Commentary / Japan

Okinawa and the eradication of poverty

by Robert D. Eldridge

The United Nations becomes particularly busy during the fall, most prominently with the session of the General Assembly in late September attended by most world leaders.

There are also many quiet anniversaries during this fall season, including the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child on Nov. 20 this month.

One recent anniversary that passed, quietly, was the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty last month. That event marked the 27th anniversary of the General Assembly’s declaration, as per resolution 47/196 of Dec. 22, 1992, of Oct. 17 as the International Day.

The resolution had its origins with the Call to Action by Father Joseph Wresinski, the late French priest serving the poor, in Paris in 1987: “Wherever men and women are condemned to live in extreme poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty.”

According to the U.N. website, the day is about understanding that “Poverty is not solely an economic issue, but rather a multidimensional phenomenon that encompasses a lack of both income and the basic capabilities to live in dignity. Persons living in poverty experience many interrelated and mutually reinforcing deprivations that prevent them from realizing their rights and perpetuate their poverty, including: dangerous work conditions; unsafe housing; lack of nutritious food; unequal access to justice; lack of political power; and limited access to health care.”

I would add that it also leads to the lack of educational opportunities.

This is not just an issue for other countries, but also affect readers from the United States and here in Japan, including (or especially) Okinawa.

Okinawa, despite the large amounts of national funds coming into the prefecture annually, is historically one of the poorest in Japan. It ranks 46th in average annual income, based on data from the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare.

Furthermore, according to regular surveys conducted by Okinawa Prefecture of elementary and middle school students, many households live in poverty. A survey conducted in fiscal year 2018, which ran from April 1, 2018 to March 30, 2019, found that 25 percent of households in the prefecture with school-age children live in poverty. (This does not, of course, cover senior citizens, who are struggling even more due to living longer, increased medical costs and generally lower education, such as a lack of university or graduate school opportunities in their day.) A 2015 poll found it had been even worse — 29.9 percent.

According to Konosuke Kokuba, a Diet member representing Okinawa, who also takes up this issue in a fascinating recent book, this number represents more than twice that of Japan’s (13.9 percent, in 2015). Japan’s percentage (as of 2015 — no more recent data has been made public) is above the average among OECD countries, which makes Okinawa’s even worse. Between one out of three and one out of four children in the prefecture lives in poverty.

The Okinawa Prefectural Government survey set an annual income of ¥1.22 million as the poverty line for a household. This amounts to approximately $11,200. (In contrast, the U.S. poverty line for one person is $12,490 in 2019, in the 48 contiguous states, and $14,380 in Hawaii, which can be said to be the equivalent of Okinawa in this context).

In the case of 1st grade elementary school students in Okinawa, the rate of poverty is 22.6 percent, 5th graders, 26.7 percent, 7th graders (i.e., the first year of middle school), 25.9 percent.

Compared to the aforementioned survey, the situation improved 4.9 percentage points. However, it is still bad. Okinawa has the largest percentage of underage pregnancies, divorce and the largest percentage of non-regular employment.

As such, according to the 10th Prefectural Public Opinion Poll (Kenmin Ishiki Chosa) released in March this year (and conducted in August last year), 42.1 percent of respondents desired the prefectural government to address the issue of children’s poverty (kodomo no hinkon taisaku no suishin) as the No. 1 priority.

Interestingly, this response — the first time it appeared as an option in the polls — far outnumbered those (26.2 percent) desiring a resolution to the “base problem” (beigun kichi mondai no kaiketsu suishin), something most of us working on these issues knew instinctively. In other words, economic matters (which were also asked in the poll, in a number of ways) have always been high on the priority list, with the biggest one, despite there being no way to document it until now — being poverty and children’s issues.

According to the prefecture’s website, which includes the opinion polls as well, people there wanted the prefectural government to most focus on promoting the prefecture as a resort and tourist destination in the 9th poll (conducted in 2015) and on employment matters according to the 8th (conducted in 2012)

Now that the response — children’s poverty — appears on the survey, we can better see the reality in Okinawa (the local media having overly focused on base issues for ideological or political reasons for far too long over the clearly more important matter of children’s welfare and larger economic matters), and understand what is truly desired from Okinawa’s voters and citizens.

This, of course, does not mean base issues should not be addressed, but it is clearly calling on the prefecture to focus on raising the standards of living for its residents, and especially investing more in its children.

Robert D. Eldridge is a former tenured associate professor at Osaka University and the author of numerous works on Japan-U.S. relations including Okinawa and the U.S. Marines (Reed International, 2019).