Japan’s economic troubles hit single-parent families and children especially hard

Customers gather around a seafood shop near the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. Japan's economy has slipped into recession for the fifth time in seven years.
(Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP/Getty Images)

Yumi, a 30-year-old working mother with two daughters, takes a calculator whenever she goes shopping. Every yen counts when your budget for a week’s groceries is about $24.

Yumi shops at discount markets and looks for sales, but last month she went to City Hall and asked for help. Officials there introduced her to Food Bank Yamanashi, which provides rice, curry, instant ramen, cookies and other nonperishables once a week. She is delighted when the packages also include fresh vegetables.

Yumi, however, hasn’t said anything to her husband; she’s worried that he will be furious if he finds out his family is accepting charity. And she fears her children will be discriminated against in school or targeted for bullying if word gets out.


“That’s how it is in Japan. If you have holes in your clothes that aren’t fixed, the other kids will say, ‘What’s the matter? Are you so poor you can’t get new clothes?’” said Yumi, who asked that her family name not be disclosed to protect her children. “It’s considered shameful to be poor, like you aren’t trying hard enough.”

Though Japan has the world’s third-largest economy, with per capita income of more than $37,000, many here struggle to make ends meet. For the fifth time in seven years, Japan has technically entered a recession, data released last month showed.

That’s grim news for workers and businesses, and a growing number of children.

Japan’s Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said last year that 16% of children lived in impoverished households, defined as those with no more than about $9,900 in disposable income a year.

The problem is particularly severe for single-parent families: 54.6% of such households — most headed by women — live in poverty, government statistics show. That’s one of the highest such rates in the developed world, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Kyoko Meguri, spokeswoman for the nonprofit group Kids’ Door, which offers educational support to children living in dire circumstances, said Japan has 1.4 million families headed by single women and 223,000 by single men. Households with a net income of about $10,500 a year are eligible for government aid of $341 a month, with $40 extra for a second child and $24 for a third.


“It’s not nearly enough. The costs of taking care of a child don’t decrease if you have more of them,” said Meguri, whose group is lobbying for an increase in the child support allowance.

The slide into recession raises fresh questions about the effectiveness of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic policies, known as “Abenomics,” intended to jolt Japan out of decades of stagnation. Abenomics calls for large monetary stimulus, increased government spending and policy reforms — including a “womenomics” plan to better integrate women into the workforce, improve day-care options for working mothers and empower them financially.

Abe has said bringing more women into the workforce can boost the nation’s fortunes. But Japan, despite its high-tech economy, has one of the lowest levels of gender equality in the developed world: 101st out of 145 countries assessed in 2015 by the World Economic Forum.

“Abenomics has not succeeded in improving economic growth,” said Mari Osawa, a social policy analyst and professor at Tokyo University. “The only fields where it had a positive effect is the stock market and on the huge exporting enterprises.

“But those benefits haven’t helped the smaller companies and … especially non-regular employees.”

Many of Japan’s worst off are what the government acknowledges as “working poor.” As Japan’s long-standing system of lifetime employment in salaried corporate jobs has broken down, more and more workers have so-called non-regular jobs, such as part-time or temporary positions. Government figures for 2014 showed 37% of the workforce was in those jobs — the highest ever — up from 15.3% in 1984.

Job security is poor, wages are low, there are not many opportunities to develop skills, and the safety net is insufficient.

— Statement from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare

“There are problems with non-regular employment,” the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare said in its statistics announcement. “Job security is poor, wages are low, there are not many opportunities to develop skills, and the safety net is insufficient.”

Yumi in Yamanashi knows this firsthand. She and her husband are employed, but their wages don’t stretch far.

She works at a business preparing meals; her take-home income is about $400 a month, while the cost of nursery school alone for her 2-year-old daughter is $187 monthly. Her husband used to work in construction but quit his job when the firm stopped giving bonuses. He now makes $1,220 a month working at a confectionary factory. There’s no opportunity for overtime.

As a result, even small increases, such as a raise in the consumption tax rate from 5% to 8%, make a difference.

Koji Ogawa, 59, knows from personal experience the isolation of growing up poor. When he was 8, his father was in a car accident that left him hospitalized for years. His mother scraped to find a way to pay medical fees costing $3,500 a month, taking part-time jobs that paid about $2.50 an hour. By the time his father died, the family’s savings were exhausted. His mother considered suicide.

“We fell from heaven to hell. But thanks to a scholarship, I was able to attend high school and university,” Ogawa said.

This summer, Ogawa founded an organization called Usnova dedicated to fighting child poverty.

About 15 people so far are involved, conducting research on families in need and helping them find aid for education and daily life. Usnova — the name means “new us,” but in Japanese also sounds like “new tomorrow” — is also organizing conferences with other nonprofits to put together policy recommendations for the government.

Ogawa says child poverty was largely invisible for decades in Japan until a watershed government report in 2009.

At that time, the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party was out of power and a new administration, led by the left-leaning Democratic Party of Japan, acknowledged the issue, concluding that Japan needed to offer better financial support to families with children.

“This was the first time Japan faced up to the problem,” he said.

Abe’s administration isn’t blind to the matter. In June 2013, a law was passed to fight child poverty. It includes putting more social workers in schools and providing more free after-school activities for struggling students.

Osawa, the professor, says the law is a step in the right direction but has no numerical targets for dealing with child poverty, and no set budgetary allocation. For that reason, Osawa says, it has had little effect.

Ogawa, the activist, is more circumspect.

“I think it’s a bit late, but it is still a great victory to finally have had the law enacted and the government trying to promote it,” he said. “However, admitting the reality of poverty is only a beginning.”

As part of this effort, the Cabinet Office is seeking donations and allows needy families and even kids to look for support services on its website.

A search for food handouts in Tokyo’s Setagaya and Taito wards, however, returned no results. More information was found when looking for employment aid.

Yumi in Yamanashi has been filling out an application for school expense subsidies offered by the city but says the paperwork is onerous. She was embarrassed to have to explain why she needed the help and had to disclose her husband’s 3-year-old diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

She supports measures advocated by the New Komeito party, a member of Abe’s ruling coalition, to reduce consumption taxes on day-to-day essentials. “It would make a huge difference,” she said. “And of course, a child support allowance that kept up with the price of living would be welcome.”

Despite her family’s struggles, she tries to look at the positive side; the family owns their home and has low loan payments.

“Things are a little tough,” said her older daughter, who is 8. “But Mom really knows how to cook well with whatever she can get her hands on. She makes the food taste good.”

Adelstein and Kyoko-Stucky are special correspondents.


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