At less than 3 percent, Japan's unemployment rate is the lowest among advanced industrialized nations. There are some European countries where over 10 percent of the workforce is jobless, and Japan's "full employment" is the envy of the world. Nevertheless, Japan's workers are not all smiles about this country's employment situation.
According to the National Tax Agency, the average take home income of someone working full- or part-time for a private company in 2016 was about 4.22 million yen -- over 10,000 yen more than the year before. However, that is still less than the average of about 4.37 million yen for 2007, the year before the collapse of Lehman Brothers sent the world economy into a deep freeze.
Furthermore, there are major differences in how much a worker brings home from the job depending on their employment status. The average permanent worker pocketed some 4.87 million yen in 2016, while non-permanent staff averaged 1.72 million yen -- a yawning gap of about 3.15 million yen. This divide has widened every year since 2012, when the agency began monitoring permanent and non-permanent worker income separately.
According to a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare survey, Japan's workforce has recently expanded from 51.61 million people to 53.91 million. However, companies have put major efforts into diverting that employment growth into low-cost positions, leading the number of irregular workers to grow from 18.16 million to 20.23 million.
The Japanese government has been leaning on companies to create more permanent positions, and to raise pay rates during the annual spring wage negotiations, but the effect has been limited. The past four years have seen base-pay increases, but only among major firms belonging to the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) and then only for permanent staff.
Furthermore, can someone taking home just 1.72 million yen per year truly plan for the future?
The welfare ministry's Comprehensive Survey of Living Conditions showed that Japan's relative poverty rate dropped from 16.1 percent in 2012 to 15.6 percent in 2015. However, the study also showed that 50.8 percent of single-parent households were in poverty -- the worst rate in the OECD.
Meanwhile, 38 percent of single-mother households reported having "no savings," while 83 percent complained of "difficulty making ends meet." According to the OECD, the chances of a Japanese single-parent household falling into poverty remain high even if the parent is working. The poverty rate among working one-parent households in most countries is 10 to 20 percent -- a sharp contrast to Japan's high figures.
A tragedy symbolic of Japan's poverty problem occurred in Chiba Prefecture three years ago. A woman in her 40s murdered her daughter, a second-year junior high school student.
The single mother took in a total of about 120,000 yen per month from her part-time job at a school lunch center and through child support payments. She did not want to deprive her daughter of opportunities, so she borrowed money to pay for the girl's school uniform and a gymnastics outfit. At the same time, she fell 12,800 yen behind in her rent at the public housing complex where they lived.
During the woman's trial, she stated that the school lunch center had told her that "holding more than one part-time job is impossible." Furthermore, she reported that the municipal public assistance section refused her request for aid "because I was working, among other reasons, so I couldn't depend on that."
Eviction day came and, intending to take her own life next, the woman killed her daughter.
It would be easy to label her actions selfish and ignorant. There were also real problems with how the municipality and the prefecture responded to the woman's predicament. However, why did this tragedy happen at all? Is there not a need to consider the policies and systems that led to this fatal turn of events?
During the October House of Representatives election, most of the parties included pledges to tackle the poverty problem in their platforms. Phrases such as "breaking the chain of poverty," "correcting the wealth gap and poverty," and "strengthening measures against child poverty" featured prominently.
The problem has been given greater gravitas as it has surpassed political positioning to become a common sense issue. No longer is it being thrust aside with dismissive comments about "personal responsibility," as awareness has spread that ignoring poverty poses a threat to Japan's entire social security system.
According to a Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications survey, last year there were about 2.88 million unmarried people aged 35 to 44 living with their parents. Of those, some 520,000 also relied on their parents economically, and can be considered a segment of society in "latent poverty."
Both the "working poor" households and the segment depending on parental assistance to survive must put all their energy into the daily struggle to make ends meet. It would be asking a great deal to expect these people to help prop up the social security system, such as by paying premiums from already severely strapped household budgets.
Many families in poverty also worry immensely that their children will not have access to future educational opportunities, including going on to college or university. The "working poor" problem is a vicious hereditary cycle, and if it expands, the number of people able to pay into the social welfare system will surely shrink.
The countries of North America and Europe have been debating the working poor issue both internally and at international conferences since the 1990s, as they worried it would damage the viability of their social security systems, open social divisions and spark instability. Some tried to solve the problem using the tax system and social welfare payments, but these measures have not been able to catch up with the issue, and remain a trial-and-error process.
Japan is the first country heading into the extreme graying of society, so it has no set playbook to go by. We need a plan drawn up with the long view in mind, and we need to build it quickly.