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The prolonged economic slump has extended into the nation’s classrooms, with around 1.15 million public elementary and junior high school students qualifying for financial aid in fiscal 2002.

The parents or guardians of 10.78 percent of children between the first and ninth grades received or would have qualified for welfare in the fiscal year ended March 31, up from 7.1 percent in fiscal 1998.

These children are qualified to receive financial aid from local municipalities, which is subsidized by the national government, to help them pay for school supplies, commuting, lunch expenses and excursion costs.

As of February, there were 1.28 million people on welfare in Japan, or 1 percent of the population, which is equal to about 896,000 households and constitutes the largest number since the program was introduced in 1950, the government said.

According to an official at the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, the percentage of students receiving aid varies by prefecture. Osaka leads with 23.93 percent, followed by Tokyo at 22.48 percent and Yamaguchi Prefecture at 18.72 percent.

Launched more than 40 years ago, the financial aid program has achieved some positive results.

According to the ministry’s recently issued project evaluation report, just 0.23 percent of elementary and junior high school students were absent from school for long periods of time in fiscal 2001 because of reasons related to financial hardship.

“Given the high unemployment rate, the program is still necessary to realize equal educational opportunity,” the report says.

The ministry applied for 14.6 billion yen to fund the program in its budget request for fiscal 2004, virtually unchanged from the current fiscal year.

High unemployment continues to plague Japan. The seasonally adjusted jobless rate stood at 5.3 percent in July. A large number of men, especially heads of households, are losing their jobs through corporate restructuring, and many young people cannot find work.

Analysts said the unemployment rate is expected to remain high because companies will continue to eliminate jobs and shed excess capacity to improve profitability.

“More and more children will become unable to proceed to the high school level if the increase in the number of hard-pressed guardians continues,” said Ochanomizu University professor Hiroaki Mimizuka.

“In addition to the current aid program, the importance of assisting high school applicants will also inevitably grow,” Mimizuka said.

Observers and teachers said there are growing concerns that the disparity between the upper and lower classes in Japan will widen. Several studies have shown that members of the lower class are finding it difficult to move up the ladder.

A research group led by Mimizuka conducted a study in 2001 on high school graduates who did not go on to higher education or find regular employment. They are often referred as “freeters,” which is Japanese slang for young part-timers who have plenty of free time.

The survey found that 14 percent of students whose parents had white-collar jobs planned to become freeters after graduating. The figure stood at 31 percent for students whose parents had blue-collar backgrounds. The group questioned 2,131 prospective graduates of 17 high schools in Tokyo and their parents.

The freeter population swelled to about 138,000 last year, or 10.5 percent of the total number of high school graduates, up from 4.7 percent in 1992.

Mimizuka attributed the rise in the number of freeters to the shrinking labor market and the inability of families to afford higher education.

Another study by Mimizuka’s research group shows that the academic performance of children closely mirrors their fathers’ academic backgrounds.

It found that 72 percent of children with learning problems had fathers who did not attend college.

“Economic situations in the country have affected the education field, and it is now necessary for the government as well as teachers to take these circumstances into consideration in dealing with children,” Mimizuka said.

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