other systems in which the state helps the poor by transferring resources to them. Japan is seriously deficient in all three categories, creating an environment in which poverty levels are almost certain to increase."

It is almost impossible for the lone mothers to escape their poverty. Employment rates of Japanese lone mothers are actually the highest in the industrialized world, but their average wage is extremely low due to a huge gender-based wage gap and "a proliferation of low-paid non-standard forms of employment."

Fathers rarely pay child support after divorce. "Only 34% of divorced mothers had functioning support payment agreements with their children's fathers," Curtin writes. Unfortunately, there is no effective system in place to force delinquent fathers to pay.

"To try to tackle cases like this, the law was revised in April 2003 with the supposed aim of making more divorced fathers pay child support, but the half-hearted amendment so far has had zero impact. In fact, the situation has deteriorated, as the average monthly maintenance payment five years ago was 53,200 yen and in the new survey it is only 44,660 yen, a decrease of 8,540 yen or 16%."

Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University Japan and author of Japan's Quiet Transformation, blames outdated policies: "The problem is that the ideology of the strong, stable, secure family with the husband who is the breadwinner with a secure job does not match the reality. Thus, the policies that are currently in place are clearly inadequate."

Additionally, Japanese welfare policy is skewed towards the elderly. "Many political commentators say this is for electoral reasons as the elderly are much more likely to vote than younger groups."

"In August 2002, the government reduced welfare allowances for needy children and has since initiated a series of austerity measures. Machiko Osawa, a professor at Japan Woman's University, commented, 'Alarmingly, they are now tightening the conditions for receiving welfare, making them even stricter. I think they make these assumptions in the belief that the 'family' can take care of these social needs.'"

Not everybody agrees with Osawa, though. Some observers believe that the Japanese government is right to focus on the elderly because it is easier for mothers to get a part-time job than for the elderly.

Curtin however, feels alarmed. "If current policy does not change," he concludes, "the number of poor children living in Japan looks almost certain to increase. Furthermore, if traditional family support networks continue to weaken and divorce rates remain high, a great many more vulnerable families will fall through the ever widening gaps in the welfare safety net system, creating new tragedies."

Keywords: national_news

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The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
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