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Poverty in Japan spreading and deepening

17 Comments
By Michael Hoffman

Working 12 hours a day six days a week, Tohoku taxi driver “Junpei Noda” (a pseudonym) earned 280,000 yen a month. He didn’t know how well off he was.

It’s barely a living wage, but living with his parents he got by all right. But at 45 he’d had enough of his parents. One day, “on an impulse,” he left, went to Tokyo, flung himself into the arms of fate – which received him coldly. Six months later COVID-19 struck, dashing the hopes of this casual laborer who thought he’d found a haven of sorts working part-time at a ramen restaurant.

Poverty in Japan is spreading and deepening, says Spa (May 24-31). The pandemic was bad enough. Now there’s Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the worldwide economic havoc it’s wreaking. The poor get poorer, the near-poor go under, and indigence becomes a hole that almost anyone, given a bad move or a bad break – or a pandemic, or a war – can fall into – tomorrow if not today, next month if not this.

“Compared with before the virus,” says Takanori Fujita, head of the food- and help-dispensing NPO Hotto Plus, “we’re getting three times as many people coming to us for assistance” – including, he adds, families in the 300,000-yen-a-month income range who had been managing before.

The several individuals Spa covers suffer in different ways but face a common enemy: inflation, fallout of war. Every 5- or 10-yen rise in the price of a staple is a blow – if not a knockout itself, a threat of the one soon to come.

Single mothers, pensioners and the precariously employed are especially vulnerable. “Yumi Iikura,” 48, raises two teenage daughters on her earnings as a nursing home caregiver. Sometimes working 15-hour shifts through the night until 9 a.m., she barely covers household expenses of 200,000 yen a month. Soaring gas prices are the latest jolt. A car might seem a dispensable luxury, but isn’t. Distance from her workplace is the price she pays for affordable rent. The 50-km commute was a tolerable nuisance. Now it’s a financial catastrophe.

“Kazuo Takehara,” 74, seems comfortably situated. He has some savings, no debts and a pension of 160,000 yen a month. His rent is a moderate 50,000 a month. But lately, “It’s one price increase after another. It’s very upsetting.”

He stands at one of life’s milestones. He turns 75 in October. That means a substantial jump in medical expenses, the bane of senior citizenship. From age 75 the individual on national health insurance must pay 20 percent of medical costs instead of 10 percent.

The ironic twist is that, stretching his food budget in preparation, he risks malnourishment, illness, more urgent medical needs and, consequently, additional medical expenses. So much of life for the poor is self-defeating.

Noda, the former taxi driver, found he liked casual day labor. At least he didn’t mind it. It was better than driving a taxi. The hours were shorter, and the work less cramping. On construction sites you breathed fresh air and stretched your muscles. It felt good. There were restaurant jobs too, part-time rather than day-by-day, therefore more stable. He learned little – 150,000 yen a month on average – but his needs were few, an internet café sufficed for bed and board, and all in all he congratulated himself on his “impulsive” plunge into a freer, more spacious life.

Then COVID-19 shut down the ramen place he worked at. His downward spiral began. The Net café raised its price. He found a cheaper one. It, too, raised its price, driving him at last to an accommodation that never will – a bus stop bench. When Spa spoke to him he had 6000 yen in his pocket and nothing anywhere else.

Should he go home? The thought makes him cringe: “I can’t let my parents see me like this.” If he waits much longer they may see him worse: “My body’s falling apart.” Some mornings he can’t even get up.

Iikura, the caregiver, lives on three hours’ sleep a night. You get to a point where exhaustion keeps you awake. She and her husband separated six months ago. Japanese law imposes no alimony. The entire burden falls on her. “I have a high school education,” she says. “There’s no other work I can do.” She hopes her daughters will do better. The elder is in college, the younger on the way.

Takehara, the pensioner, lives alone. His wife died 30 years ago. He sees his three children and several grandchildren, but the children can’t help financially. Quite the contrary – he’d been helping them until recently, contributing towards the kids’ education costs and so on. He grieves at no longer being able to do so. His teeth are getting loose – due to malnutrition, possibly. The mask covers his  embarrassment. Even COVID has its advantages. The more pinched his circumstances, the less he goes out; the less he goes out, the slacker grow his muscles and the deeper his depression.

“I’ve given up fried mackerel and croquettes,” he says – “my one indulgence.” He’d shopped for them at his local supermarket. Then the price rose 30 yen.

