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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Walking Poor Of Japan

If you haven't seen The Walking Dead television program - watch it. Yeah, it's a zombie apocalypse thing, but it's much more than that… it's about humanity and the interactions between good people who have made choices on how to survive - whether good or bad decisions, that's up to others to decide… but it's all about making it through to the next day.

In Japan, as in many countries, we now have the "Walking Poor", a term so strange to the Japanese that it has utilized the katakana alphabet - an alphabet utilized for foreign terms to phonetically create new ones for a country unused to such things.

Wākingu puā (walking poor) has deep roots in Japan, even though it's something only making its mark starting in the early 21st century - according to mainstream Japanese media.

That's all a bunch of horse-hockey… it's been around a lot longer than that, though perhaps mainstream media chose not to look and see it existed.

It revolves around people who are unable to realize a decent livelihood while holding down a job, or even more than one job.

Welcome to my world. And your world. And a whole lot of other people's world.

I no longer own my own house, can't pay my bills, struggle to keep up with my debts, can't afford to take a vacation - but whatever. I have food on my plate, I have clothes on my back, and aside from you lot, no one would know otherwise.

Sure I seem to have new clothes every half-year or year or so, but that's because they are purchased used. The money goes to get clothing or sports equipment for my son.

I sure as hell am nowhere close to the poverty line… I don't have to utilize the food banks, and I don't have to decide if I want to have heat or food for the night. I'm far better off than many people. I just no longer have what I once had.

I'm not begging for sympathy - I don't want it, deserve it or need it. It's just the way things are.

It's the same in so many other countries, as well… Walking Poor.

But let's look at Japan, because this blog is about Japan (and me, which is why I will place personal interjections into damn near everything):

We're talking about being poor… hinkon, is the Japanese term for poverty, if we were to use the strict Japanese definition.

Japan is supposed to have the third-largest economy in the world… but it has always been my experience that as someone gets rich, many people do not, and instead get poorer.

There is, after all, only so much money to go around - even when you start printing it up like it was cheap newsprint…

In 2012, the poverty line in Japan was set at ¥1.22 million (~US $10,100), a figure that represents half the median household disposable income for that particular year.

As a frame of reference, between 1990-1993, on the JET Programme, I, as a single guy with subsidies to alleviate my rental costs and living 100 kilometers north of Tokyo, made ¥3,600,000 a year, which at that time equated out to US$36,000 or closer to Cdn $43,000. I had money to burn in Japan, and I did.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (an organization to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world), “relative poverty” is defined as lacking the minimum amount of income needed in order to maintain the average standard of living in the society in which they live.

Hmmm… I guess I don't qualify in that regard… though the massive amount of debt and lack of many things I USED to have make it seem worse, I suppose.

I would be curious as to how the OECD defines 'average standard of living.'

According to the OECD, Japan has a relative poverty rate of 16.1% of households - good enough, or worse enough for 4th place amongst member countries.

Those countries with higher levels of 'relative poverty' are:
  • Mexico - 18.5%
  • Turkey - 17.5%
  • U.S.A.  - 17%
Geez.. that's two out of three NAFTA (North American Free-Trade Agreement) countries, with Canada suspiciously not in that group. I guess we're better off than I thought.

For Japan, there is a bit of a worse number… the Child Poverty Rate (the ratio of children under 18 living in households earning less than half of the average income), is 16.3%.

This is the first time Japan's child poverty rate has exceeded its 'relative poverty' rate since such number calculations began being compiled in 1985.

Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare says that 2,163,152 people receive seikatsu hogo (welfare payments)…

That's a lot, right? But the Ministry says that number - taken in August of 2014 is actually DOWN by 4,775 from January of 2014.

So… either people are dying off (true, considering Japan is an aging population base) or fewer people are requesting welfare aid or fewer people continue to qualify for welfare aid.

Welfare payments in Japan, mostly go towards three types: elderly (45.5%); infirm and handicapped (29.3%); and single mothers (7.1%).

As one would expect, welfare payments provide some relief for recipients in Japan, though not enough to claim untold riches.

One recipient, a man in his 60s, was quoted in a television broadcast as saying, “After the rent and other expenditures are covered, I’m left with about ¥1,000 per day, sufficient for three meals and maybe a used paperback book.”

That ¥1,000 equals about US$8.25.

He said that that money would suffice for three meals a day. Three meals out of $8.25. Obviously it can be done, because he is doing it, but man… 

Just in case you don't know, would you like to know what some of the causes of Japan's Walking Poor are?

Well, according to Spa! magazine, there are Seven Deadly Sins, though I am unsure if they meant it literally.

