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Number 1 Shimbun

Is the Government Blind to Japan's Impoverished?

No1-2017-1povertyLeft to right: Chieko Kuribayashi, Yasushi Aoto and Charles E. McJilton

Activists working with the country's disadvantaged claim that the poor, especially children, are being ignored.

by Julian Ryall




ESPITE PRIME MINISTER SHINZO Abe’s declarations of concern over the nation’s stubbornly unyielding poverty rate, Yasushi Aoto says he has no interest in the problem that grips millions of households across the country.

Poverty, including child poverty, does not translate into sufficient votes for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party for it to be a major concern, says Aoto, who has witnessed the problem close up as chairman of the Japan Association of Child Poverty and Education Support Organizations. “To put it simply, I do not believe that Abe has any interest in child poverty, or the problem of poverty in general, and I believe this attitude is common to all conservative parties because the issue does not generate votes,” Aoto told a press conference at the FCCJ last November.

“Politicians are living in a world of immediate reality and I don’t believe they have the ability to think about the lives of children today and the people they will be in 40 or 50 years,” he said.


Poverty, including child poverty, does not translate into sufficient votes for it to be a major concern, says Aoto.


In April, a report issued by the UN Children’s Fund underlined Aoto’s concern for the most vulnerable in Japanese society, revealing that children from the poorest households here are relatively far more disadvantaged than children in most other industrialized nations. That finding is backed up by research by Aoto’s organization and others campaigning against the problem here – but who also admit that determining precise figures for poverty rates is more difficult in Japan for a number of reasons, not least because the social stigma attached to being poor causes millions of people not to claim welfare support.

“If we look at how difficult the situation has become, particularly for children, over the last 25 years, I believe there are two main reasons: education and employment,” said Aoto.

ACCORDING TO THE ASSOCIATION, 16.3 percent of Japanese households are living on less than ¥3 million a year, affecting 3.5 million children under the age of 17 – which is fully one in six of all children in the country. And looking into the future, Aoto points out, this will inevitably worsen as fewer children are born, the government’s tax revenues decline and increasing numbers of elderly people require pensions and healthcare.

The cost of a university education has similarly increased in recent decades, climbing from ¥100,000 a year in the 1970s to more than ¥500,000 a year today, even for a liberal arts course, he said. Invariably, the majority of people that Aoto’s group assists are from families that have not had a university-level education. Some are not even able to make it to senior high school; such is their lack of financial resources and support.

"I would often meet kids who were hungry and had not had anything to eat all day,"says Kuribayashi.


Chieko Kuribayashi is chief director of the non-profit organization, Toshima Kodomo WakuWaku Network, and was instrumental in setting up the first “children’s cafeteria” in Toshima Ward for youngsters in her community. The initiative has since been replicated across Japan and there are now 300 such centers. “I am not a teacher or a professional, but a mother who raised my children in the area,” she told the press conference. “I would often meet kids who were hungry and had not had anything to eat all that day. I started to provide learning support for children who feared they would not be able to go on to senior high school.

As well as providing a place where local children can meet up, eat together and simply spend time in a comfortable environment, the centers invite volunteer high school and university students to help the children study.

BUT THE UNDERLYING PROBLEMS are not being dealt with, in part, critics say, because the government is handing over responsibility for caring for those living below the poverty line to NGOs. “I believe the government should be doing more and that its current policies for alleviating poverty are insufficient,” Kuribayashi said. “However, citizens across the country are now learning that this problem exists. This is an opportunity to think about our children’s futures.”

Charles McJilton is executive director of Second Harvest Japan, the country’s leading food bank and a close collaborator with both local and national governments and other NGOs – and he is more aware than most of the problems facing those living on the fringes of Japanese society: he once spent 15 months living in a cardboard box in Tokyo alongside homeless people to gain a better understanding of their plight. “Within Tokyo, there are maybe 40 or 50 locations where someone can pick up hot food, an emergency meal,” he said. “In New York city, there are 1,100 places, Chicago has 600, San Francisco, even Hong Kong has 520. So why do we have so few here? We have resources, so how come we can’t reach those who are in need?”


"Within Tokyo, there are maybe 40 or 50 locations where someone can pick up hot food, an emergency meal," says McJilton. "Even Hong Kong has 520."


McJilton’s organization has set itself a goal of feeding 100,000 people in Tokyo every week by 2020 and he is calling on the government to see food safety for the most vulnerable in society in the same way as it sees healthcare provisions. All children up to the age of 16 receive free healthcare, he said. They should also have the same guaranteed access to sufficient food.

Julian Ryall is Japan correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.


Published in: January 2017

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