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The perceived widening in the gap between the haves and have-nots in Japan has become a frequent topic of public debates. Those conscious of the gap refer to it as a negative byproduct of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s reforms. Meanwhile, the government denies that the income gap is growing.

Opinions are divided even among experts. In the world of politics, however, grassroots perception and feelings play an important part. Greater political attention should be paid to the feelings people have about their society. Unless efforts are made to nip this problem in the bud, a large number of “losers” could eventually wreak havoc on the social fabric.

According to the statistics of the Internal Affairs Ministry, income inequality as expressed by the “Gini” coefficient has been increasing. The coefficient, which stood at 0.271 in 1979, rose to 0.297 in 1994, and to 0.308 in 2004. The higher the coefficient, the greater the inequality. At the theoretical maximum of 1.0, one person would control the entire wealth of the nation.

The government’s explanation is that the rise in the figure is due mainly to an increase in the number of households of unemployed retired people and of younger, low-paid, part-time workers. It says the disparities are not substantial and denies that Japanese society is polarizing between the haves and have-nots. Opposition parties point to other factors.

About one-third of the nation’s workers are classified as low-wage irregulars, including part-time and temporary workers. Many of these people feel stuck in their status. Young people with a shaky employment status are commonly known as “freeters” — frequently hopping from one unskilled job to another with little chance of building a career — and as NEETs (those not in employment, education or training). The number of freeters aged 15 to 34 jumped from 1.83 million in 1990 to 4.17 million in 2001, according to the Cabinet Office’s May 2003 White Paper on National Lifestyle.

Opposition forces also point to the fact that more than 30,000 Japanese people kill themselves annually, about 8,000 of them for financial reasons. The number of households receiving governmental livelihood assistance increased from some 751,000 in fiscal 2000 to 1,039,000 in fiscal 2005. The percentage of schoolchildren receiving education-related public financial assistance increased from 8.8 percent in fiscal 2000 to 12.8 percent in fiscal 2004.

The percentage of households with no savings to speak of rose from 12.4 percent in fiscal 2000 to 23.8 percent in fiscal 2005. While executives’ salaries and corporate dividends in fiscal 2004 amounted to 1.9 trillion yen more than in fiscal 2000, total wages for workers were 2.5 trillion yen lower.

At one time, an overwhelming majority of Japanese felt they belonged to the middle class. Such a perception is eroding fast. These days, people have begun mentioning words like “winners” and “losers” and “the lower class.”

This awareness reflects the fact that the number of people earning less than half the nation’s average income has been on the increase. In one poll, 75 percent of the pollees said they felt the gap in income levels was widening.

As the Japanese economy went through a slump for more than a decade, the government took the stance that a certain degree of income inequality arising from economic-stimulus measures, such as deregulation, was acceptable.

Prime Minister Koizumi said at a Diet session earlier this year: “The existence of inequality is not necessarily bad. It is important for people to compete, learning from each other’s differences.” At the same time, he said, “It is necessary to offer another chance to people, enterprises and communities that have become losers.”

While Mr. Koizumi upholds the principle of competition, Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki has put forward an opinion quite different from that of Mr. Koizumi in emphasis. At a party of the Tochigi prefectural chapter of the Liberal Democratic Party, he said, “We have a duty to show people that the goal of reform is never to create a society in which the strong prey upon the weak.”

Whatever the government’s basic policy orientation, to simply let the gap between the haves and the have-nots continue to grow would be unacceptable, since too large a gap signifies social injustice in itself and threatens to destabilize society.

The policy measures that politicians need to consider include job training and education for “losers,” educational opportunities for children irrespective of their parents’ income, and effective taxation measures that help to redistribute income.

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