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The well-off families who are feeling unwell

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

We’re not living right. It’s obvious, though whose fault it is may not be, and what to do about it is certainly not.

We’re rich but poor — and getting poorer. We’re healthy but sick — and getting sicker. It’s not a pretty picture. What’s wrong with us?

Imagine, first of all, the world’s third-largest economy with a child poverty rate, according to health ministry figures, of 16.3 percent — and climbing, though slowly.

There are varying degrees of poverty. There’s starvation-level poverty, which afflicts comparatively few in a developed country. More conspicuous is low-income poverty. The sharply rising number of single mothers, most working part-time if at all, means an increase in poor children. The relegation of more than a third of the workforce to part-time status keeps the full-salaried good life out of reach for many.

But Spa! magazine, in its feature last month on poverty, focused, somewhat oddly at first blush, on full-time employees earning incomes that seem, if not lavish, well within the comfort zone. Five million yen a year is not poverty — is it?

It can be, as “Mr. Kobayashi” discovered. He’s 40, a department store employee of many years’ standing who, after numerous promotions due to dedicated service, found himself assistant store manager with a ¥5 million salary. The fly in the ointment — there’s always one — was the long, long hours. When his mother began showing signs of dementia it was no longer possible for him to work until 10 or 11 at night. As she got worse, he grew more distracted, until at last he had to put in for a transfer to a less demanding — and lower-paying — position.

Care costs rose, meanwhile. A part-time home helper charges ¥80,000 a month. The inevitable deterioration dementia involves means the burden can only grow — and grow. One sacrifice has had to be plans to send his son to a private high school. A second might be the family itself, as Kobayashi’s wife buckles under the strain and talks of divorce. But that is by the way.

“Mr. Ando” typifies a different facet of the poverty-in-prosperity phenomenon. He’s 45, working as a marketer of school textbooks. After college he drifted a bit, going through five jobs before settling into his current one. It seemed at last that he’d found his calling and was, for a time, content. But business soured. Not his fault, but a struggling company passes on its woes. His salary slid from ¥360,000 a month to ¥320,000, then to ¥300,000. Now it’s ¥280,000.

It’s too bad he and his wife bought a condo just before the cuts started. But as he says, “We felt it was our last chance.” Five million yen up front, ¥140,000 a month thereafter. To a man with a sinking income, that’s a ball and chain. His wife works part time and earns ¥200,000 a month, which helps but not enough. Like the Kobayashis, the Andos have a child to educate. Unlike the Kobayashis, the Andos haven’t, so far, taken him out of private school.

The two husbands also have this in common: the sacrifice of small but satisfying pleasures, like going out for lunch, drinking after work — no big deal, but can a hard-working individual in a developed economy be blamed for thinking he’s earned the right to these indulgences? More ominously, Ando looks to the future and utters the characteristic lament of the poverty-stricken: “I simply don’t know what’s going to happen.”

None of us do, of course, but here’s a telling statistic, courtesy of fitness magazine Tarzan: More than half Japan’s population — 53.9 percent — die of “lifestyle illnesses.” A lifestyle illness is one we bring on ourselves, by the way we live or the way society pressures us into living. “The problem is worsening beyond what we can easily imagine,” says Tarzan.

Cancer, heart disease and strokes are death’s weapons of choice. We could blunt them easily enough — by smoking less, exercising more, eating sensibly, taking elementary precautions known to every child — but somehow knowledge is one thing, execution another.

Partly it’s our own fault, partly simply what life does to us. Enlightened future observers, if ever there are any, will look back on us and find much to astonish them — nothing so much, perhaps, as how little we move.

Neither our work nor our play — with exceptions, of course — demands much physical movement of us. Being whisked to and from computer work stations by car or train is not the life the human body evolved for. It leaves us, at the end of the day, depleted and even exhausted, but not really tired, in the good old physical sense of that word. The average man gets home at night having taken, according to research Tarzan cites, 7,139 steps; the average woman, 6,257 — down in both cases, though not sharply, over the past 10 years.

Meanwhile our diet grows richer and richer, with less and less physical activity to fuel. The Japanese in particular have much to reproach themselves for here — they have a traditional cuisine recognized by UNESCO for gastronomical and nutritional excellence, and yet have largely eschewed it in favor of the fat, fast, artificial fare that seems more in harmony with our daily round. One result, quoting Tarzan again: the nation collectively spends ¥2 trillion a year treating high blood pressure — and ¥38.4 trillion treating lifestyle disease in general. That last figure represents more than a third of Japan’s national budget.

Does lifestyle disease have anything to do with reduced fertility? Maybe, maybe not — but 1 couple in 10 is now infertile, Spa! reports. We’re back to poverty again. Meet “Mr. Yamamoto” — aged 37, married seven years and childless, to his and his wife’s chagrin. Fertility treatment — why not? What else? It’s expensive, of course, but between the two of them they were earning ¥6 million a year, and so the treatment began. It reduced them to a semblance of poverty — no smoking, no drinking, no fun, counting every yen — but for a child, it could be borne.

But treatment failed. It often does. The success rate for people their age, Spa! says, is 16.3 percent. After two years, with their savings depleted, they gave up. Well, if they can’t have a child they’ll have other things, and if there’s no ready cash they’ll buy on credit. Enough spartan living! They must make up for lost time. New car, restaurant dinners, household appliances, pachinko. Savings: zero. No matter. Impoverishing themselves, they stimulate the economy — proving, or at least suggesting, that individual prosperity and national prosperity are two different things.

  • phu

    I appreciate the attempt to cite sources — it’s something that’s often just ignored any more — but let’s take another step in the right direction and think about bias.

    Taking statistics about a general lack of fitness… from a fitness magazine? This is positively the definition of an impeachable source: An institution that exists for the sole purpose of selling magazines is probably not the source to go to for unbiased stats.

    Unfortunately, the only sources this article cites are magazines, which seems either extremely lazy or perhaps due to an innocent ignorance of journalistic standards (not that anyone pays much attention to those anyway).

    Without credible stats, this is nothing more than a collection of arbitrarily chosen anecdotes, which — poor moniker aside — are not evidence of anything.

    • Tando

      Well you miss the point that this colum is and always has been about Japanese magazine articles, which are, in my opinion, always very well reinterpreted by Michael Hoffman.