© Japan Today

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

17 Comments
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This was occurring well in advance of the situation in Ukraine.

7 ( +19 / -12 )

Working 12 hours a day six days a week, Tohoku taxi driver “Junpei Noda” (a pseudonym) earned 280,000 yen a month. He didn’t know how well off he was.

It’s barely a living wage, but living with his parents he got by all right.

Is this schedule and remuneration a sign that the "free market", neo liberal labor system is working?

Or that it has been designed so that workers are divorced from the fruits of their labor and the gains are all made by investors, middle men and dispatchers who managed to have the blessing of prior access to capital?

The pandemic was bad enough. Now there’s Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the worldwide economic havoc it’s wreaking.

Disaster capitalism uses these as convenient excuses while corporate profits and billionaire wealth inflate.

https://www.ineteconomics.org/research/research-papers/the-precariat-under-rentier-capitalism

2 ( +13 / -11 )

Taking down chunks of your economy for a pandemic that saw mortality decrease, and handing $40bn a year in tourist revenue to your neighbours wasn't a good start. Now resource-poor Japan is looking at energy shortages and retail inflation, as its allies cut off its access to Russian fuel, whilst grabbing alternative supplies for themselves and pushing up the costs of everything. Shortages and higher costs await for everyone who needs to turn the power on to work, teach, eat or keep warm. The West and Japan will have to hand you all a lot more of your grandchildren's tax payments if they want to stay popular and in power. Good old MMT.

Instead of just funnelling weapons to Ukraine, the West began a process of cutting off their own energy supplies, creating inflation across the board and undermining their own economies. Russia is doing better out of the sanctions than the West, as they have raised the value of its fossil fuels, just as they have raised the cost that the West has to pay, for whatever alternative supplies it can find.

Maybe it was arrogance that caused them to indulge in posturing that they cannot afford. The West is years away from transitioning to green energy, as it has been dragging its feet, refusing to invest. Putin beat climate change to the rude awakening.

Western countries have set a countdown timer on their own position, which was a ridiculous move. They won't survive winter without adequate fuel, and if they maintain sanctions, inflation will break their economies. Plan B? New fossil production and new nuclear (both years away), outbid poorer nations for other fuel supplies (spreading the economic pain, hunger and political destabilisation globally), or hope for a lucky break (Putin running with scissors).

If all this is a 'solution' to emissions, it is even crazier than the lockdowns. Impoverished workers are already starting to strike as economies begin to buckle. The toxic spiral will break the global economy. That will bring down governments.

But probably not the Russian one, being an entrenched dictatorship with no domestic opposition. Putin must be laughing at the path the West have taken. They have played into his hands. Their only options are to tool up Ukraine with everything they need to cut Russian command & control and supply lines and erase Russian and pro-Russian forces with extensive firepower, or bump off Putin. They won't do the latter as leaders don't target other leaders, and even the US have been reported to be running low on spare weaponry. This may get awkward.

If our politicians ran businesses rather than countries, they would all have gone bankrupt by now.

-8 ( +6 / -14 )

This same article, sans Ukraine and Covid, could have been written back in 2012. Hell, try back to 2000 or the 90s.

2 ( +8 / -6 )

@Speed

This same article, sans Ukraine and Covid, could have been written back in 2012. Hell, try back to 2000 or the 90s.

Completely agree. I remember reading an article back end 90s in Europe about the パラサイトシングル (parasite singles) in Japan where adult young people continued to live at their parents' out of convenience but also economic need while actually having started to work.

Fast forward to 2022, a friend of mine and her husband live with their son who is going to graduate from university in medicine next year. Despite his career already made (his specialization is in high demand), he already asked them a few years ago to let him continue to live with them after he graduates and starts working in order to save money. Oh yeah, his girlfriend has also been living with them for the last 2-3 years while having started to work last year. It therefore looks like we are looking at パラサイトカップル (parasite couples) these days...

Next step: parasite grand-children?

The J-gov just loves world crises: sub-prime, COVID, Ukraine (next Taiwan?), in order to cover for the catastrophic results of its own political and economic failures.

-7 ( +4 / -11 )

Once the Yen hits 150 per USD, the nightmare will exacerbate even worse.

