With many young adults struggling to pay off student loans, anti-poverty advocates launched an online campaign Monday to call on the government to join other developed countries in instituting a scholarship program.

The online campaign on petition forum Change.org comes amid rising criticism that Japan lags significantly behind other industrialized nations in investing in efforts to help financially underprivileged students pursue university-level education.

The underlying problem, the campaigners said, lies in what is commonly called the shogakukin system, which uses a word that literally means scholarship but essentially consists of student loans in disguise.

“Many financially challenged children hesitate to advance to higher education, or some of them even end up working in the sex industry to repay the debts,” said Hiroki Komazaki, chief campaigner and founder of the nonprofit group Florence, which dispatches nurses to homes to look after sick children.

Japan’s “extremely flimsy” efforts to assist poor students, Komazaki continued, poses a glaring contrast with other developed countries, where free access to universities or full-fledged scholarships are increasingly taken for granted.

The petitioners, Komazaki said, are looking to collect about 50,000 signatures in a month’s time and submit them to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

Although a long-standing issue, the scholarship conundrum was catapulted into the political spotlight recently as both ruling and opposition lawmakers began campaigning to woo 18- and 19-year-olds ahead of this summer’s crucial Upper House election, which will be the first to observe the new minimum voting age of 18.

The Liberal Democratic Party unveiled a draft proposal last month on how to carry out Abe’s push for “dynamic engagement of all citizens,” suggesting, among other things, that Japan consider introducing an interest-free student loan or a scholarship program. The opposition-leading Democratic Party is promoting a scholarship program, too.

In contrast with Japan’s title as the world’s third-largest economy, the gravity of its child poverty and widening income disparities has increasingly come to light in recent years.

Last month, UNICEF released a report that ranked Japan 34th out of 41 developed nations in household income equality involving children aged up to 17, placing it just ahead of Italy, Spain, Israel and Greece.

A 2014 OECD survey, meanwhile, found Japan’s “relative poverty rate” in 2009 of 16.0 percent to be the sixth-worst among its 34 members and much higher than the global average of 11.3 percent. The relative poverty rate refers to the percent of the population that is living below the poverty line, defined as half the median income of the total population.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.