In the early years of the 21st century, such neologisms as nyū puā (new poor) and wākingu puā (working poor) began appearing in the Japanese media. Like their equivalents overseas, the terms were typically applied to people unable to realize a decent livelihood while holding down a job, or even more than one job.
Then at some point, when the condition of puā was no longer trendy, the native word, hinkon (poverty), began taking precedence. When written out in kanji characters, hinkon somehow carries with it weightier and more ominous implications than the foreign loan words do.
In the world’s third-largest economy, what does it mean to be poor? How is it defined?
Start with the so-called poverty line, which in Japan was set at ¥1.22 million in 2012, a figure that represents half the median household disposable income for that particular year.
In terms of “relative poverty” — defined as lacking the minimum amount of income needed in order to maintain the average standard of living in the society in which they live — the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked Japan, with 16.1 percent of households, fourth overall among member nations, after Mexico (18.5 percent), Turkey (17.5 percent) and the United States (17 percent). More disturbing, perhaps, Japan’s child poverty rate (the ratio of children under 18 living in households earning less than half of the average income), at 16.3 percent, exceeded the relative poverty rate for the first time since statistics began in 1985.
Roughly 8 out of 10 households receiving seikatsu hogo (welfare payments) fall into three major categories: the elderly (45.5 percent), single mothers (7.1 percent) and the infirm and handicapped (29.3 percent).
According to the data from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, as of last August 2,163,152 people were recipients of seikatsu hogo, a decline of 4,775 from 2,167,927 the previous January.
While some working people resent welfare recipients and accuse them of abusing the system, the payouts hardly qualify as extravagant. One recipient, a man in his 60s, was quoted in a television broadcast as saying, “After the rent and other expenditures are covered, I’m left with about ¥1,000 per day, sufficient for three meals and maybe a used paperback book.”
People with little discretionary income are nevertheless numerous enough to attract businesses to cater to them. In 2009, Takashi Kadokura, a prolific writer on the subject of Japan’s underground economy, published a 206-page paperback titled “Hinkon Bijinesu” (the poverty business), which examined businesses such as realtors that specialize in apartments that don’t require “key money” and Internet cafes where “refugees” who cannot afford better housing spend the night.
Spa! a weekly magazine with a fairly good record of tracking social trends, has begun devoting regular coverage to the topic of poverty. Over the past six months, it has run numerous articles with “hinkon” in their titles: “Report: The living hell of poor families” (July 22-29); “The impoverishment of young people won’t stop” (Sept. 9); “Seven deadly sins that are the cause of new-type poverty” (Nov. 4-11); and “A look inside the homes of poor females with annual earnings of below ¥2 million” (Nov. 25).
The “seven deadly sins” in Spa’s Nov. 4-11 issue are identified as: 1) companies’ hiring of a higher percentage of non-regular staff; 2) job changes that result in a sharp reduction in earnings; 3) the spread of “black companies” (generally defined as businesses that fail to comply with legal labor standards, such as by demanding unpaid overtime); 4) increased incidence of depression; 5) the burdens of caring for one’s elderly parents; 6) crushing household debts from home mortgages and outlays for children’s education; and 7) the growing number of people who reach middle age with virtually no prospects of marrying.
Item No. 5 above has an opposite extreme. Over the past month, the Sunday Mainichi has been running a series titled “The hard facts about poverty in your declining years.” Its Dec. 7 issue covered how the pension and savings that the elderly put aside for their retirement are being drained off by children they continue to support well into adulthood.
At least some of these offspring earn their keep by assisting their elderly parents, shopping, taking them to the doctor, preparing meals and performing household chores. But others are almost hopelessly dysfunctional, having dropped out of society in their teens or early 20s.
The Cabinet Office estimated in 2010 that Japan has approximately 700,000 individuals suffering from hikikomori (acute social withdrawal). Masako Hatanaka, who lectures on financial planning, advocates the drawing up of “survival plans” that will enable these individuals to fend for themselves — through assiduous belt-tightening — after their parents pass away. Can “Abenomics” possibly come up with solutions to intractable problems like these?
As the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War approaches, one is given to wonder whether the developments we are seeing might be explained by an old aphorism about the vicissitudes of generational change that goes, “Oya kurō suru, ko raku suru, mago kojiki suru” (“The parent works hard, the child takes it easy and the grandchild begs”). It bears a remarkable similarity to the American saying “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.”