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Japan threatened by social divide

Addressing poverty and the nation's new struggling underclass

by Florian Coulmas

POVERTY AND SOCIAL WELFARE IN JAPAN, edited by Masami Iwata and Akihiko Nishizawa. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press, 2008, 323 pp., A$54.95 (paper)

Recent commotions on financial markets have underscored the fact that neoliberal reforms and destatization have not brought us the advantages of competition, but the sellout of governmental steering mechanisms that can protect the common good and prevent the splitting up of society into haves and have-nots. The past decade has seen the coming into existence in many advanced countries, including Japan, of a “precariat” (“precarious proletariat”) of people struggling with short-term jobs to make ends meet, as well as a new underclass of the socially excluded.

According to Toshiaki Tachibanaki, one of Japan’s foremost economists who predicted the collapse of the self-declared “middle class-society” a decade ago, today some 14 percent of Japan’s population are living in poverty, twice as many as 20 years ago.

For most readers of this paper it is hard to imagine what it means to be poor in Japan, because except for some blue tarpaulin tents of the homeless set up on river embankments, poverty is not all that visible. To the attentive observer, though, the plight of those who fell by the wayside of Japan’s economic restructuring during the 1990s is quite obvious. Meanwhile, analyzing poverty, its causes and its reality, has become a growing field of social theory. In Japan, where until recently the notion of a harmonious society in which everyone benefited from economic growth had some measure of credibility, this is painful and embarrassing.

Under these circumstances the present volume is as timely as it is disturbing. The two editors, both social scientists specializing in welfare and social exclusion, have brought together 12 highly informative essays dealing with a variety of issues concerning poverty in Japan. These range from a review of social dynamics since Japan’s industrialization to a close look at Tokyo’s street dwellers today.

The majority of the essays scrutinize particular groups of people, such as day laborers, long-term unemployed, vagrants and homeless persons, hamba dwellers (temporary workers living in sheds), single mothers, elderly people living on minimal pensions, and others at the fringes of society who are impoverished or, for lack of any reserves, must fear to fall into poverty if something unforeseen happens.

Taken together, these essays provide a thorough overview of the multifacetedness of poverty in Japan. They complement each other and, being put into historical perspective, reveal the ensemble of interacting factors that cause individuals and households to slip into poverty.

Diverse as the chapters are, they all combine to impart one message above all: Rather than as an individual predicament, poverty should be seen as a social problem. Increasing poverty is the most alarming indication that the society is not developing in a desirable direction.

In this book we learn a lot about preventive measures and relief assistance for those who for one reason or another are temporarily, or permanently, unable to provide for themselves. Welfare policies are described in great detail from their inception to the present, making it clear how strongly poverty is interrelated with the broader social structure.

Poverty is a socially defined concept, having many aspects in addition to insufficient income. Social policies cannot but address certain categories of people and by so doing exclude others. There is hence a large overlap between the poor and the marginalized and socially excluded. For instance, in the early decades of industrialization, many unmarried young men were drawn from the countryside into the cities where for lack of work they formed an urban underclass. Not being entered in the Family Registration System and not being a member of a family connected to land holdings, they were branded as “anational” and excluded from “civilization.”

This example illustrates well that poverty is an outgrowth of the social system whose dynamics in combination with political steering mechanisms determine how fine-meshed the social safety net will be, which groups will fall through it, and how exclusion works. Prior to World War II, the poor, especially the unsettled population of day laborers, were seen as a disgrace that was placed outside civilized society. They had to be eliminated, as some of the essays in this book show, both in the sense of being assisted and of being made invisible.

As in Europe, where this model of social organization was first put into practice, the Japanese welfare state was designed to eliminate poverty. As it developed, it became a powerful machinery for the homogenization of lifestyles and the promotion of “civilization” by setting standards for legitimate forms of social existence. Social integration and exclusion worked hand in hand.

In the current society, similar mechanisms and contradictions between intended and achieved outcomes of welfare policies are at work, although the groups of people most at risk of slipping into poverty are different. Today the focus is on single mothers, the working poor, foreign workers, the keitai denwa (mobile phone) street dwellers who are constantly available by temp work agencies, and other marginalized groups such as the NEET (not in education, employment and training) and the hikikomori suffering from Social Withdrawal Syndrome.

During affluent periods — and this is one lesson to be drawn from this book — the social exclusion problem recedes into the background, but economic downturns hits these groups most severely, threatening nonconformity with social norms with impoverishment.

In our days, the noneconomic causes and consequences of poverty once again come into view more sharply, a fact of which the present book is a disquieting reminder.

Florian Coulmas is director of the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo and author of “Population Decline and Aging in Japan.”