Invisible Poverty in JapanThe third-largest economy in the world, Japan has vast influence over global trends in technology and culture. The country has a storied history, first opening its shores to modernization in the mid-19th century with the arrival of American Commodore Matthew Perry. After contact with the West, Japan underwent a process of rapid industrialization, adopting and co-opting colonial practices to become the leading East Asian power. A closer look at the history of the nation tells a story of invisible poverty in Japan.

The History of Japan

During World War II, Japan’s fate changed for the worse. Tokyo sided with the Axis Powers and lost the war to the Allies in a devastating fashion. After the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from American atomic strikes, Japan had to rebuild in the interceding decades. By the 1980s, Japan once again emerged as a major world power and the second-largest economy. Pundits believed Japan was on track to overtake even the United States.

The arrival of the 1990s heralded a second collapse. The Japanese stock market burst and the country plunged into a recession known as the Lost Decade. Growth stagnated and has remained slow for the last 30 years. In 2020, COVID-19 added yet another factor of uncertainty to an already unstable fiscal situation.

Japan still remains a wealthy developed nation. But, its population is aging and a return to global preeminence is therefore unlikely. Meanwhile, poverty is festering, particularly among the young. Addressing these challenges is crucial as much of the global economy remains tied to Japan.

Invisible Poverty in Japan

In Japan, poverty is often invisible but no less severe. In an OECD report analyzing 34 countries, Japan ranked sixth from last in terms of the “share of the population living in poverty.” While these statistics might be shocking to ordinary Japanese citizens who mostly do not have to experience direct encounters with grinding poverty, the statistics are not surprising to researchers. Over the years, experts took notice of an alarming trend. Not only is the Japanese poverty level high (not unlike the United States) but it is also steadily increasing. In 2020, Japan’s poverty rate was almost 16%, defined as “people whose household income is less than half of the median of the entire population.”

Since the 1990s, growth has been almost non-existent. Across multiple governments, none have been able to restart the Japanese economic engine. In 2019, growth was a measly 0.3%. Although U.S. citizens often critique their own economy for being too slow, the U.S. economy is much faster than Japan’s. In 2019, the United States grew 2.2%. Amid COVID-19, the contraction of the economy exacerbated these challenges. A wider global recovery has sparked optimism in Tokyo, but uncertainty lies ahead.

Japan’s Strong Points

  • Japan retains a high standard of living. Despite its economic slowdown from the 1990s, Japan remains one of the most prosperous countries in the world. While Tokyo lags slightly behind the United States and Western Europe in per capita GDP, it has a highly developed free-market system coupled with a dynamic culture of innovation that puts the island nation at the forefront of technological progress.
  • Inequality is relatively low. Compared to countries like the United States, Japan has a lower Gini coefficient, the baseline metric used by experts to measure income inequality. The Japanese government has had a positive influence on this development. Effective taxation and reallocation of funds allow for a significant decrease in Japanese inequality in comparison to the beginning of the 20th century.
  • Of all nations, Japan has the highest life expectancy. During the economic boom of the 1980s, Japan achieved a crowning status as the nation with the longest life expectancy. Although its economy has stagnated since that period, Tokyo’s role at the pinnacle of the world has not diminished. To this day, the average Japanese life expectancy is 84, compared to 79 in the United States.

Second Harvest Alleviates the Impacts of Poverty

Despite high Japanese living standards, the often invisible poverty in Japan has galvanized a growing cross-section of Japanese nationals to build organizational structures to address the fundamental challenges the population faces. Addressing food insecurity in the nation is Second Harvest, “Japan’s first food bank” drawing from farmer and retailer donations across the country to distribute resources to underserved communities. In 2002, its first year of legal corporation, Second Harvest delivered 30 tons of food. Ten years later, the amount had grown to more than 3,000 tons of food. Since 2013, Second Harvest has been delivering food to “320 welfare agencies and organizations in the Kanto area as well as nationally.”

