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In a Sept. 30 speech outlining his policy platform, Fumio Kishida, the newly elected president of the Liberal Democratic Party and prime minister-in-waiting, outlined a strategy he dubbed “the Reiwa Era’s Income Doubling Plan.”

“Income doubling” is a not-so-subtle reference to the plan advanced by then-ascendant Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda in 1960. He would retire four years later, but under his successor, Eisaku Sato, the Japanese economy continued to surpass 10% annual growth, and its gross national product doubled in less than seven years.

Kishida, stating that as long as the fruits of growth “are concentrated only among some people… we cannot establish a healthy economic cycle,” has vowed to redistribute wealth through the boosting of people’s wages “so more can join the middle class.”

A man struggles to sell The Big Issue magazine in Osaka amid the pandemic because the number of passersby has dropped. The magazine offers homeless people an opportunity to earn a legitimate income. | KYODO
A man struggles to sell The Big Issue magazine in Osaka amid the pandemic because the number of passersby has dropped. The magazine offers homeless people an opportunity to earn a legitimate income. | KYODO

Just a few weeks earlier, business magazine Diamond (Sept. 9) ran a wide-ranging, 36-page section titled, “The new class society (composed of) the privileged class and impoverished middle class,” and from its descriptions of how conditions have deteriorated — particularly since the onset of the pandemic — Kishida will certainly have his work cut out for him.

“Why isn’t anyone able to improve their status?” Diamond asked in its introduction. “The image of the Japanese as a middle-class nation of 100 million has collapsed, with society’s once-robust middle rapidly turning into an underclass. In this irrational world, classes are becoming more like ‘modern-day castes,’ determined by such things as family lineage, educational background and economic climate during a person’s term of employment.”

In a two-page interview, Waseda University human sciences professor Kenji Hashimoto tells Diamond that Japan’s class disparities began to widen from around 1980, but “the present ‘corona shock’ has brought to an end to any illusion of a middle class of 100 million.”

Hashimoto points out that the government erred at the start of the pandemic when it designated which entities were “nonessential.” This move had a severe impact on small retailers, food and beverage businesses, as well as the workers employed therein.

Through a survey conducted in Japan’s three major metropolitan areas earlier this year, Hashimoto found the pandemic hit two lower-income segments of the population particularly hard. The first group comprises the 7.1 million households that were formerly middle class, generally characterized by self-employed individuals or those working for a family business. This group’s average annual income fell from ¥8.05 million in 2019 to ¥6.78 million in 2020, and 20.4% of their total fell below the poverty line.

The second group, made up of the 9.13 million households belonging to the so-called underclass, includes housewives and others who are contract workers or employed on a part-time basis. They saw their income affected by fewer working days and reduced hours, the number of days they were unable to go to work, and changes in their terms of employment. While their income dropped by an average of ¥530,000, that was enough to push an additional 5.3% of them below the poverty level — making 38% of such households impoverished.

While those in the top monied class have also seen their incomes decline, most of them have the assets to circumvent any emergency measures imposed by the pandemic. Subscription services are one such luxury. Shukan Post (Oct. 8) took a look at the deals offered by ritzy hotels in Tokyo such as the Imperial Hotel.

“The Imperial even set up a beer server in my room, which I really appreciated,” says Mr. A (and the “A” here might stand for affluence). The Imperial Hotel, Tokyo offers a 30-day subscription fee for ¥750,000, and in A’s view, paying this amount is more sensible than losing the time he needs to conduct his business.

“Nevertheless, one thing I’ve realized is that living in a hotel is surprisingly inconvenient,” he adds. “The nature of my work has me staying in hotels all over the country, so returning home to one seems kind of pointless.”

Even though Japan has compulsory national health insurance, a report in Spa magazine (Oct. 5) pointed to sharp contrasts in health awareness between people with an annual income below ¥3 million, compared with those earning ¥10 million or more.

Spa’s survey, conducted last month, covered 500 men and 500 women, ranging in age from 40 to 59 years. The subjects were queried regarding exercise, dietary habits, hours of sleep per night, the frequency of health checkups and reasons for refraining from consulting a doctor.

In comparison with 86% of the more affluent individuals who gave positive responses, 57% in the lower income bracket said they arrange for physical check-ups one or more times a year. (But 20% in the lower income segment replied they had never undergone a physical check-up.)

Unfortunately some, like 27-year-old day laborer Yoshihiko Fukuchi (a pseudonym), may be beyond the reach of Japan’s social safety net. Spending his nights in an internet cafe when he could afford it and sleeping on park benches when he couldn’t, his diet consisted mainly of instant noodles or low-quality boxed meals. When the work dried up due to COVID-19, he finally sought out a public welfare facility but, four days later, he passed out on the street, striking the back of his head when he fell.

Regaining consciousness aboard an ambulance, he recalled being more concerned about his ability to pay the hospital bill than his condition. Doctors attributed his blackout to anemia brought on by malnutrition, and he refused to be hospitalized.

“The bill came to ¥25,800. I didn’t even have ¥10,000 to my name, but I took an advance on wages from the boss where I was working part time,” he tells Spa. “Fortunately, the health insurance came through and covered 70% of the charges.”

Kishida, who became prime minister on Oct. 4, clearly faces an uphill battle.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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