First in a two-part series
World Food Day, celebrated every Oct. 16, was established by the U.N. to highlight issues such as food scarcity, agricultural pollution, and food distribution problems that still plague much of the world. So what does that have to do with Japan? Plenty, says Charles McJilton of Second Harvest Japan (2HJ).
McJilton first became involved with the homeless in Japan in 1991 when he lived in Sanya, one of the poorer areas of Tokyo. In January 1997 he began living with the homeless along the Sumida River near Sanya and stayed until April 1998. That experience radically changed him and how sees his role at 2HJ.
“I don’t see myself so much helping people as giving them the resources to help themselves,” said McJilton.
Although still a passionate supporter of Tokyo’s homeless population, McJilton is now focusing his activism on a broader range of have-nots in Japan.
“Forget (writing about) the homeless,” McJilton told me. “Everybody knows about that problem. It’s so visible. What people don’t see, and don’t know, is that there are plenty of hungry people living right here in Tokyo.”
Appearances don’t always fit with the reality, McJilton argues.
“The poverty line is considered one half the median income, or around ¥2.3 million per year. The current poverty rate for Japan is 15.3 percent. That means more than 19 million live below the poverty line. Forty percent of the more-than-1.2-million single mothers make less than ¥1.5 million per year.
“In Utsunomiya a few years ago a mother starved to death with her child. It happens, and will, unfortunately, probably become more common.”
As a professor at Japanese Red Cross University, J. Sean Curtin has written extensively on poverty in Japan. In a 2002 article Curtin wrote that lone-mother families, with an average annual income of just ¥2.52 million, were the most economically disadvantaged group in Japan. The elderly were next at ¥3.19 million. This put many — if not most — lone-mother families “well below the poverty line.”
Citing a government survey, Curtin noted that 81.6 percent of Japanese single mothers said they were experiencing “real hardship.”
More troubling, the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), in a July 2006 report, warned that despite sustainable growth Japan is “endangered by increasing poverty, income inequality and by the effects of an aging population.”
For those experiencing extreme financial hardship, including the homeless, a separate welfare program (“seikatsu hogo”) exists. Also, local governments have been trying, with limited success, to relocate the homeless into subsidized housing. McJilton feels the government’s approach is terribly flawed.
“They make it difficult for people to get on the system, and they treat the people on it like criminals, under constant surveillance to make sure they’re not cheating. Then they have laws that say, ‘You’re on welfare so you can’t save any money. You’re not allowed to buy a car either even if you live in a rural area where it’s necessary.’ If you do save money or buy a car, your benefits get cut. It’s insane.”
While surveys show the number of homeless decreasing, McJilton is not impressed.
“It’s true that ڜ3,000 apartments are getting people off the streets, but they deliberately separate neighbors, putting them in different parts of the city so they ‘won’t be a bad influence on each other.’ ” McJilton explained.
“When you concentrate people who have specific needs in a specific area it’s much easier to provide services than when you spread them out.”
Some groups of homeless are likely not to be counted in surveys, said Sister Akiyama of Fuchu Catholic Church.
“While the stay-put homeless have decreased, the number that wander from place to place every night has increased,” she said.
Also, “Internet cafe refugees” are not included in the survey. These individuals, which number in the thousands, are likewise homeless, renting a room in an Internet cafe or all-night eatery from night to night.
Curtin has also written about flaws in Japan’s welfare system, namely divorced fathers who don’t pay child support to their children, euphemistically known as “deadbeat dads” in the United States. As it stands, divorce terms may “require” the father to pay child support, but there is no means to compel him to pay. The mother can bring the issue to court, but the decision might take years, and then only compel the father to pay a quarter of the agreed-upon sum, making the whole process fruitless.
Efforts have been made to amend legislation to compel deadbeat dads to pay, but conservative lawmakers keep blocking the effort. For example, in 1985 such an amendment was killed because it would “go against Japanese tradition.”
Second Harvest Japan currently serves approximately 100 families with weekly or monthly shipments of food. Of those, 75 percent are headed by lone mothers. In addition, they deliver food to agencies that support single mothers.
“I would estimate we support over 1,000 families directly and through the agencies we support,” said McJilton.
Convenience stores and restaurants often face the problem of having food that has not expired but cannot be sold for a variety of reasons. Donating this food helps companies save money, make a positive impact on society and reduce waste. For every ¥1,000 2HJ spends, the group can deliver over ¥10,000 in food.
For the time being, homelessness remains the visible face of poverty in Japan. Sister Akiyama makes a weekly “homeless patrol” to check on needs and befriend the homeless. One goal she has is to convince the homeless to make use of the services offered by local governments.
“Many refuse to register for housing. They feel there are too many rules, like a curfew, for those in subsidized apartments. Also, they have too much pride.”
One homeless man we visited along the Tama River explained that he goes to city hall once a month to collect his pension. It might be enough to cover food expenses, he said, but not enough to rent an apartment. The talk does lend some credibility to stereotypes, however, as Mr. Matsuzaka noted that two young homeless (aged 27 and 31) set up a shelter next door and are choosing the lifestyle.
“They go back to their parents’ house once or twice a month. They don’t want to work,” he added without malice.
None of the other homeless I spoke with — a day laborer, car counter, house cleaner, cardboard collector and a retired man who lost his arm in a work accident — said they were homeless by choice.
Matsushige Ito of Osaka’s Kamagasaki homeless district rejects the claim that homeless “choose that lifestyle.”
“It’s a rationalization,” said Ito. “Most people want to blame the victim. The cause of homelessness is lack of employment. There simply aren’t enough jobs.”
McJilton agreed, calling the homelessness problem “a train wreck (that was) waiting to happen.”
He explained that many laborers moved to Tokyo and Osaka during economic boom years, living at the “genba” (work site). Construction jobs dried up, or the men got too old or ill to work, and those without a personal safety net dropped through.
Although hunger problems in Japan do exist, and are growing, many other countries have far more severe problems with poverty. It is estimated that one-seventh of the world’s population cannot get enough daily nutrition. According to globalissues.org, half the world’s children — one billion — live in poverty.
The theme of this year’s World Food Day is “The right to food.” Organizers note: “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 first recognized the right to food as a human right.” This right to food is universal and includes every woman, man and child. It includes food security: Access should be to healthy food, devoid of harmful substances and culturally acceptable.
To commemorate World Food Day, 2HJ is hosting a Harvest for Hunger gathering on Oct. 16. They are also conducting a nationwide food drive with fitness group Curves Japan in November and are seeking churches, community centers, and agencies that will accept food for subsequent delivery to those in need. The ultimate dream is to create a national network where anyone in need of food can go get emergency food locally. For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org.