As the government tells it, Japanese have it pretty good.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is adamant that, whatever critics may say, economic disparity is not growing.
And as for those who allege the existence of a massive, hidden poor: “There is no way Japan is in poverty. … By global standards, we’re definitely one of the wealthiest,” Abe told a Diet committee session in January.
But his words ring hollow when compared with recent studies that portray Japan as a land of economic inequality. Gone are the days when it prided itself on being an egalitarian society with all 100 million people comfortably in the middle class.
Abe’s political foes are expected to pounce on poverty and income inequality ahead of the Upper House election this summer. They say his trickle-down economic policies dubbed Abenomics have only benefited corporate behemoths while relegating the needs of ordinary citizens to the back burner.
Among the excluded is a 15-year-old high school girl from Kanagawa Prefecture, who told The Japan Times her family is so poor she can barely buy stationery for school, let alone clothes or fashion accessories.
The girl said she does not know who her father is and never met him. Her mother, who quit her job as a bar hostess due to kidney disease a few years ago, now receives welfare and pays her little attention.
The girl receives no monthly allowance but keeps up appearances so that her friends do not discover the reality.
When he declared Japan to be among the world’s wealthiest nations, Abe was responding to a question from Japanese Communist Party lawmaker Akira Koike, who cited Japan’s “relative poverty rate” to make the case that among developed countries Japan is the most poverty-stricken.
The relative poverty rate refers to the ratio of people living below the poverty line, or half the median income of the total population. In 2012, the welfare ministry defined the threshold as annual income of ¥1.22 million per person.
People who fell short of this accounted for 16.1 percent of the population in 2012, according to a 2014 survey by the welfare ministry on living conditions. Additionally, a 2014 OECD survey put Japan’s relative poverty rate in 2009 at 16.0 percent, sixth from bottom of its 34 member countries and far above the global average of 11.3 percent. Countries that fared worse than Japan included the United States at 17.4 percent, Mexico at 20.4 percent and Israel at 20.9 percent.
“One in six people are now living beneath the poverty line. Poverty is familiar to many Japanese people today,” Koike told Abe.
Experts, however, caution that the relative poverty rate alone is not enough to prove what opposition lawmakers like Koike call widespread impoverishment.
Atsuhiro Yamada, a professor of social policy at Keio University in Tokyo, pointed out that the internal affairs ministry calculated Japan’s relative poverty rate at 10.1 percent — much lower than the welfare ministry estimate, in a survey of consumer incomes and expenditures in 2009.
The discrepancy, which the Cabinet Office attributed to a difference in methodology between the two surveys, undercuts opposition lawmakers’ claims, Yamada said.
Takashi Oshio, a professor at the Institute of Economic Research at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, said the relative poverty rate encompasses all individuals falling short of the poverty line. Only those who live far below it will be in a serious situation.
“The high percentage of Japan’s relative poverty rate doesn’t mean all people under the threshold suffer dire penury. Some of them may be just slightly below it and have difficulty making ends meet. But it’s not like they have to apply for welfare benefits, for example,” Oshio said.
That said, the welfare ministry survey in 2009 put the relative poverty rate among single-parent households at 50.8 percent, which was the worst of all OECD nations in the latter’s 2014 ranking.
“Many single mothers, for example, try to make ends meet by working part-time as a supermarket cashier during the day and a staff clerk at a pachinko parlor till late at night. But no matter how hard they work, they can’t get out of poverty easily because it’s not full-time and wages are low in the first place,” Yamada of Keio University said.
In claiming that economic disparities have not widened, Abe has argued that the government’s wealth redistribution policy has helped keep the nation’s Gini coefficient unchanged over the years. The figure is a measure of inequality named after Italian statistician Corrado Gini. A Gini coefficient of 1 represents absolute inequality, with 0 a mark of equality.
Indeed, welfare ministry data show the post-redistribution Gini coefficient was 0.3814 in 1999 and hovered around that level for the next decade before easing to 0.3791 in 2011.
Oshio of Hitotsubashi University, however, said the leveling-off does not necessarily mean Japan’s redistribution has rectified inequality.
The current redistribution, he said, tends to overwhelmingly benefit the elderly at the sacrifice of working generations, with income transfers taking place from the young to the elderly in the form of pension payments and medical care.
“So it’s no wonder the Gini index has improved after wealth redistribution, but the question is, does the current system help young people in poverty?”
The answer is no. A 2011 welfare ministry survey shows that the Gini index improved an average 38.9 percent among those aged 60 or older after income redistribution, compared with 8.45 percent for working generations.
Downplaying Japan’s inequality solely based on the improvement of the Gini index, then, is “wrong,” Oshio said.
Plight of children
Earlier this month, UNICEF released a report that ranked Japan 34th among 41 developed nations in income equality involving households with children aged 17 and below.
The survey, UNICEF said, showed how far the most impoverished children in each country are being allowed to fall behind the average by comparing incomes of bottom-end households with children to those of the average. Subject to the survey were 41 member countries of the OECD and the European Union.
Japan, whose income gap was found to be 60.21 percent, was just ahead of Italy, Spain, Israel and Greece.
The result may come as a “shock to those (who assume) Japan is a relatively equal country and that not so many children suffer dire poverty,” Aya Abe, a professor of poverty studies at Tokyo Metropolitan University who analyzed the survey, concluded in the UNICEF report.
A survey released in March by Yamagata University associate professor Kensuke Tomuro found that despite the declining birthrate, the number of households with children aged up to 17 that subsist on welfare benefits or whose earnings are below welfare levels had doubled from 700,000 in 1992 to 1.46 million in 2012. Such households accounted for 13.8 percent of all child-rearing families in 2012, compared with 5.4 percent in 1992, Tomuro’s study found.
Tomuro attributed the increasing poverty to the decades of economic slump that led to a rise in nonregular workers, who are paid less than others. Tomuro said the study shows that poverty has been rising over the years.
“It is imperative that the government take active steps to curb nonregular employment and drastically improve minimum wages,” he said.
For the high school girl from Kanagawa Prefecture, low income means that she has to live a double life, trying to give her female friends an appearance of normalcy.
When they go shopping together, she lies and nonchalantly tells them she does not need to buy clothes because she has too many. The veneer of indifference is a desperate attempt to keep secret her domestic misery.
“I would never tell my friends what my life is really like, because saying those things aloud would only drive home further how different my life is from theirs,” she said.