Thursday, 19 June 2014

Poverty in Japan

Image by Denis Bocquet
I rely on some academic sources quite heavily in this, but since I started blogging mainly to escape from the necessity to religiously reference everything I write I hope the guardians of plagiarism will forgive me simply listing those resources at the end instead of acknowledging each instance of citation.

Japan is a wealthy, highly industrialised nation with the second highest life expectancy in the world. It is a land of sleek sky-scrapers and nano-technology where everyone has a white collar job and a pet robot. If we children of the 1980s learned nothing else from Gibson and Techno-Orientalism, it was that Japan=the future, and corporate success.

Which is why I was a little surprised when some of the first people I ever spoke to in Japan were living in cardboard boxes, why I was unprepared for a school staffroom with a single shared PC running Windows '95 (in 2009), and why the first time I was told "school lunch is the only meal some of these kids will eat today" I had trouble grasping exactly what that meant.

38 percent of Japan's population (19.7 million people), live on or below the poverty line.  

Japan is a wealthy country. "The Japanese" are not a wealthy people. Although Japan ranked 9th in the OECD for income inequality (2006), poverty is enormously concentrated on families. After income redistribution (ie, comparing net not gross income) child poverty in Japan surpasses the OECD average. In single parent families the situation is even worse.

Single parent households in which the parent is employed have a poverty rate of 50% (2000 figures) compared to an OECD average of 20%.

The term "working poor" doesn't fully capture the situation I'm talking about here. The ratio of non-full time (casual, part-time or contracted) workers has increased from 19% in 1996 to 30% in 2006. The average hourly wage of part time workers is only 40% that of full time employees, and they are likely to miss out on pension contributions etc, meaning they face a precarious situation when they become unable to continue working.

Check out  for disturbing graphs like this:
If we break these statistics down further by age and gender, we can see some sections of society that are extraordinarily vulnerable.

As reported in The Japan Times
This year’s Global Gender Gap Report ranks Japan at 105th among 136 countries, its worst showing since the WEF started the survey in 2006. Japan ranked 101st last year.
Often lost in commentary about Japan's declining birthrate is that for over a decade a quarter of married women of reproductive age reported that they could not afford to have as many children as they wanted. With the barriers in returning to work after having children I wrote about here, the decision to have a child involves not only the cost of raising that child, it entails to loss of the mother's income for what may be over a decade.
Graph taken from Naohiro Ogawa's work, see reference list at the end of the post

Blogger won't let me embed it, but this short report is really worth watching:

This survey shows 40% of retirees surveyed have a monthly income of just 100,000 yen.

Graph taken from Aya K. Abe's work, see reference list at the end of the post

This post makes some great (but depressing) observations about the lack of public housing, especially in the areas devistated by the tsunami, and how the Tokyo olympics really aren't helping:
According to a recent report on NHK, the city of Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture has set aside a large tract of land for a new public housing project that was supposed to start construction last August, but no construction company even submitted a bid because the local government set the starting bid too low. Builders looked at the project and assumed they would likely lose money on it, so they didn’t even show up. Throughout the disaster area, there are plans to build more than 27,000 public housing units specifically for disaster victims, and by the end of September only 450 had been built. Right now more than 100,000 people are still living in temporary digs.
Will things change once the tax-inspired housing boom is finished and construction of single-family homes slumps again? Not likely. Tokyo needs those workers to build infrastructure and venues for the 2020 Olympics. The Tokyo government, as well as the central government–who has already expressed is feelings for the poor by recently tightening welfare requirements–is more than willing to pay top yen to get the city ready for the big event, which means other construction projects, those with lower priority, will be neglected, probably until the next decade, at the earliest. And public housing has the lowest priority of all.
This article describes the exploitation of homeless as a disposable workforce in clearing irradiated areas.

Shizuya Nishiyama, 57, says he briefly worked for Shuto clearing rubble. He now sleeps on a cardboard box in Sendai Station. He says he left after a dispute over wages, one of several he has had with construction firms, including two handling decontamination jobs.
Nishiyama's first employer in Sendai offered him $90 a day for his first job clearing tsunami debris. But he was made to pay as much as $50 a day for food and lodging. He also was not paid on the days he was unable to work. On those days, though, he would still be charged for room and board. He decided he was better off living on the street than going into debt.
"We're an easy target for recruiters," Nishiyama said. "We turn up here with all our bags, wheeling them around and we're easy to spot. They say to us, are you looking for work? Are you hungry? And if we haven't eaten, they offer to find us a job."
For what is probably a larger number of people than you may think, this is what daily life looks like.

Sources not cited in text:
Abe, Aya K."Poverty and Social Exclusion of Women in Japan" in Japanese Journal of Social Security Policy, Vol.9, No.1 (March 2012).
Ogawa, Naohiro "Japan's Changing Fertility Mechanisms and its Policy Responses" in Journal of Population Research, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2003.
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  1. Shocking, but believable. I know that many of my coworkers can barely make ends meet. Thank you for the insight. It must be really hard on the farmers who have land, but they can't afford to farm it.

    1. Indeed, and harder and harder as they age without younger people wanting to come back to the land.


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