Poverty in Japan

The failures of progress

By William Wetherall

A series of three articles
commissioned but not published by
PHP Intersect

Filed 25 September 1988
Posted December 2002


Part 1: Poverty in perspective
Part 2: Individual poverty
Part 3: Community poverty


The three articles in this series reveal the most predominant forms of poverty in Japan and show how they are part of the human condition in Japan as they are in all complex societies. The articles focus on socio-economic, psychocultural, and political factors that favor or discourage poverty. The main features of poverty are dramatized by specific cases.

Part 1: Poverty in perspective

The failures of progress:
Save-the-world fantasies ignore Japan's own needy

Japan on the world map of poverty, past and present
Distribution of wealth
Kinds of poverty
Attitudes toward poverty
Economic class as factor in social pathology
Trends and future prospects

Part 2: Individual poverty

The "undeserving" poor:
Some needy individuals find benevolence in short supply

The public assistance system and the people on relief
Low income and fatherless families
The chronically sick
Older people with inadequate pensions
The homeless
Welfare fraud

Part 3: Community poverty

Regional, social, and ethnic underclasses:
Some regions and groups getting less of the pie

Poverty in economically depressed prefectures (Fukuoka and Okinawa)
Day-laborer ghettos (San'ya)
Minority communities (Korean, burakumin, Ainu)

Part 1: Poverty in perspective

Japan is commonly described as either a rich country of people who live poorly, or a country that knows no poverty because its wealth is well distributed. Neither image conveys the extent that Japan's rich and poor share the problems of their counterparts in other countries. For in Japan, too, some people live easily with or without wealth, while most survive through hard work and thrift. And some of the few who have no food or shelter die or take their own lives.

Japan's dominant image, though, is one of conspicuous well-being in a country that only four decades ago lay ruined by war. Food was scarce and anything bought in a department store was a luxury. Today, however, most children grow up taking well-stocked refrigerators and biweekly garbage collections for granted. Critics who believe that the new affluence is weakening moral character are worried about spiritual more than physical poverty.

As Japan's wealth has increased by international standards, both the Japanese government and private enterprises have been contributing more economic assistance to poorer countries. And more of Japan's wealthy denizens are joining the club of international philanthropists who try to save the world's sick and starving through charities.

More municipalities and civic groups are also jumping on the "internationalization" bandwagon by donating money or goods to sister cities or poor countries. But in their rush to spread their goodwill, some Japanese have embarrassed people in other countries by treating them as poor. In May 1988, Tokyo's Toshima Ward donated 100 abandoned bicycles to Malaysia. The Malaysian Embassy in Tokyo diplomatically accepted the bikes but did not appreciate such signs of Japanese stereotypes about poverty in Malaysia-one of Asia's richer countries.

Even middle-class office workers are vulnerable to pangs of guilt about Japanese waste in a world of want. In 1985, during a burst of media concern about famine and mass starvation in Ethiopia, a weekly magazine for businessmen ran a photo of a "soapland" bath girl immersed to her D-cups in a tile tub filled with milk. Below this picture was another of a black boy sucking his mother's shriveled breast, and the facing page showed the food that office workers had left on their plates at a company banquet.

Missing from this photo-journalistic attempt at commute-time consciousness-raising was a shot of a street bum picking a meal out of the refuse cans behind the banquet hall, late at night or early in the morning, before garbage trucks took the leftovers to the dump. Or a facsimile of a medical examiner's autopsy report on a man, woman, or child found dead of starvation-in Japan.

Apathy about the poor and ignorance of their existence are common even in Japan, which prides itself on being one big family that takes good care of its own. In the minds of most of the country's securely employed, well fed and smartly dressed population, Japan is supposed to be ethnically and educationally inoculated against the virus that has struck other welfare states.

Indelible memories of food shortages and other forms of material deprivation in their own generation have not necessarily prepared even Japan's older leaders to understand physical destitution in other countries. The country is awash with misconceptions about how people around the world respond to personal economic failure.

"Japanese, when bankrupt, seriously think of night escape or family murder-suicide, but the schmucks over there [in the United States] where credit cards abound, there are lots of blacks, [and they think] 'We're bankrupt already. Tomorrow we don't have to pay back anything.' That's all. [They have no qualms about doing such things]."

