While most know Japan for its natural beauty, its manga, and its anime, few outside the nation realize Japan suffers some of the highest rates of child poverty among the world’s developed nations.
A recent UNICEF report, “Fairness for Children: A league table of inequality in child well-being in rich countries,” points to the growing severity of child poverty in Japan. The country ranked 34th out of 41 developed nations evaluated; the U.S. was just above Japan at 30th. The bottom three nations were Mexico, Bulgaria and Romania.
Overall, Japan’s poverty rate among children stands at 16.3 percent, roughly every one out of six kids. To blame? Japan’s archaic treatment of single mothers.
The Neglected Single Mothers of JapanImage Source: Radio Australia
Roughly a third of poor children live with divorced or widowed single mothers; statistics are not available for the percentage who live with single mothers who never married, or for whom divorce is such a stigma that they remain married on paper to keep up appearances while severing all ties with their spouse. It is generally understood many of the remaining two-thirds of children who live in poverty have mothers who fall into those latter categories.
Adding to the divorce problem is that fathers are expected/allowed to sever all ties with their children. Even in the rare cases where child support is mandated, there is little-to-no enforcement. Single mothers are left alone to make due.
Women in the workplace in Japan suffer, with most promotions given to men, lower salaries, and near-mandatory “retirement” once pregnant. Women make up less than one percent of senior-level corporate executives, what some refer to as the “bamboo ceiling.”
Add in a lack of child daycare in general, and affordable daycare in the specific, and it is easy to see how many single mothers end up in part-time positions, or take low-paid jobs that otherwise allow them the flexibility they need to raise their children (women make up 77 percent of Japan’s part-time and temporary workforce.) The societal trend of younger people moving into cities, away from their countryside hometowns, means fewer elderly parents are around to help with childcare.
The Welfare System
Healthcare is available to all at a nominal cost but otherwise the welfare system in Japan is complex. Most monetary benefits go to the elderly, and strict means tests are applied to what might be called Aid to Dependent Child, or Women, Infants and Child benefits, in the U.S. Food stamps do not exist in Japan, though there are increasingly food banks in the larger cities.
Persons in need, including single mothers and their children, are generally expected to look to relatives as a primary source of assistance. Dependence on government help is discouraged, even right in the Constitution: Article 27 states that people have the right “and the obligation” to work.
Some Government Action?Image Source: Nippon
After years of ignoring the problem, the government may be starting to take notice.
New measures in 2014 increased the number of social workers in schools, and slightly raised child allowances for parents for the first time in years. A parent can now expect $120 – $200 a month per child, based on a means test, under the 2010 Kodomo Teate Law.
Given that many in Prime Minster Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party blame single mothers for getting divorced, it was surprising that the country did anything new at all, said Aya Abe, a professor of social security and poverty studies at Tokyo Metropolitan University. In 2005, when a previous government was taking steps towards greater equality, Abe and his fellow conservatives warned of the damage to family values and to Japanese culture that could result if men and women were treated equally. Some conservatives still refer to the life of married women as sanshoku hirune tsuki, three free meals and a nap each day.
Child Poverty in JapanImage Source: ABC
Child poverty can take many forms in Japan.
The basics are similar to any country: children who eat only cheap but poor quality foods, those whose only nutritional meal is lunch at school (Japan has no school breakfast programs as are commonly available in the U.S.), and those who live in cold apartments for lack of finances to heat properly.
But there are also other ways poverty impacts children in group-oriented Japan.
The stigma of living below the norm makes children the targets of bullying and ostracization at school, as does the often-second hand clothing they wear in a society that chases new trends. Japanese public schools, though free, impose many fees for things like mandatory school trips, and require specific school supplies to include multiple pairs of shoes for outside, inside, and gym. Children left out of school groups have higher rates of absenteeism, running away, and being lured into the child sex industry still prevalent in Japan.
Inequality in a society that values homogeneity over most everything else can be one of the most crushing parts of child poverty in Japan.
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