NGOs and volunteers say increasing numbers of young Japanese are existing below the poverty line and that the government should be doing more to tackle a problem with major implications for society. Julian Ryall reports.
Given its status as one of the wealthiest nations in the world and a reputation as a nurturing and caring society, Japan is not usually associated with poverty. But it is a growing problem here and the issue is causing particular concern when it impacts children.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) released a report in April in which it painted what can only be described as a grim picture of child poverty in Japan. It stated that the children of the poorest households in Japan are significantly more disadvantaged than their counterparts in most other industrialized nations.
The study examined the relative differences between children at the bottom of the income ladder and those in the middle tiers, with the inequality gap in Japan the eighth largest of the 41 countries surveyed.
One in six children
Japan was also well below average in its relative poverty rate, or the ratio of people living on less than half the median income. By this measure, one child in every six in Japan is poor.
In some parts of Japan, such as economically depressed Okinawa Prefecture, the problem is even starker. Earlier this year, prefectural authorities released statistics showing that 29.9 percent of children are existing below the poverty line, a figure that is 80 percent higher than the national average.
The government has started taking measures to address the problem, with a law designed to combat child poverty going into effect in 2014 and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressing on several occasions his commitment to solving the problem.
But NGOs and volunteers at the sharp end of the struggle say that measures to date are too little and largely too late for many children.
"The poverty rate that we see today demonstrates just how hard life has become for children in Japan over the last 25 years," said Yasushi Aoto, chairman of the Japan Association of Child Poverty and Education Support Organizations.
Education and unemployment
"In the years since Japan's economic bubble burst, there have been two main factors behind the increase in the poverty rate," he told DW. "One is education and the other is unemployment."
Aoto's organization estimates that 3.5 million children under the age of 17 are living in poverty, in which their households are earning less than Y3 million (24,423 euros) a year - at present. According to government statistics, however, families are claiming welfare support for a mere 200,000 children, with NGOs saying the reasons for such a low take-up of aid are complicated. One of the biggest hindrances, they say, is the social stigma in Japanese society associated with not working and simply accepting hand-outs.
Equally, fees for university have soared in recent years, meaning that children from less well-off households have little chance of getting a place. Thousands are not even able to complete their senior high school education due to a dire economic situation at home. These children will find it extremely difficult to pull themselves out of their poverty in the future, Aoto said.
And he has little faith in the promises of Abe or his government.
"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 said.
"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.
"There are virtually no systems in place at this moment to support these people, so our organizations are trying to fill the gap on a voluntary basis," he added.
Chieko Kuribayashi is chief director of the Toshima Kodomo WakuWaku Network non-profit organization and came up with the idea of the first "children's cafeteria" in Toshima Ward for disadvantaged 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 said. "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."
Surviving every day
"One of the children said to me she was not sure about learning, but every day she got Y500 (4.07 euros) from her mother for a lunch box - and that was how she survived every day," Kuribayashi said.
As well as providing a place where local children can meet up, share a nutritious meal together and simply spend time in a comfortable environment, high school and university students volunteer their time 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 and we can together start to consider the measures that need to be taken, such as by providing children's cafeterias or volunteering. This is an opportunity to think about our children's futures."