These were the words of former finance minister Michio Watanabe, in July 1988, at a Liberal-Democratic Party confab in Karuizawa, where two years earlier, then prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone had called Japan a more "intelligent society" than the United States because the U.S. had many blacks and Puerto Ricans. Both Nakasone and Watanabe were expressing the widely held belief that Japan owes its economic success and social order to its relatively homogeneous population.

Watanabe was ignorant of the fact that some American parents, too, flee into the night, or kill their kids and themselves, rather than go through bankruptcy. And if he had joined the student tour to India in 1986, and visited Patna some 500 kilometers northwest of Calcutta, he would have seen the place where in February that same year a man had poisoned his wife and six children, and then himself, because he could not make ends meet.

In July 1986, a Kyoto tourist agency organized a tour for high school students to see a Calcutta slum. Had the agency not been forced to cancel the tour, thousands of elite youth might have been shown the kind of abject suffering that has moved a few similarly "enlightened" adults to return to Japan and mount ideological campaigns against the "capitalist" and "racist" injustices of white Christian civilization.

The Japanese travel agency had its heart in the right pocket book. It figured that if more Japanese students could witness deprivation, they would realize how well-off they were and take more pride in being Japanese. They would stop bullying their classmates, and rather than question the purpose of their education, they would dream of saving the world by exporting Japan's clearly superior moral traditions to culturally disadvantaged countries like India. This would have pleased prime minister Nakasone, who had long been preaching that Japan's role as an "international state" is to help the world rescue itself from decline through knowledge about Japan and its compassionate ways.

Whatever its ideological intentions, however, Indians in Japan were incensed by the plan. The Indian government tourist office reportedly refused to cooperate with the agency. An officer of the Kansai chapter of the Japan-India Association called the tour "inhumane" and said that the students could see poverty in Japan. The agency withdrew its first pamphlet and issued one proposing what a published letter from the Embassy of India in Tokyo called "a wholesome and interesting tour of India for youth from Japan."

Indeed, a good "poverty tour" of Tokyo alone would take several days. And the tourist would see most kinds of poverty that exist in other countries.

A tour guide might sum up Japan's poverty trends like this:

Part 2: Individual poverty covers individual poverty in Japan-public assistance, isolated people on relief, low income and single-parent families, the chronically sick, older people with inadequate pensions, homeless men and women, starvation, and welfare fraud.

Part 3: Community poverty examines community poverty-economically depressed localities, day-laborer ghettoes, and minority groups.

Part 2: Individual poverty

On the whole, Japan's social security and welfare programs do what they are supposed to do: redistribute part of the nation's wealth on the basis of need, in accordance with Article 25 of the Constitution, which reads: "All people shall have the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living. In all spheres of life, the State shall use its endeavor for the promotion and extension of social welfare and security, and of public health."

The best overall measure of the social security enjoyed in Japan, if not nearly full employment, may be the medical coverage rate: over 98 percent of all people in Japan are protected by health insurance. Most adults have pension insurance (though many pensions pay too little to live on), and the incomes of most full-time workers are insured against unemployment and disability. There are also special welfare programs for the mentally and physically handicapped, the elderly, refugees, orphaned children, single-parent families, and other individuals and families with little or no income. The one percent who constitute Japan's bedrock poor-individuals and families with no means of support-qualify for public assistance under the Livelihood Protection Law, which provides benefits in cash and in kind in seven categories: livelihood, education, housing, medical care, maternal care, occupation, and funerals. This law also permits a basic tax exemption, and it pays supplementary allowances to women who are pregnant or have just given birth, and to elderly people, fatherless families, handicapped people, homebound patients, radiation disorder patients, and orphans and foster children. And it enables emergency aid for victims of fire and other disasters.

The number of people on relief has been decreasing since fiscal 1951, when an average 2,046,646 individuals in 699,662 households a month received some kind of public assistance. By 1986, these figures had dropped to 1,348,163 individuals in 746,355 households. Because the population was rising, the individual assistance rate fell from 2.42 percent of the population in 1951 to 1.11 percent in 1986.

