One in six people in Japan are now 'poor'

One in six people in Japan are now 'poor'

The loss of family support structures and the rise of 'freeters', young people who reject corporate culture for a freer working life, are causing the number of poor people in Japan to climb
poverty in japan

While Tokyo, and Japan, may seem like the land of plenty, it is also home to millions living below the poverty line. AFP reports that the number is approaching an astonishing one in six, or more than 21 million people in a country of 128 million.

These people earn less than half the median household income, or less than US$1,830 per month per four-person family. 

The worst affected are single women, the unemployed, and the elderly. Indeed, there has been an increase in crime by pensioners over recent years, possibly because they know that in prison, they will be taken care of.

When Japan went through an economic transformation from the 1960s until the 1990s, life-time employment was commonplace. But after two decades of relative stagnation, the appeal of a job for life among a young generation that already has it all, and the desire of companies to offer it, has been lost. 

poverty in japanHomeless Japanese receive advice from a preacher in a Tokyo park

'Freeters' struggle with a working life

Today the word "freeter" is commonplace. A combination of the English word "freelancer" and the German word "arbeiter" (worker) it is used to denote a younger generation who reject Japan's corporate culture in favor of a freer lifestyle that many see as common in the West and want to emulate.

The trouble is, it's hard to survive jumping from job to job in modern Japan.

Aya Abe, a researcher at the National Institute on Population and Social Security says, "Many on the brink of poverty fall over the edge because of the demise of family structures that once acted as a safety net."

While in the past several generations of one family would share a household and support each other, today many live alone. The rise of single monthers is noticeable.

Health and Labor ministry statistics show there are 1.23 million single-mother households in Japan, earning 40 percent of the average household income even after receiving benefits. As a result, an increasing number turn to prostitution to make ends meet.

New Prime Minister Naoto Kan used his first official speech to address the situation, stating he would aim to "reduce the factors that make people unhappy" in a country with a notoriously high suicide rate -- 32,845 people killed themselves in 2009 (26 out of every 100,000 people).

The true suicide rate is thought to be much higher than Japanese government statistics show. Suicide in Japan is largely attributed to the loss of a job and the social embarrassment it causes, making people particularly vulnerable during recessions.


Robert Michael Poole is a specialist on the Japanese music and entertainment scene.

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