Such organizations lend an optimistic perspective to the future, one that the industrious and innovative people of Japan can capitalize on.

– Zachary Lee
Photo: Flickr

starving to death
Whale hunting in Japan is immaterial to feeding the population. As a result, many wonder why the nation continues to practice the antiquated ritual, while a bulk of its citizens are starving and fighting an uphill battle against the national welfare program. Japan’s current poverty rate is 15.3 percent, and more than 19 million citizens are living below the poverty line.

Welfare and Whale Hunting in Japan

The Japanese government has defended whaling practices by claiming that the practice is a part of the ancient Japanese culture. From the 1940s to the mid-1960s, whales were the biggest source of meat for the Japanese people. This was due to food shortages throughout the country. The government found an inexpensive solution in canning whale meat and serving in the government-funded national school lunch programs. At the highest point of the hunt, 24,000 whales were killed in just one year.

However, the economic climate has shifted. Japan has one of the wealthiest economies in the world and can easily afford to import meat from the United States or Australia. Currently, with Japan leaving the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the financial burden of whaling will again fall on taxpayers. Expenditure of citizens’ tax money on whaling is justified by classifying whaling as research. The International Court of Justice has disproved Japan’s research claims, yet, funding that could be allocated to other benefits, like welfare, continues to be allocated to the practice.

According to a poll in 2015, the average consumption by the Japanese people of whale meat was just one ounce per person. Whale meat in Japanese cuisine has only been popular post World War II, and it would be categorized as nostalgia food by older generations. Nevertheless, Japan continues to fund whaling with $50 million annually. Regarding the Japanese welfare system, the central government acknowledges 75 percent of the costs, and Japan is planning on cutting back even further to their system.

When it comes to welfare,  Japanese citizens do not have the right to be taken care of by the government. Welfare in Japan is most commonly utilized by either the elderly, single mothers or handicapped citizens. Currently, there are five million unemployed Japanese citizens. Since 2008, the Japanese government has tried to make acquiring government assistance more manageable. However, most applicants are obliged to ask their family for help before applying, and impoverished people who are physically capable of working are still ineligible.  Professor Hiroshi Sugimura from Hoesei University in Tokyo said: “Local governments tend to believe that using taxpayer money to help people in need is doing a disservice to the citizens, only those who pay taxes are citizens.” The government currently gives 3.4 trillion Yen to welfare a year, but this only amounts to 10 percent of all tax revenues.

With the strict guidelines of the welfare program, people in need often slip through the cracks. Just in the past ten years alone, 700 Japanese citizens have starved to death, most of them elderly people. While the poverty rate in Japan does not reach the global levels (nearly 3.4 billion people, or half of the world’s population, struggle to meet basic needs),  Japan is currently in the lowest category of children in need, with the OECD estimating there are 3.5 million Japanese children who are living in relative poverty.

What Is Being Done?

An organization called Second Harvest provides the only nationwide food bank in Japan. Since 2002, Second Harvest has been food security for the needy. It delivers to children’s homes, women’s shelters and handicapped facilities. Second Harvest also works tirelessly with companies to acquires left-over food that is still edible and recycles it into free meals.

The Japanese government supports the Sustainable Development Goals, one of which is to bring hunger to zero by the year 2030. Japan is putting forth procedures that will help build a sustainable society and help with social improvements. By incorporating the Sustainable Development Goals, Japan is hoping to prioritize ancillary benefits, far removed from previous oversight, promoting human rights for every citizen.

The heated issue of whale hunting in Japan and the hunger of its citizens has been recognized by the Japanese government. Acknowledging the fact that many citizens are starving to death, and few are interested in eating whale meat, is an impetus for the government to remedy the issue. Solutions are being established and proposed on a regular basis, and with time. these two issues will be combatted and Japan’s healing as a nation will happen quickly.

– Jennifer O’Brien
Photo: Google