While the government claims that a lower relief rate is a sign of health, some of the decline may reflect pressure to reduce the public assistance portion of the increasing welfare budget. A few years ago the Ministry of Health started a campaign which sought to eliminate welfare fraud but also encouraged some municipalities to make public assistance benefits more difficult to receive and even apply for.

In his 1988 book "Fukushi" ga hito o korosu toki (When "welfare" kills people), former social worker Terakubo Mitsuyoshi examined the widely reported case of a divorced mother of three who died, possibly of self-starvation, after she had been cut off of welfare. Terakubo charged that, although the woman had been legally qualified to receive public assistance, the city office pressured her to take on more part-time work and to try get money from her former husband.

Critics like Terakubo feel that, despite constitutional guarantees and welfare standards, some elite bureaucrats do not believe that poor people have a right to public assistance, and tend to see themselves as upholders of traditional work and family ethics. As though to agree with this assessment, the Ministry of Welfare has been experimenting with job training programs to get more people off relief, and it wants to rejuvenate the extended family as a means of minimizing the state's increasing geriatric costs. The Livelihood Protection Law is already on the side of extended family ideology, for it makes adults legally responsible for the support of their parents and even adult offspring.

Statistics suggest that most people on relief are indeed those who have no family to support them. The number single member households on relief has increased from about 25 percent in 1951 to 58.1 percent in 1986. Half of these are sick or disabled people, and most of the rest are elderly.

The percentage of fatherless households has remained relatively constant. After dropping from roughly 15 percent in 1955 to 14 percent in 1965 and 10 percent in 1975, it was back up to 14.5 percent in 1986. The rise after the drop is related to the increase in baby-boom couples and hence more women who are vulnerable to separation through death or divorce.

Physical poverty is not only a question of how much money an individual or family needs to survive, but how well a person can manage even limited resources. Employment is only element of security, and a jobless person with no family support must rely on the state or live on the streets, where life is harsh but not impossible.

Roughly 100,000 people in Japan have no fixed address. Most are day laborers temporarily down on their luck. Many are permanently homeless people who cannot hold jobs because of mental illness or alcoholism. Very few are women who, for many reasons including sexual discrimination, are more readily employed in the service industry.

Various forms of emergency aid and counseling are available to homeless people who seek help. But public assistance cannot be paid unless the recipient is settled. And though some homeless people accept shelter or even hospitalization and agree to undergo treatment and training for the purpose of receiving welfare benefits, the rate of return to the streets is high.

Intact families rarely become homeless for even short periods of time. Unemployment and other economic difficulties trigger divorce or abandonment, which result the children being raised by one parent. A man or woman with a good job and family or other support can make it. A woman with no community support and minimum-wage part-time jobs may find herself unable to pay the rent. Such mothers can usually find shelter in homes which provide private rooms with kitchen and other apartment-like facilities, and counseling.

As of 30 April 1988, some 21 public and 20 private facilities in Tokyo were accommodating 778 fatherless families with 1,197 children, 57 percent of which were between the ages of 6 and 14 while 36 percent were younger. Some 34 percent of the mothers were receiving one or more kind of allowance under public assistance. The other mothers had jobs to supplement child support allowances. Half of the mothers were in their 30s, a third were over 40, and most of the rest were in their late 20s.

Japan does not have an official poverty line. But a model welfare family is defined for statistical purposes. From 1946 to 1959, the model family had 5 members: a 64-year-old man, a 35-year-old woman, a 9-year-old boy, a 5-year-old girl, and a 1-year-old boy. From 1960 to 1985, the model family had 4 members: a 35-year-old man who was sick, a 30-year-old woman who worked, a 9-year-old boy in elementary school, and a 4-year-old girl. Since 1986, the model family has had 3 members: a 33-year-old man, a 29-year-old woman, and 4-year-old child.

In 1988, the basic livelihood allowance for a model family of four in the Tokyo area was 165,353 yen. A 9,000 yen housing allowance, a 1,750 yen education allowance, and a 22,940 yen tax deduction would have brought the monthly assistance to 198,943 yen.

Every year, the Ministry of Health computes average annual incomes for a sample of a few thousand families throughout Japan. In 1986, the average monthly income for households in the lowest 25 percent of the income distribution was 135,000 yen compared to 820,000 yen for households in the highest 25 percent. Since these figures are for households of all sizes, and because there are more smaller (especially single-member) households in the lower income levels, the quartile averages converge when they are compared for only four-member households.

