Japan: The new underclass

Japan’s much acclaimed economic recovery means little to Masami, 24, who has been hopping jobs for the past five years after giving up plans to attend university because his father was ailing.

“I work 12 hours a day as a parking attendant and now have a monthly income of around $841 based on an hourly pay scheme. That is barely enough to get by on,” explained the young man at a recent conference on welfare issues in Japan. Masami falls into a new and growing category in Japan — the working poor — who earn less than $28,000 annually compared to the national average of $50,000, despite working two or even three jobs. Activists point out that people with such low incomes can barely pay for food, shelter and other basic needs in a country that is the second richest in the world. People like Masami are often forced to live in public parks.

Japan does not have an official poverty line. According to experts, this growing young underclass is the product of new economic reforms in Japan, launched five years ago, to reduce the national budget deficit, by cutting down on public spending and the squeezing of costs on personnel by private companies. In 2005, Japan’s annual welfare budget was around $18 billion, or 17 per cent of its Gross National Product (GNP) - the lowest in the industrialised world. In comparison, Europe spends 26 per cent of its GNP on welfare.

“The working poor symbolises a society in which the gap between the rich and poor has been growing,” says social activist Makoto Iwase. While official statistics are not available, figures compiled by Japan’s Asahi TV, last month, showed that in the 1980s the top 20 per cent of the population made 10 times more than the 20 per cent in the low-income bracket. By 2000, the rich were making 168 times more than poor workers.

An immediate concern for activists is a plan, now being considered by the government, to tighten regulations that will make it tougher to apply for social welfare after April 2008.

“We are totally against such a discriminatory plan in a country where welfare is still way below global standards and citizens continue to be denied access to help,” points out Iwase, who is the director of Moyai, a non-profit organisation that is spearheading the campaign to protect Japan’s fledgling safety net. For example, out of a national welfare budget of $12 million reserved for single mothers in 2005, the government disbursed only $20,000, citing lack of information from local government offices.

“It’s a shame,” said Yoriko Madoka, a member of the Democratic Socialist Party that opposes welfare cuts. “It shows the utter disregard on the part of officials for the right of women to a safety net to rear their children.” Aware of rising criticism, newly elected PM Shinzo Abe has developed a catch slogan called ‘Second Chance’ that promises to find jobs for 200,000 young people and reduce the numbers of the working poor. But Iwase does not consider this the right approach.

“For a start, the numbers promoted by the government is way too small compared to the rising number of vulnerable society. More than finding jobs, Abe should make sure Japan will develop a secure national safety net based on ensuring a secure life for citizens.” — IPS