For Yoshino Azuma, life changed forever when her husband, Yoshitaro, suddenly died of a brain hemorrhage two years ago.
That tragedy left Azuma, 43, unable to function for a year, while her four kids often burst into violent tussles, the apparent result of pent-up anguish.
But the loss of her husband didn’t just hit the family mentally — it also left them hurting financially.
Having lost the family’s primary breadwinner, Azuma, a homemaker at the time in Tokyo, was forced to find work.
It would be a long, hard road.
“Being a stay-at-home mom all along, I have no career to write on my resume and no skills to show,” Azuma said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “It’s absolutely impossible for me to obtain a full-time job, especially given my age.”
Eventually, Azuma managed to land two part-time jobs.
Today, she works six days a week — three days at a production company during the day and three others as a call center operator at night. But her wages from the two jobs total less than ¥200,000 a month and her annual income falls short of ¥2 million, less than half of the ¥5 million to ¥6 million a year her late husband made.
The situation has plunged the whole family into a life of extreme penny-pinching.
Azuma has also had to convince her two sons, aged 14 and 11, and two daughters, 13 and 9, to give up their hobbies and extracurricular activities and abandon all hope of going to cram schools.
Her financial difficulties are echoed by many belonging to a burgeoning demographic in Japan — those living in poverty under a government that has long failed to face up to this reality.
While some observers admit that a Diet law enacted in June to acknowledge and tackle the issue was a significant step, others warn that concrete measures to pull people out of poverty are still sorely lacking.
Experts say that, historically, the issue of poverty has rarely been spotlighted in Japan.
According to Aya Abe, a researcher at the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (NIPSSR), part of the reason is that the nation’s rapid economic growth after the end of World War II instilled a myth with the majority of the public that they all belonged to the middle class. In addition, Abe said, unemployment figures have remained globally low.
But the issue of poverty became an increasingly serious issue over the last two decades — especially after the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers — as a horde of penurious temporary workers emerged, she said.
For years, the central government did not officially acknowledge that the nation was grappling with increasing poverty. Until recently, official figures on poverty rates simply did not exist. But an October 2009 push by the then-ruling Democratic Party of Japan government prompted the labor ministry to estimate for the first time poverty levels facing the nation.
Using a formula adopted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the labor ministry said households in a state of “relative poverty,” or those falling below 60 percent of median income, accounted for 15.7 percent of the population as of 2007. Children living under such circumstances, meanwhile, had hit 14.2 percent the same year, it said.
In a follow-up report released by the ministry in 2011, people considered to be living in poverty nationwide in 2009 rose to 16 percent, while the rate for children also surged to 15.7 percent.
In the same data, the ministry said the criteria that defined a state of poverty was that the spendable income of a single-person household was below ¥1.25 million.
It was also revealed that an internationally high 50.8 percent of single-parent households fell under the poverty line.
Work to draft a law combating poverty in the country began soon after the 2009 figures were published. Spearheading the move was the charity group Ashinaga, an organization providing mental and financial assistance for children who have lost one or both parents.
Ashinaga scholarship students had demanded the establishment of the law at their annual convention, marking the start of vociferous anti-poverty protests that were continued by junior members in later years.
The coordinator of the push, Fuyuki Midorikawa, 22, has busied himself over the past months, masterminding anti-poverty rallies, making media appearances, and even speaking at a ministry committee meeting about the dreadful realities of child poverty.
“What galvanized initial advocates for this law, all orphans, was their strong wish that fewer kids in the future would suffer the same financial plight they did,” said Midorikawa, who lost his father on his second birthday.
In the law passed last month, the government pledged to “lay the groundwork for children in states of poverty to live healthy lives” and “ensure greater equality in educational opportunities.” Though still philosophical at best, the law stipulates, among other things, that the government “implement legal and financial measures” to achieve its goals.
The law includes the word “hinkon” (poverty) in its title, a fact many experts hail as tantamount to the government’s acknowledgement that poverty exists in the world’s third-largest economy.
While passage of the law no doubt signifies a huge step forward, observers say Japan is still years away from fully facing up to the issue, as the law lacks details, stopping short of specifying any numerical targets.
NIPSSR’s Abe pointed out that the government had long underestimated the severity of poverty in the nation and kept it off the agenda, while in Europe and the U.S., national-level discussions over rooting out poverty have abounded.
Worldwide, single-parent households in other nations generally receive more support from the state than they do in Japan.
This has ignited the popular controversy that many are overly reliant on public welfare and “comfortably poor.”
As with Azuma, however, many single parents work more than one job and cut extravagancies but still struggle to make ends meet. Her experience of being denied welfare benefits shows the often restrictive nature of the country’s welfare system.
“I went to a local municipality to apply for welfare benefits and explained my situation,” Azuma said. “But all they told me was I wouldn’t qualify unless I cancel all of my life insurance packages, including my kids’ packages.”
Government white paper statistics show that Japan has traditionally lagged behind global standards when it comes to offering aid to families and children.
In 2007, the nation’s related expenditures, including family allowances, stood at 0.79 percent — a quarter of levels in France and the United Kingdom. The latest OECD report also showed that Japan spent the least on education among the group’s 30 member nations for the fourth consecutive year.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, when visited by Midorikawa and others following the law’s passage, reaffirmed the government’s resolve to “give those in poverty adequate access to educational opportunities,” saying that “their financial situation at home should in no way limit their possibilities.”
Some experts, however, say the ruling Liberal Democratic Party had an ulterior motive to approve the bill: to discredit the widespread impression that the party lacks compassion for kids.
In a development that apparently belies its vow to combat child poverty, the government decided in January to embark on unprecedented reductions in welfare from August, cutting 6.5 percent on average and a maximum of 10 percent for households with children.
Kenji Utsunomiya, a former president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, pointed out the “utter contradiction,” too, noting that the cuts would “deal a severe blow to child-rearing households.”
“If the anti-poverty law was just a part of government propaganda to assure the public that it’s serious about beating poverty, then that would be a problem,” he said.
This skepticism was also echoed by Azuma.
“Those people who agreed to pass the law are a bunch of elites who probably have no idea what we’ve been through. So I don’t know how effective it’s going to be,” she said.
NIPSSR’s Abe said the government should prove its sincerity by allocating a sufficient budget. “The government continuously monitoring the poverty situation and making related data public would greatly help prevent the issue from being forgotten,” Abe said. “Japan is certainly on a tight budget, but I hope the government will prove its sincerity by giving adequate financial support.”
Two years since her husband’s death, Azuma is slowly but decidedly moving on, galvanized by a strong sense of purpose in seeing her kids taken care of.
As she sat recounting her backbreaking endeavors to keep her family afloat, not a remnant of despair could be found on her face.
“Some people have told me that I look too optimistic,” she said smiling. “They say I have to plan ahead and try harder to run a tight ship because I have four kids to care for.
“But seriously, what am I supposed to do? Just keep worrying about our life 10 years from now and save ¥500 a day?” she said. “I would rather see my kids smile by buying them ice cream with that ¥500.”