The “seven deadly sins” in Spa’s Nov. 4-11, 2014 issue are:
  1. companies’ hiring of a higher percentage of non-regular staff;
  2. job changes that result in a sharp reduction in earnings;
  3. the spread of “black companies” (generally defined as businesses that fail to comply with legal labor standards, such as by demanding unpaid overtime);
  4. increased incidence of personal depression;
  5. the burdens of caring for one’s elderly parents;
  6. crushing household debts from home mortgages and outlays for children’s education;
  7. the growing number of people who reach middle age with virtually no prospects of marrying.
Item No. 5 above has an opposite extreme. Over the past month, the Sunday Mainichi
newspaper has been running a series titled “The hard facts about poverty in your declining years.” Its Dec. 7, 2014 issue covered how the pension and savings that the elderly put aside for their retirement are being drained off by children they continue to support well into adulthood.

Yeesh… I think I am guilty of that, as is my wife… though my father does seem to be okay, having been one of those very early dudes who knew all about computer programming before HAL tried to kill people in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Mental illness is another one of those things that is rearing its ugly head more in everyday society - and not just in Japan. I think it has always been in society(ies), but it was either just misdiagnosed or never diagnosed and ignored… maybe spend a bit of time in a sanitarium or simply chalked up as "that person is weird'.

The Japan Cabinet office says that in 2010 it estimates some 700,000 Japanese citizens might suffer from hikikomori (acute social withdrawal).

Of course… the general media of Japan fails to take into account that there have always been poor people in Japan. It doesn't matter what decade, what century, what city, town or village… poverty has existed and continues to exist.

I recall walking around Osaka and Tokyo… walking off the beaten path, but still in the city… it's something I liked to do in Japan because it's an excellent way to see how people really live… well, I did.

I saw shanty towns under highway overpasses… people living in cardboard boxes… clothes hung up there on the sidewalks.

Because I had believed in the Japanese stereotype of every one being as one - and no one nail gets to stand up else it would be knocked back into place… and that Japan was, at least back in the early 1990s, still a very affluent society… I certainly didn't expect to see this.

There were the stumbling, filthy men in smelling clothes, unkempt beards wandering around with a shoe or a sock, looking for that next bottle of booze, or maybe a bite to eat… or maybe they just didn't have that medicine they needed to help right some chemical imbalance.

There were bag ladies, with shopping bags and the odd shopping cart filled to capacity with whatever it was they deemed valuable to their continued street survival.

I didn't see any kids - thank goodness… nor did I see what could be considered young adults… but who knows, the street 'kids' I used to talk to on a regular basis in Toronto all looked far older than their years.

I didn't feel threatened while walking through this makeshift street village.

Basically… under the highway, there was a wide expanse of pavement - an island, that separated the two traffic directions… that was where the 'village' was.

On an island.

I don't know how these walking poor of Japan survive. Unless they have a post office box, they lack an address and therefore can not get any government 'welfare'… they become less than human… something that slips betweens the cracks of society… out of sight and out of mind.

I walked around the area(s) a bit (I did see the same situation in both Tokyo and Osaka), and parked myself a discrete distance away to observe - because that's what I do, being such a curious sort.

I never saw any of these people ask for money, or food or drink from anyone… it was like they knew that they were an embarrassment to Japanese society.

As well, I never saw any Japanese person go out of their way to hand a few yen to any of these people - perhaps for fear that either:
1) poverty is contagious;
2) fear of starting a stampede of homeless looking for cash;
3) fear of being robbed;
4) add your own reason. There are plenty, I suppose.

At least in Toronto (and New York, where I got hit up once - they cleared all the homeless out from the city… to where, I don't know) the homeless will ask people for change, or a smoke which is also a currency on the street… some just beg, others offer a service, and by that I mean will wash your car windshield… some will play music on a harmonica, some will quote poetry, some will wisecrack jokes… I don't know how the hell they feel like making people smile… but I admire the fact that many will barter services for food or money. It's what we all do, I suppose, just in more "socially acceptable" ways.

When I used to go downtown every weekend, my friend Rob and I would be hit on for cash maybe four or five times each… we didn't mind. We had our regulars. Sometimes they would talk, sometimes I would. Everyone who recovered a 'loan' from us always thanked us loudly.

But I never saw that in Japan… everyone just ignored everyone else.

It was like everyone was afraid to acknowledge that their country could ever come to such dire straits… that it should ever have nails standing up.

Japan is no different from other countries… except that now… despite the efforts of many a contingent of JETs trying to internationalize it, Japan seems to finally realize that is the case.

Andrew Joseph
PS: Thanks to Vince for pointing out the story in the Japan Times:
I've wanted to write about this topic for years, but lacked any data, except what I had physically seen on my walkabouts. And, I hate writing about stuff like this. 

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