The gap between rich and poor is widening in Japan, in part as a consequence of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s structural reforms, and many mayors and governors feel they’re left holding the bag.
The Roppongi Hills commercial and residential complex in Minato Ward, Tokyo, is a monument to the economic winners created by a society that is becoming more fiercely competitive.
As the number of high-income residents increases, so have the ward’s tax revenues. But at the same time, the number of households receiving public assistance has risen as well.
“The disparity is caused, in part, by intensified competition from deregulation, but there is a limit to the measures local government can take,” said Keimi Harada, head of the Minato Ward office. “The state needs to undertake drastic reforms, like boosting employment.”
According to official figures, although the economy is recovering, households on welfare are expected to top the 1 million mark for the first time ever in fiscal 2005, which ended last March, when the tally finally comes in.
The growing gap between haves and have-nots is not limited to Tokyo. “The number of people failing to pay taxes, water bills and school-provided lunch expenses is increasing,” said Tokumitsu Imura, mayor of Higashiura, Aichi Prefecture.
Koji Sakaguchi, his counterpart in the city of Nishi-Tokyo, said: “Behind favorable business results is an increasing number of nonregular workers. Low-income earners are steadily increasing.”
And Hitoshi Sato, mayor of Toin, Mie Prefecture, worries about how the income disparities will affect children’s educational opportunities. “There is an academic ability gap between children who attend cram schools and others.”
Low-income parents have trouble paying for the supplementary schooling that helps students get into a university.
Education is only part of the challenge.
Mayor Yasunari Yasode of Uchinada, Ishikawa Prefecture, said local government finances are under pressure due to the rising number of low-income workers who depend on publicly financed national health insurance.
Kameo Seto, mayor of Sasayama, Hyogo Prefecture, said disparities in health care between smaller towns and large cities are widening as well, as changes in the medical system lead to a shortage of doctors in rural areas.
Critics of Koizumi’s reforms at the prefectural and municipal levels say they are paying the price.
“A mere ‘small government’ promotes disparity, creating a society where those who have failed will find it difficult to try again,” Mie Gov. Akihiko Noro said.
A nationwide survey conducted by Kyodo News found that 59 percent of local government heads have noticed growing income disparities.
For Hikaru Yoshimura, mayor of Yunomae, Kumamoto Prefecture, the problem is too much centralization: “People, goods and money are too concentrated in major cities.”
“Priority is given to major cities, and local governments are abandoned,” said Takahisa Kubota, mayor of Yamazoe, Nara Prefecture, echoing the complaint.
Mayor Isamu Sato of Kurihara, Miyagi Prefecture, said his town meanwhile faces an “accelerating outflow of youth.”
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