Why can’t Japan cope with poverty?

While the Japanese government is preoccupied with such lofty issues as patriotism, defense and individual loyalty to the state, the society it supposedly nurtures is spiraling down in a cycle of class deprivation.

On May 18, the Lower House of the Diet passed legislation requiring schools to teach patriotism. Let us hope that patriotic blusterers and the jingoes of pride will not drown out calls for an equitable and just society.

That such calls are well founded is born out by no less an authority than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which publishes the results of its “Economic Survey of Japan” every 18 months to two years. The last one appeared in July 2006.

Chapter 4 of that survey stated that “Income inequality and relative poverty among the working-age population in Japan have risen to levels above the OECD average.” It goes on: “The impact of social spending on inequality and poverty is weak compared to other OECD countries and inadequate to offset the deterioration in market income.”

In other words, Japan is heading toward a hard-core class-riven society, one in which poverty is entrenched and the gap between the haves and the have-nots is too wide to bridge. Is this the kind of nation Japanese people wish to sing their loyal praises to at the top of their lungs?

There are, I believe, five reasons why Japan is struggling in its attempt to cope with the new specter of poverty and create that just society.

Unfortunate, deprived people

One: The traditional tendency in this society has been for people to help their own. Assistance to relatives and those in one’s close circle is generous. But while expressing personal sympathy to unfortunate or deprived people, Japanese people have long lacked the motivation or institutional means to lend them a hand. In the West there are an immense number of charities to aid the disadvantaged; in Japan, for the most part, charity starts and ends at home.

Two: In recent years, the notion of the so-called middle-class consciousness, describing the general belief that all Japanese people more or less live at the same level, has been debunked. Nevertheless, most Japanese still tend to feel that “we are all the same,” and pride themselves on their na sake (compassion). This misconception leads many to entertain a sneaking bias against those who don’t fit the mold. Lately, as the disadvantaged have come to be subtly blamed for their own lack of success, this has increasingly seen the emergence of an unfeeling (nasakeshirazu) society. In a country surrounded by seas, “sink or swim” is a heartless philosophy.

Three: This might be called the Dirty Linen Syndrome.

Japanese society is protective of its shame. It is not considered a virtue to air even the smallest shred of dirty linen in full view of the curious. Poverty is not often talked about, and so it appears to be either insignificant or non-existent. This tendency makes it hard for the disadvantaged to convey their plight to others.

Four: The population drain of young people from the countryside to the cities is flowing unabated, with Tokyo and Nagoya the most popular destinations. In consequence, services in villages and provincial cities are steadily running down as they become hard-pressed to provide for the remaining population. The knock-on effect is added strain on services — especially health services — in the big cities that attract these newcomers.

Five: Japan never adopted the systematic advantages of the European welfare society. When the neo-Confucian social fabric, with its beneficial consequences for family welfare, started to come undone after the war, the government did not replace it with safety nets to ensure that no individual would be left behind. This situation has been exacerbated by cuts in welfare by the administrations of ex-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and the current incumbent Shinzo Abe. “Let all Japanese fend for themselves” may benefit the entrepreneurial class, but it will never provide the means for those with less to begin with to better their station.

Let’s look specifically at one major group of disadvantaged people: single parents.

Dreams come true

The general portrait of the single parent is of a woman who must cope with a job and bringing up a child or children without help from a partner. Bear in mind that the rate of pay for a non-regular worker in Japan is, on average, only 60 percent of a regular worker’s. It is this disparity — more pronounced now than ever, and not likely to improve — that is creating a class of working poor, many of them single parents who are being ignored by the system.

The OECD survey reports that “Japan has a higher poverty rate for single parents who work than for those who are not employed,” adding: “Significant poverty among single parents is a factor boosting the child poverty rate to 14 percent in 2000, well above the OECD average.”

What does this augur for the future?

Funds in those deprived households will not be sufficient to put the children through university, and a hard core of class-based deprivation is sure to be be passed from one generation to the next.

It is important to be able to defend one’s country. It is admirable to feel pride in its achievements and the noble rush of patriotism in one’s blood. But do the flag-wavers and anthem-singers ask themselves the essential question? That question is: What is the reality we are rushing so fervently to defend?

A fender falls off a car and we can’t afford to fix it. A tooth falls out and we don’t have the money to replace it. An old woman, alone, falls onto the kitchen floor and no one comes to nurse her or take her to hospital.

This is what life and politics are about, and please, those of you who are rallying around the flag, do not forget it.

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