-10 ( +4 / -14 )

Anyone who thinks misfortune cannot happen to themselves needs to examine their hubris. All your skill and experience cannot win against a system that is far, far larger than you and is relentless.

2 ( +6 / -4 )

Japan's market reforms of a few years back (which everyone but me cheered about) resulted in corporations hogging a larger and larger share of the national income with the workers getting less and less with fewer benefits, like health insurance.

That is primarily why people in the world's 3rd biggest economy work 12 hours a day and barely get by.

-3 ( +5 / -8 )

My wife and I noticed that many of her friends still have 30-40yo children living with them. Thankfully or because we taught them to accept failure and move on none of the three live with us. We always support them, can not protect them from life’s bumps. It’s called living. Poverty or near poverty and mums being over protective (dads usually at work) exacerbate the problem because mums get lonely and come to relying on their children. Then it’s sim biotic relationship that’s just not healthy, but near poverty is the driving force I think.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

There's poor in every country and guess what they all have in common. They do the bare minimum and expect a high pay. If 50 million others can do your job, you're not doing enough with your life to warrant getting a high pay. Upgrade yourself and get some high-value skills then you have the leverage to negotiate pay. Same for English teachers in Japan.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

@ArtistAtLarge That's a bottom feeder mentality. Anyone with a skillset that's high in demand will always have options.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

The problem is that you can’t beat capitalism but capitalism will beat you, if you don’t understand that it is just simply based on growth of anything. But the whole globe ignores that now and thinks capitalism will also work when downgrading everything. That won’t work and is extremely dangerous. Less children, less education, less balanced money distribution, less industries, less energy use, less of everything nowadays. That won’t and simply cannot work. Now my solution, a restart of the wealthy bubble economy, helicoptering money on biggest possible scale, and then come new innovations, businesses, employments with high wages, more kids, more trust into the future and a positive view on further developments, technology changes, climate prevention measures. The current concepts are wrong, misleading and already the to be foreseeable catastrophe itself.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Once the Yen hits 150 per USD, the nightmare will exacerbate even worse.

The Yen is well on the way to its target level of 150 to the dollar. Today it has breached the 135 level and dropping.

Japan will no longer be a peaceful society as the downtrodden demand and just take a better living standard from those who have it.

-8 ( +1 / -9 )

@Legion

@ArtistAtLarge That's a bottom feeder mentality. Anyone with a skillset that's high in demand will always have options.

I think you are describing one area that is actually mine. I work in internal controls / internal audit / risk management / anti-money laundering which are not popular fields for "cultural" reasons in Japan (i.e. they are confrontational roles where you need to challenge the environment, the staff and the management) and are therefore in even higher demand in Japan than anywhere else, have 2 decades of experience and all the certifications you may want to back it up, but strangely enough I only get contacted for offers which while being more demanding (larger organizations, larger scope of responsibilities, more travel)...only offer less in hard cash in return.

I heard a lot last year about the "great resignation" taking place everywhere and that we're all in a "candidate's (job) market"-situation...well, just not in Japan where the ruling party, the Keidanren, the corporations, the predatory recruiting and intermediating industry are all up and roaring about shafting you as a worker...

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

The moral of the story is that poverty is a problem for the "proletariats", not one for likes of Haruhiko Kuroda, Heizo Takenaka or Fumio Kishida or any of their politician or entrepreneur "friends". The fact that these entitled bozos have a say-so in how well (or miserably) others live, is in itself a very cruel joke on the people.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

The J-gov just loves world crises: sub-prime, COVID, Ukraine (next Taiwan?), in order to cover for the catastrophic results of its own political and economic failures.

You beat me to it! THIS!! The most disgusting thing is how the article VERY skillfully sidesteps blaming the LDP which has been in power for longer than any dictator in the middle east for the suffering of the people here. And when anyone else points that out, the rightwing sock puppets come out screaming shrilly about how you are a Japan hater for pointing out the rot that is Japanese politics and business practice.

Well as they say, the proof is in the pudding.

I heard a lot last year about the "great resignation" taking place everywhere and that we're all in a "candidate's (job) market"-situation...well, just not in Japan where the ruling party, the Keidanren, the corporations, the predatory recruiting and intermediating industry are all up and roaring about shafting you as a worker...

Hit the nail on the head!

So my answer to all who have economic woes and are hurting. Try doing what people in REAL democratic societies do. VOTE for someone ELSE rather than the LDP.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

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