The Japanese New Year’s tradition of giving children otoshidama money in a special envelope may be special, but it has little meaning for the 15 percent of children, more than 3 million youngsters, living below the poverty line in Japan.

According to a new global study of the well-being of children by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Japan ranked sixth among developed countries overall, but had one of the worst rates of child poverty.

The survey of the lives of young people up to age 17 in the relatively wealthy countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that Japan may admirably rank number one in some areas, such as education or risky behavior.

However, in other areas, such as housing and environment where Japan was 10th, health and safety where Japan came in at 16th place and material well-being with a dismal 21st, Japan clearly is not taking good care of its most precious resource — its children.

The survey revealed that Japan has one of the highest child-poverty rates among developed countries, coming in 22nd out of 31 nations.

With the poverty line defined as half the median disposable household income of around ¥2.5 million, about 15 percent of Japan’s children are living in households below the poverty line of ¥1.25 million annual income.

Further details of the survey reveal a picture of life for Japanese youth that is increasingly unfair and desperately in need of improvement.

Closer examination of how far below the poverty line children’s households fall shows even greater unfairness.

In Japan, 30 percent of those below the poverty line live in households with less than the median income of others in poverty. That means the extreme poor in Japan make up a larger percentage of the poor than in all except five other OECD nations. The children of this group are largely excluded from the advantages and opportunities other children in Japan consider normal.

That poverty gap also means that many Japanese children do not have the basics for learning and living.

The survey’s child deprivation rate examined how many of the most basic items were absent from the child’s home: books, outdoor leisure equipment, indoor games, money for school trips, a quiet place to do homework, an Internet connection, new clothes, the opportunity to celebrate.

While most people have the image of Japan as a country awash in material goods, Japan placed 20th in this measure of child deprivation, worse than almost all long-established high-income countries.

Japanese children’s health and safety fell in the middle of all countries’ ranking. While Japan did well in areas such as infant mortality rates and childhood immunization, Japan also had an extremely high percentage of babies born with low birthweight, a predictor of future health problems.

Japan came in last for birthweight with a rate that doubled over the past 30 years. Causes for the problem include an increase in smoking among young women, stricter diets during pregnancy and perhaps, most importantly, an increase in income disparity.

Japan did rank first in the educational well-being of children. However, that ranking was based on high scores in PISA tests of reading, math and science and high preschool enrollment rates.

While that high ranking is encouraging, it does not examine the quality of education; it is based only on numerical results and participation numbers.

In particular, Japan needs to provide more and better preschool education, which research has shown is a key contributor to future educational success and one of the best ways to reduce poverty.

More accurate and detailed data on children’s lives is greatly needed. The UNESCO survey is a step in the right direction, but it also points out how little is known about Japanese children’s lives. Most of the data on which the analysis was based came from surveys of children aged 11 to 15. Much less is known about Japan’s younger children.

In Canada and Australia, initiatives are under way to have teachers and schools provide information on children’s lives. Japan should do the same.

Newer, more accurate data cobbled together from different sources paints a much darker picture of childhood in Japan. Much of the data used in the survey, such as the figures for exercising and bullying, is years out of date.

The survey also failed to include input on such basic elements of children’s lives as mental and emotional health, violence and child abuse, and the effect of the media on the commercialization and sexualization of childhood.

In June 2013, Japan enacted the “Law on Measures to Counter Child Poverty,” the first law in Japan even using the word “poverty.” The law mandates that the government must enact policy and practical means to reduce and eliminate child poverty. It remains to be seen whether the government is going to take that law seriously.

Whatever Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government may have in mind for the larger economy, the economy will not, without adequate guidance, careful attention and considered intervention, help children’s lives.

Children cannot themselves take responsibility for their material and environmental conditions. They must be helped. The best otoshidama for all Japan’s children would be eliminating their poverty.

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