National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Japan’s never-ending struggle to keep poverty at bay

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

The first coverage of poverty in Japan’s weekly business magazines may be traced back the spring of 2009, when Weekly Diamond, in its March 21 cover story, purported to expose “The poverty you don’t know.” The timing of the issue came six months after the bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers brokerage the previous September.

One month earlier, Takashi Kadokura, a prolific writer on the subject of Japan’s underground economy, published a 206-page paperback titled “Hinkon business” (“poverty business”), which examined a new segment of the economy: Niche businesses that cater to people without much money. Among them: realtors catering to tenants who can’t come up with “key money” deposits for apartments, and all-night internet cafes equipped with showers, to provide a roof for urban “refugees” who can only afford housing on a day-to-day basis. Also around this time, a pet breeder in Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, began renting out cats to animal lovers who lacked the means to own a full-time pet.

Now nine years later, Toyo Keizai magazine (April 14) reexamined the theme of poverty with an article headlined “Rensa suru hinkon” (“chain reaction poverty”) and concluded that Japan’s society has fragmented into classes based on income. According to a survey of 35 countries, child poverty in Japan in 2013, as defined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, fell below the world average, but improved by 2.4 percentage points from 2012 to 2015.

One of the topics that inspired the issue was the announcement by the Taimei Elementary School in Tokyo’s Ginza district, which from the new school year were decked out in Armani brand uniforms costing roughly double the price of ordinary school clothing.

The Asahi Shimbun (March 1) reported that students at Taimei had been “pinched and scorned by strangers in the streets,” who were apparently incensed at what they viewed as unacceptable snobbishness. The school was forced to bring in additional security guards and request increased police patrols in the neighborhood.

At the bottom of the economic pyramid, Toyo Keizai identifies some 9.29 million workers — 14.9 percent of those employed — as belonging to Japan’s economic “underclass.” With an average annual income of ¥1.86 million, 38.7 percent fall below the poverty line. Another 31.5 percent claim to have zero savings and no property or other assets.

A five-page report on the underclass introduced several disadvantaged people who have been feeling the pinch. “Reiko,” a 44-year-old divorcee in Sapporo raising two teenagers on her own, works as a care provider in a rest home.

“After the prices for cabbage soared this past winter, I could only afford bean sprouts,” she complains bitterly. “Or else I’d go to a discount supermarket that sold imported vegetables like broccoli from China or spinach from Vietnam.”

Reiko expresses concerns that due to poor nutrition her two children may be shorter than average, a situation for which she blames herself. Her ex-hubby’s child monthly support payments of ¥50,000 have been in arrears for over a year. To make up for the shortfall, one person subtly suggested she seek part-time employment in the sex business. But a back injury resulted in a further decline in income, and she feels a sense of increasing desperation and hopelessness.

“I’ve got to keep on living for the sake of my children,” she says. “But when my older one says to me, ‘Mom, I want to go to university, so please take out a loan,’ I feel so pathetic that I just want to die.”

Others refuse to give up, but the pickings tend to be slim.

“Even when the stock market averages went up under Abenomics, people’s real wages kept going down,” economist Takuro Morinaga observed to Flash magazine (May 1). “So while just a tiny portion of people may be making money, a majority of salarymen are feeling the hard times.”

One potential avenue of escape from poverty is to engage in “Hin-tech,” a portmanteau created from hinkon (poverty) and technology, aimed at people lacking the economic to harness IT services. Call it the poor-man’s counterpart to “fintech” (financial technology).

According to Nikkei Business (May 7), these services include converting unneeded items to cash; using credit services for shopping; receiving needed infusions of cash prior to regular payday; requesting funds from friends and colleagues; and automatic additions of small amounts to an electronic piggy bank.

Spa! (June 12-19) is convinced that the solution to a shortfall of money is transform oneself into a small-time “operator.” Its latest issue featured 15 quasi-legal ways that some people have undertaken to obtain lucrative side incomes. No. 1 is to take advantages of the disparity between retail prices in the U.S. and Japan, searching out popular merchandise on America’s Amazon.com and then reselling them here, after applying a healthy markup.

Some of the others engage in data mining at one’s company dormitory; buying up bottles of expensive whisky, such as Suntory’s Yamasaki, by winning low bids on Yahoo! Auction, and then reselling them a shot glass at a time — with a threefold price markup — at a privately operated drinking establishment.

The most far-fetched item on Spa’s list is to provide guidance to “deep tourism” to spots generally inaccessible to foreign visitors. A 40-year-old man named Keisuke Kanda (a pseudonym) operates an “underground travel agency” in which, as he puts it, “I take customers on custom-designed package tours that no respectable agency will touch.” Along with word-of-mouth referrals, Kanda advertises his services on travel-related websites.

Kanda’s customers are expected to pay the full amount up front, in cash, on the day of the tour. He drives them around in his own car. “If needed, I’ll hire an interpreter,” he says. “At this point, it’s become just like any other job, so things have got pretty easy.”

“I’ve been running tours at the rate of once a week,” Kanda says. “Right now, that earns me plenty.”

What sort of services are we talking about? Among the secretive spots to which Kanda has escorted customers include a tour to dine on porpoise meat in the much-maligned fishing town of Taiji in Wakayama; a visit to the Tobita Shinchi brothel quarters of Osaka; or even courtesy calls to the business offices of underground crime syndicates.

While Kanda’s rates vary on a case-by-case basis, he generally charges at least ¥100,000 per head, with a minimum of three customers. (“Meals are charged extra,” he added.)

Of late, he’s been assisting wealthy Asian customers interested in encounters with the female sex, girls in the flesh trade or even adult video performers. In a recent windfall, he arranged for seven of them, at ¥200,000 per head, to enjoy a scrumptious repast of sushi a la nyotaimori, atop a nude female model’s torso.

“My satisfied customers introduce their friends to me,” Kanda says. “It’s been great fun building up the business.”