Other data shows that the average monthly income for four-member households is no more than 225,000 yen in the lower quartile and no less than 675,000 yen in the upper quartile. The lower quartile figure is not much higher than the 193,667 yen a month that a model family of four could have gotten in 1986. Though these figures are very rough, they suggest that, conservatively, no less than 10 percent (and as many as 20 percent) of all households in Japan are living on incomes lower than the de facto poverty line.

Part 1: Poverty in perspective looks at attitudes toward poverty, kinds of poverty, distribution of wealth, economic class and social pathology, and trends and prospects.

Part 3: Community poverty examines community poverty-economically depressed localities, day-laborer ghettoes, and minority groups.

Part 3: Community poverty

Poverty can strike any individual unable to make ends meet. But communities, too, are vulnerable to poverty if many of their members are subject to conditions like recession, or like discrimination in education and employment, which result in greater need for public assistance. In Japan, some regions have high relief rates because of local economic or industrial problems, while a number of minority groups are more dependent on relief than the general population.

The individual relief rate varies considerably by prefecture. 1986 saw highs in Fukuoka (3.89 percent), Kochi (2.47 percent), Okinawa (2.20 percent), and Hokkaido (2.09 percent), and lows in Aichi (0.28 percent), Gifu (0.31 percent), and Toyama and Shizuoka (0.33 percent). Generally speaking, the region of Japan just west of Tokyo has the lowest rates, while Kyushu, the Pacific side of Shikoku, and Hokkaido and northern Honshu have the highest rates.

Nationwide, relief rates are lower in rural than in urban areas (respectively 1.09 and 1.21 percent in 1985). The urban/rural difference is also seen in each region, hence Tokyo prefecture's rate (1.09 percent in 1986) is near the national rate but is nearly double the rates of all surrounding prefectures. The rates of western Honshu prefectures like Kyoto (1.29 percent) and Osaka (1.26 percent) are also higher than the surrounding prefectures, though Hyogo prefecture is a comparatively low (0.72 percent). Moreover, the relief rates for the cities of Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe are roughly double the respective prefectural rates.

The urban concentration of needy people may be encouraged by the better capability and willingness of the larger municipalities to provide support. Other regional differences are not as easy to explain. Some localities may be stingier in their promotion or approval of relief. Or some localities may differ in the willingness of their citizens to accept assistance. The major factor, though, is probably the state of the local economy. In 1972, the year the United States returned Okinawa to Japan, the prefecture had a relief rate of 3.27 percent. By 1986 the rate had dropped to 2.20 percent because of more and better jobs made available through development stimulated by outside investments.

How welfare responds to local unemployment and disaster is clearly seen in Fukuoka, once the center of coal mining, but now the victim of numerous mine accidents and closures. In 1951, when coal was still Japan's main source of energy, Fukuoka had a relief rate of 1.01 percent--the lowest in the country. By 1955 it was nearly two percent, and in 1960 it became the highest in the country at 3.46 percent. In the following three years it jumped one percent a year--4.16 percent in 1961, 5.15 percent in 1962, and 6.21 percent in 1963, when it peaked. Fukuoka's relief rate dropped below six percent in 1965, five percent in 1970, and four percent in 1986. If present trends continue it may fall below two percent by 2000. Japan has about one-million day laborers, and roughly 50,000 of them inhabit the skidrows of its industrial cities. Osaka's Airin (Kamagasaki) district, Japan's largest skidrow, has about 20,000 resident and migrant day laborers. The second largest is Tokyo's San'ya district, with an estimated population of 8,040 day laborers and vagrants as of December 1986. Two other well-known skidrows are Yokohama's Kotobuki-cho and Nagoya's Sasajima.

A 1986 survey showed that 33.0 percent of San'ya's flophouse residents were receiving some form of public assistance, compared to 6.8 percent for the neighborhood as a whole, 1.09 percent for Tokyo prefecture, and 1.11 percent for Japan as a whole. This concentric pattern of increasing relief rates as one gets closer to the core of an impoverished area is also typical for other groups. According to a 1984 survey, only 0.6 percent of San'ya's flophouse residents were women.

