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Poverty stalks the land — and its long-term victims will be today’s young

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

Open any Japanese newspaper, listen to the radio, watch television or keep tabs on any other form of media, social or otherwise, and you are bound to find references to this country’s “rapidly aging society.”

We are constantly reminded of the fact that the Japanese nation has the highest percentage of old people in the world; that by 2060 four out of 10 Japanese will be aged 65 or over; and that somehow they will have to be catered to and cared for half a century from now.

The hype on the existence of the very old may be justified; but where’s the hype on the progress of the very young — their needs and the circumstances under which they suffer?

These are the elderly of 2060. Let’s hope they make it there.

The direst circumstance for young people in Japan can be encapsulated in one word: poverty.

At present, approximately one in every 6.5 children in this country, or 15.7 percent, is living in relative poverty — a state defined as when the disposable income of a household is below half the median.

These Japanese minors may not be turning to crime or sleeping on the streets, but they are languishing in an intolerable situation from which they cannot extricate themselves. Consequently, Japan is well on the way to becoming a nation with an endemic vicious cycle of deprivation and class-determined failure.

“It is very unpopular,” claims Aya Abe, a researcher at the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research in Tokyo, “for the Japanese media to say anything about Japanese poverty.”

In her book “Kodomo no Hinkon” (“Child Poverty”), published by Iwanami Shoten in 2008, Abe states that more than a quarter of Japanese families cannot afford to send their child or children to university.

What is more shocking is that some students in primary and secondary schools don’t have the money for pencils or other educational materials, and many can’t afford to buy school lunches or go on excursions. Such children suffer from increased health and behavioral problems. In short, the life outcomes for this underclass about to join the ranks of adult society are bleak.

Often at the heart of this problem is the plight of single mothers in Japan, though the overall state of the Japanese economy for the past two decades, with insecurity rising and incomes stagnant, has certainly not helped anyone.

The poverty rate in Japan’s single-parent households is now the highest among the 34 member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a body dedicated to promoting policies to improve the economic and social well-being of peoples around the world.

According to the latest Japanese government statistics available, from 2006, the average annual income in single-mother households was ¥2.13 million, or about 60 percent of the national average.

A great many single mothers can find only part-time work, where their wage is less than half of that of a full-time male worker. Aggravating this is the shocking lack of support received by divorced single mothers from their child’s or children’s father or fathers: Only 19 percent receive maintenance, making Japan an empire of deadbeat dads — although in some cases child support is waived by mutual consent.

As a father of four children born in the 1980s and educated in this country, I can attest to the fact that Japan used to be a child-oriented nation, where a child’s future was considered by all as having the highest priority.

But the governing Liberal Democratic Party began cutting social services in 1995, and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, in office from 2001 to 2006, accelerated the welfare-bashing trend. The effect on children from less-privileged backgrounds has been devastating.

Masanori Matsumura, an executive member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Teachers’ Union who is a primary school teacher with 30 years’ experience, sees this as bringing on an educational crisis. “Children consequently lose hope for the future,” he says.

The problem of child poverty needs to be examined and addressed in terms of the overall class-divide dilemma facing the country. That widening divide was spelled out in figures released recently showing that Japan now has 2.09 million welfare recipients, up from 1.07 million in 2000.

What needs to be done? It’s time to rethink priorities, starting with the children.

Children’s material needs must be met through generous benefits to the underprivileged, giving them an equal opportunity to flourish while in school and potentially afterward, in vocational or academic tertiary education.

Every child should be valued according to their individual potential. The system of standardized exams for categorizing suited a society that needed to focus on the goal of rebuilding itself and reviving its spirit after a devastating and dispiriting war. It’s not suitable for Japan today.

The key phrase in assessment and the approach to learning should be jūnin-toiro — which is to say, “each person has their own interests and ideas.”

Also, the process through which the notes of the teacher become the notes of the student without going through the heads of either does not provide for a viable education.

Japan needs a Child Support Agency to assist single mothers in getting deadbeat dads to pay up. Maintenance payments for children should be compulsorily deducted from their salaries and sent to the mothers’ bank accounts — as they are already in some countries.

As for childcare facilities, these should be expanded to Scandanavian levels. Since 1990, Finland has, for instance, provided free daycare for all children 8 months to 5 years of age.

Legal quotas should also be established for the percentage of females employed in companies. We cannot wait for the male-dominated establishment to “come around” to the realization that boosting women’s participation in the workforce will enhance Japan’s total economic outcomes.

And coming back to the nation’s classrooms, Japan should embark on a comprehensive policy of social innovation in which these are seen as spaces for the collective empowerment of the young. So-called Green Classes — ones in which science, literature, language and studies of contemporary issues are pursued, often in concert — should be incorporated into the government-determined curriculum.

In addition, studies of economics should emphasize links with social benefit and altruistic goals. To effect this, local innovation is a must: Prefectures should be given wide authority to devise curricula pertinent to the needs of their region.

Japan, technological powerhouse that it is, is sorely lagging in digital innovation in its classrooms.

By 2015, schools in South Korea will have gone over to digital textbooks. In Japan, to say the least, every child should have an iPad or equivalent with which to do homework, communicate with teachers and fellow students, and make presentations on a classroom smartboard. This is part and parcel of student empowerment, and will encourage children to develop along the lines of their personal predilections and gifts.

This April, Ryosuke Kato was named head of the Japan Teachers Union. In the April 30-May 7 issue of the news magazine Aera, he declared: “Education’s task is to keep society’s demands aligned to the era in which the society exists.”

Well, we are living in an entirely new era, with new tasks and new demands. If we continue to de-emphasize welfare to families and to pursue the educational and work methods devised in a very different past, we will only end up with heightened discontent, deeper despair and a society locked onto a track leading to hardcore class-determined poverty.

It doesn’t make sense to talk merely about an age-heavy society in 2060. It’s what that society will look like that counts. Our children and their children will, all being well, be alive to see that day. They can look back and blame us if life then is not worth living.