While many people enjoyed a trip abroad during Golden Week, some in Japan languished homeless and hungry. Poverty is becoming a major problem that is threatening the basic social fabric of this nation.

In a July 2006 report, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said Japan had one of the highest rates of relative poverty — the percentage of the population that lives on one-half or less of the median income — among the OECD countries. Another OECD report showed that relative poverty in Japan in the mid-2000s, at around 15 percent, was the second-worst among the OECD nations following that of the United States at around 17 percent.

According to an August 2007 report, issued by the labor and welfare ministry every three years, the Gini coefficient, a measure of income distribution inequality, registered a record 0.5263 in 2005. As far as initial income is concerned, this is the first time it has topped 0.5. The past record of 0.4983 was registered in 2002. The closer the Gini coefficient approaches one, the worse the inequality.

Irregular workers now account for one-third of the nation’s workers. Because of the recession, enterprises have fired a large number of irregular workers. People in their 20s and 30s who cannot find work have become a fixed feature of the economy.

In 2007, 45.43 million people worked year-round. Of them, 3.66 million earned ¥1 million or less and 6.66 million between ¥1 million and ¥2 million. In total, 10.32 million earned less than ¥2 million, compared with 10.23 million the previous year. Given the current economic downturn, it would not be surprising if the number of workers earning less than ¥2 million a year has increased.

What is particularly worrisome is the replication of poverty as children from low-income families are unable to benefit from higher education. The government needs to work out effective support measures for low-income families, especially single-mother households, to prevent the nation heading into what members of the government’s Council and Economic and Fiscal Policy have termed a “society of lost hope.”

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