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Japan stands back as the poor get poorer

by Philip Brasor

One of the year’s biggest selling books is Hiroshi Tamura’s “Homeless Junior High School Student,” a memoir focusing on the 28-year-old comedian’s adolescence.

When Tamura was 11 his mother died and several years later his father, overburdened by the responsibilities of raising three children alone, disappeared. Tamura lived in a park for a while and was eventually taken in by neighbors.

On the book’s jacket is an endorsement from Liberal Democratic Party honcho Taro Aso, who says it relates “something we as Japanese should never forget.”

Is forgetting the same as ignoring? The book has made Tamura rich, since people love to read about overcoming adversity. It’s the romance of the poor, but poverty is only romantic when it’s relegated safely in the past. There are millions of other people in similar or worse situations right now who will never break out of their own prisons of poverty, and unbeknown to the majority of their fellow citizens, their numbers are increasing.

Last week, NHK broadcast “Working Poor I & II,” a re-edited version of two documentaries first aired in 2006 which have since won several domestic media awards. One of the experts interviewed in the program says that he believes the working poor will eventually become “the majority.”

“The quality that non-Japanese have always admired about Japan,” he said, referring to Japan’s hallowed industriousness, “is being squandered, and very quickly.”

The working poor work, which distinguishes them from the stereotyped image of paupers, who are unemployed or indisposed toward work. What’s shocking about the situation is how quickly poverty has become structural in a country that still tends to think of itself as being uniformly middle class.

Self-reliance is the philosophical foundation of Japan’s bureaucratically managed form of capitalism, but what NHK shows is that anyone born into lower-class circumstances has few opportunities to better themselves. A 35-year-old woman in Fukushima, who says she was “born poor,” married when she was 19, divorced when she was 22, and nine years later is supporting two children on about ¥180,000 a month. She has held 8 jobs since her divorce, and was once fired for taking a day off to care for her sick son. Under a new government program, she is eligible for educational grants, but they would only cover her tuition, not her living expenses. She cannot save money for her own kids’ education, which means they will probably end up as wage earners at an early age with little job security. At 31, she has already given up.

Her situation is a common one for single mothers, thus prompting a question NHK never asks: Where is the father? But while her plight may have something to do with a general prejudice against single mothers, other examples point to a collapse in the social structure. A young woman in Hokkaido barely makes ends meet even though she has a cook’s license. She and her sister support their chronically ill father with full-time jobs in the food-service industry, but they only get paid a few yen more than the minimum wage. “I guess you could call me a loser,” she says, looking at her diploma.

One expert says that a solution would be to raise the minimum wage. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is now recommending just that, but only by about ¥10. The ministry studied the problem and found that ¥10 is the largest increase the nation can afford without placing Japan’s dwindling manufacturing base in jeopardy.

NHK already took this into consideration. The program looks at a middle-aged couple in Gifu who work as subcontractors to apparel makers. They have had to reduce their per-piece charge for garment pressing from ¥100 to ¥50 because of competition from companies employing overseas “trainees,” who legally work for less than the minimum wage. The couple is forced to take second jobs to get by. Ironically, the wife ends up serving meals in a company cafeteria to those very foreign trainees who have inadvertently destroyed her livelihood.

Small businesses in Japan say they are barely getting by in the face of competition from abroad. By constantly ratcheting down wages and eliminating benefits, small businesses, which serve the interests of big business, are re-creating the working conditions that exist in those developing countries that threaten to take their work. To put it bluntly, Japan, one of the most powerful economies in the world, is slipping back into the Third World as far as its labor sector is concerned.

The experts interviewed by NHK say that it is up to the government to break the cycle of poverty, but the ruling party and the bureaucracy have decided that the poor are on their own. The government’s own studies show that in households of the same size, monthly public assistance amounts to slightly more money than the monthly income of a full-time worker receiving minimum wage. So in addition to raising the minimum wage microscopically, the MHLW has proposed cutting certain welfare benefits.

Some of the poor profiled by NHK might be eligible for public assistance if they didn’t have savings accounts or own their homes. Many are elderly, and even with pensions and no rent or mortgage to pay, they live on the edge. Their retirement years are spent working. One septuagenarian couple in Akita collects cans, and even that doesn’t pay as much as it used to now that all the other old people in their town are collecting cans, too.

The experts on the program, who estimate that the working poor now constitute between 10 and 20 percent of the labor force, agree that Japan will soon be a genuinely stratified society, divided between the anxious middle class in the cities and the permanent poor living everywhere else, and that’s the way it will stay. Not everybody can write a book.

“Working Poor III,” about the working poor in other countries, including the U.S., U.K. and South Korea, will be broadcast tonight (Dec. 16) on NHK-G at 9:15 p.m.