Owing to various social, cultural and legal factors, single-parent households, in particular those headed by women, remain one of the poorest demographics in Japan. In recent years, the domestic media has been paying more attention to single mothers in light of the government’s pledge to make women “shine,” especially in the workplace.

The labor ministry is set to release the latest results of its five-year survey of families, but in 2011, the last time they released results, there were 1.238 million single mothers in Japan whose average income was ¥2.23 million, and that includes government benefits and child support if the woman happens to be divorced. That amount represents about half the median income in Japan. What’s important to remember is that more than 80 percent of these women are employed, but the average income for single mothers is just ¥1.8 million a year. According to a Cabinet survey, 51 percent of single-mother households fall below the poverty line.

The problem appears to be obvious: These women have to raise families and make a living all by themselves, and some employers are not sympathetic to their special circumstances. However, with regional areas losing population and certain employment sectors seeing huge deficits in personnel, some groups are trying to attract single mothers with offers that take their special circumstances into consideration.

A recent article in the Tokyo edition of the Asahi Shimbun described a “social welfare corporation” in Machida, western Tokyo, that is specifically looking for single mothers as caregivers at the corporation’s nursing homes. The corporation, Gashoen, receives money from government programs to help run their facilities but has a problem with high turnover.

Gashoen recently completed construction of a two-story, 200-square-meter employee dormitory where single-parent families can live. The dorm is in the style of a “share house,” with a common kitchen and living-dining area and isolated 20-sq.-meter bedrooms for the employees and their children. The dormitory is located three minutes on foot from the nursing home where the women would work. An elementary school is nearby as well as child day care centers. Up to five single-mother families can live in the dormitory. Rent is fixed at ¥45,000 a month, including utilities.

Gashoen’s president told the Asahi that single mothers usually don’t like caregiving jobs because shifts tend to be irregular and they can’t take time off when a child-related emergency happens. Consequently, shifts at Gashoen’s nursing homes are fixed. Also, the nursing homes have play areas where employees can bring their children while they work if they have no other place to leave them and, in the case of an emergency, Gashoen staffers are dispatched to assist with employees’ children. They are also on hand to take care of kids right after an employee’s shift in order to allow single-mothers some time to themselves.

“We’ve created an environment where single mothers can live independently,” the president said. “We want to provide them with an alternative to just receiving welfare.”

Some local governments in rural areas are also soliciting single-parent households. In line with the central government’s scheme to “revitalize” regional towns and cities, local governments need to attract people from places like Tokyo. Single-parent households are especially appealing since they automatically come with children.

Officials of Hamada, Shimane Prefecture, for instance, provide subsidies to single-parent families who profess a willingness to settle down in their city. The main condition is that the family comes from outside the prefecture. On top of that, children must be high school age or younger. Single mothers are offered work at nursing care facilities in the city, and will receive training, meaning that women with no experience are welcome.

During the training period, the applicant receives a stipend of ¥150,000 a month. The city also will pay half her rent up to a maximum of ¥20,000 a month, as well as a “preparation allowance” that covers incidental expenses such as moving fees and deposits for housing.

Niigata has a similar program that is prefecture-wide. For single-parent families who pledge to move to Niigata, the prefecture will provide up to ¥150,000 in moving expenses, education subsidies of up to ¥30,000 a month for children of high school age and even government-backed loans for children of college age. The single parent, in fact, is not required to start paying back the loan until her income rises above ¥3 million a year. If the single parent takes a job in a caregiving facility, she will also be eligible for other grants.

Ueda, Nagano Prefecture, is supporting single-parent migration for a different reason. Ueda is famous for its Kakeyu hot spring, but due to a serious lack of manpower, various businesses cannot stay solvent. Some inns have gone out of business. Last week, Mainichi Shimbun profiled a local restaurant owner, Chizuko Iketa, who has been traveling to Tokyo to solicit single mothers to move to Kakeyu and settle down with their children. Using their own revitalization funds from the government, Iketa and her group, called Bambiyu, have so far paid for four single mothers to come to Ueda and reside there temporarily “to see what it’s like.” If they do like it, they will get jobs at local businesses. Kakeyu’s main appeal to these women is its “culture of mutual support.” Neighbors watch one another’s children, share food and information, and organically cultivate a community-based support system.

“We cannot provide a lot in the way of money,” Iketa told the Mainichi, “but we think single mothers can raise their children here much more easily than in a big city.” They have limited their solicitations to single mothers with children of elementary school age or younger, since another reason for inviting single-mother families is to bring more young people to town who have a chance of staying there permanently. Bambiyu works to match recruits with employers, which range from tourist industry businesses to care providers, and looks for rental properties that accept single-parent families.

With a level playing field and proper consideration given to the special needs of their families, single mothers should be able to make enough of a living to support themselves and their children, but as it stands many have to work multiple jobs just to get by. The aforementioned schemes are, of course, designed to be beneficial to employers, though Gashoen has won several business awards for its single-mother employment program. The point is to make it work for everyone.

Yen for Living covers issues related to making, spending and saving money in Japan on the second and fourth Sundays of the month.

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