Poverty in Japan

A starvation case highlights the problem.

It was a typical working-class Japanese apartment from the outside — a tidy, gray brick building with potted plants growing on the balcony like most other apartments in Saitama, a city of 1.2 million, northwest of Tokyo. But inside, authorities discovered the bodies of an elderly couple and their 39-year-old son, victims of starvation and hypothermia. The apartment’s utilities had been cut off for non-payment, and it was only when the landlord went to inquire why rent payments were six months behind that their bodies were discovered in late February. Authorities found only a few coins in the apartment and an empty fridge. The family had been dead for two months.

Despite having the third-largest economy in the world, Japan has a growing problem with poverty. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) continues to list Japan near the bottom of the pack in statistics showing the percentage of the population living in poverty. According to the most recent data, updated in April 2011, 15.7 percent of Japanese people are living in poverty, above the 11 percent average for OECD member states, and sixth-worst of the 34 countries studied.

Japan’s poverty rate is higher than countries with far less economic resources, such as the Slovak Republic (6.5 percent), Slovenia (7.2 percent), and Poland (10.1 percent). Perhaps more alarming is that the problem appears to be getting worse. The average annual increase in the poverty rate in Japan since 1985 has been 1.3 percent, above the 1.0 percent average of all OECD member states.

While the most recent poverty statistics for Japan compare favourably with the United States, which has a 17.3 percent poverty rate, the OECD statistics indicate the situation is improving in the U.S., where the average annual poverty rate has shown a decrease of 0.7 percent since 1985.

Citing a government official, a recent story in The Guardian stated there have been 700 deaths from starvation in Japan since 2000. Experts have suggested that while there are government welfare programs to assist those most in need, there are also social and cultural barriers to accepting assistance.

“Some people have a resistance to the idea of receiving welfare or contacting local authorities,” Takehiro Yoshida, a welfare lawyer, said in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. “Others are left isolated in their own communities.”

The economic fallout of the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 2011 is still being felt in Japan, and uncertainty in some sectors of the economy has lead to job losses for middle-aged workers. In a country that already has high levels of poverty among the elderly and disabled, such further complications present significant challenges in working toward a solution.

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