Another social minority which is more susceptible to poverty are the residents of communities that had been the domains of outcastes until 1871 when the caste system was abolished. Practically all of these minorities, who have no generally accepted name in Japanese (but are commonly called burakumin in English), are ethnically part of the Yamato majority.

The Management and Coordination Agency estimated in March 1987 that there were 4,603 former outcaste communities in about one-third (1,127) of Japan's municipalities in three-fourths (36) of Japan's prefectures. Some 58.0 percent (1,166,733) of the 2,010,230 residents of these communities were counted as burakumin because of their family or residential histories. These official figures are incomplete because not all municipalities with burakumin participate in the surveys. Some 6.77 percent of all burakumin surveyed in 1985 were receiving some kind of public assistance, or nearly six times the national rate. This was slightly lower, however, than the relief rates in 1971 and 1975.

Poverty patterns in burakumin communities are also concentric. Some 7.60 percent of the burakumin in the 1975 survey were receiving some kind of public assistance, compared with only 1.21 percent for the entire population of Japan, 1.15 percent for the population of the prefectures in the survey, 1.33 percent for the surveyed municipalities, and 5.35 percent for the burakumin communities (including non-burakumin).

In November 1985, the Management and Coordination Agency carried out a detailed survey on the living conditions of a sample of 35,905 members of 9,978 burakumin households. Some 2.4 percent of the sampled households were fatherless families-nearly double the 1.4 percent rate reported in a 1985 nationwide Ministry of Welfare survey. There were only slightly more motherless families (0.4 percent) and elderly families (9.1 percent) among the burakumin than for Japan as a whole (0.3 percent and 8.4 percent).

24,381 Japanese of aboriginal Ainu descent were living in 7,168 households in Hokkaido prefecture as of September 1986, according to a survey on Ainu life conducted by the prefectural government's public welfare section. Most of these Japanese are the offspring of marriages between Ainu minorities and Yamato majorities. Many Japanese of Ainu descent, who can pass as Yamato Japanese, have quietly assumed majority identities. Several thousand Ainu live in other prefectures, and many non-Japanese Ainu live in Sakhalin and the Kuriles.

6.09 percent of the Ainu surveyed in 1986 were receiving some form of public assistance. This was 2.8 times the prefectural rate or 2.19 percent, which itself was double the national rate of 1.11 percent, again showing the nearly universal concentric pattern of poverty. But the 1986 Ainu relief rate was down from 6.86 percent (3.5 times the 19.6 percent prefectural rate) in 1979. A partial survey showed an Ainu relief rate of 11.57 percent in 1972 and a partial prefecture rate of 1.75 percent, which was smaller than the total prefecture rate of 2.10 percent.

In the 1986 survey, 36.4 percent of the Ainu households on relief but 28.5 percent of all the families on relief in the prefecture were elderly. The ratios were the opposite for fatherless families (18.3 percent Ainu, 22.3 percent Hokkaido) and families plagued by illness (38.5 percent Ainu, 42.4 percent Hokkaido). The 1979 survey showed a similar pattern.

In general, foreign applicants for public assistance must fully identify themselves by showing their Alien Registration Certificate, unless they have not been in Japan long enough to need to register. Except for bona fide refugees, returning war orphans, and resident former colonial subjects or their descendants, local officials are required to report an application to the prefectural governor, who then contacts the alien's embassy or consulate to determine whether it can provide the necessary support. Application procedures are waived, as they are for Japanese, only in emergency cases.

The percentage of foreigners in Japan who are receiving some kind of public assistance (using alien registration figures for population) is four times the national rate, which includes foreigners. The alien relief rate rose from 9.6 percent in fiscal 1951 to a high of 21.4 percent in 1955. It dropped to a low of 3.9 percent in 1974, and in 1986 it stood at 4.4 percent. Most foreigners on relief are Koreans, who constituted 78.2 percent of the 867,237 aliens who were registered as residents of Japan in 1986.

Part 1: Poverty in persepctive looks at attitudes toward poverty, kinds of poverty, distribution of wealth, economic class and social pathology, and trends and prospects.

Part 2: Individual poverty covers individual poverty in Japan-public assistance, isolated people on relief, low income and single-parent families, the chronically sick, older people with inadequate pensions, homeless men and women, starvation, and welfare fraud.