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Japan Political Pulse: Poverty and indifference

While Japan's economy has been in a slump, it is still an economic giant, relatively speaking. It's easy to pretend that poverty doesn't exist when you don't see it in your immediate environment.

    But according to 34-year-old social worker Takanori Fujita, poverty that may be invisible on the surface is spreading within the depths of Japanese society. What he calls on the public to think about is our indifference toward poverty, and a tendency to loathe social welfare, based on indifference and misunderstanding.

    Fujita is the founder of the nonprofit organization Hotplus in Saitama Prefecture, and for over a decade, has been involved in helping those in need in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

    His 2015 book, "Karyu rojin (Low-class elderly people)," included real examples of people who fell on hard times due to factors such as high medical bills resulting from illness or accidents, split pensions as a result of divorces late in life, and adult children who are dependent on their parents -- all things that could happen to anyone. The book and its sequel sold a total 250,000 copies, and the term "karyu rojin," which Fujita coined, was nominated as a candidate for the 2015 Shingo Ryukogo Taisho (buzzword-of-the-year award).

    In the fall of last year, Fujita was summoned to the House of Representatives' Committee on Health, Labor and Welfare as a witness to testify about poverty among the elderly.

    Poverty can be classified into two categories: absolute and relative. Absolute poverty, which relates to life or death situations, can be described as a problem seen mostly in developing countries. Meanwhile, relative poverty is the type in which people may own a cell phone, but have never been able to buy new clothes. In other words, the latter is a problem of income disparity -- a problem seen in many industrialized nations.

    The rate of relative poverty is determined by setting the earnings of an average household as the standard and calculating how many low-income households exist, using a mathematical formula. This index has increased from the 12 percent recorded in 1985, when the Japanese government began its survey, to 16.1 percent in 2012. Among the 34 members countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Japan had the sixth highest rate of relative poverty as of 2010.

    Those who consult the staff at Fujita's Hotplus are not all elderly. Poverty today affects young and middle-aged people, both men and women.

    Starting in June 2016, Fujita reported on the types of people who have reached out to Hotplus for assistance in a series on the Mainichi Shimbun website's "Keizai puremia" section (in Japanese only). He wrote about children who could not afford to buy school supplies; employees exhausted from working under harrowing labor conditions; people who left their jobs to care for their aging parents, only to fall into poverty together; and female college students trying to get by in life by working in the sex industry. The series has been compiled into a book titled "Hinkon crisis (Poverty crisis)," published in March.

    There is a film that has managed to portray the "poverty crisis," albeit in England, quite accurately. In "I, Daniel Blake," 59-year-old widower Blake is diagnosed with heart disease and is told by his doctor he can no longer work as a joiner. He applies for employment and support allowance but is denied, with authorities believing he is not trying hard enough to find work. Katie is a single mother of two who is denied welfare support for being late to an appointment at a work support service office. She receives food from a food bank, works at a brothel, and aspires to attend university.

    Director Ken Loach won the Palme d'Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival for the film. The title, "I, Daniel Blake," is a display of Daniel's anger that he is neither a freeloader nor a national security number, but a human being.

    I saw the film on a weekend, in Tokyo's Yurakucho district. The theater was packed, but the movie's box office sales are nothing compared to "La La Land" and "your name." In that sense, one could say there's not much interest in the film or the issues it addresses.

    A single human being cannot maintain an interest in everything, and they shouldn't, anyway. However, what we are indifferent to determines the quality of our society. (By Takao Yamada, Special Senior Writer)


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