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Central gov't support failing to reach Okinawa's most vulnerable

The chief of the citizens' group "Single Mothers Forum Okinawa," center, speaks with mothers in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, on April 22, 2017. (Mainichi)

May 15 marked the 45th anniversary of Okinawa's return to Japan, and over that time the Japanese government has poured a total of some 12 trillion yen into the promotion and development of the prefecture's social infrastructure.

Yet, due in great part to the 27 years of United States military rule after World War II, per capita income in Okinawa is still just around 70 percent of the Japanese national average, while employment instability continues to stalk the island. Child poverty has also become a prominent social issue in recent years.

"When I look at employment ads, all I see are jobs with monthly salaries in the hundred-and-something-thousand-yen range," said one woman at a recent meeting in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, organized by the "Single Mothers Forum Okinawa" citizens' group. Another mother lamented, "There are a lot of non-permanent positions."

Circumstances for single mothers can be tough anywhere, but they are especially hard in Okinawa Prefecture. Hourly wages are typically lower than elsewhere in Japan and, according to a 2013 prefectural study, the average annual income for single-mother households was 1.55 million yen. Divorced mothers often don't get any child support from their former partners as the men have poor earning power. One woman in her 40s with one child in primary school and another in junior high told the Ginowan meeting, "I don't get any child support and my savings won't last for more than a year or two. To be honest, things would be very difficult even if I was working."

Low incomes hit single-parent households particularly hard, but child poverty overall has reached crisis levels on the islands. Based on household income and social welfare data, the Okinawa Prefectural Government estimates the prefecture's child poverty rate stands at 29.9 percent, nearly double the national rate of 16.3 percent.

Furthermore, local social support networks remain weak. One-year kindergartens for 5-year-olds were established under U.S. rule, but day care facilities for pre-kindergarten kids including infants have been slow in coming. The waiting list for spots in licensed day care centers is the second longest in Japan, behind only Tokyo. Meanwhile, some 80 percent of after-school day care services in other parts of Japan are backed by a local government. In Okinawa, the figure is less than 10 percent, and private operators charge relatively high fees.

In 2015, so-called "nuclear families" made up 58.7 percent of Okinawan households, a touch higher than the national average of 55.9 percent, making it harder for parents to receive support from their parents in child-rearing.

One 30-year-old single mother in the Okinawan capital Naha told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I make between 100,000 and 120,000 yen per month as a non-regular office worker. My eldest son says he wants to go to a cram school, but it's (financially) impossible."

The national government has launched an anti-child poverty initiative, and Okinawa Prefecture was granted 1 billion yen in funding as part of local promotion efforts in fiscal 2016, and another 1.1 billion yen in fiscal 2017.

"Foundational child support measures are weaker (in Okinawa) than anywhere else in the country," commented Nagoya University of Arts and Sciences professor and Okinawan affairs expert Kenji Yoshiba, demanding immediate improvement on the situation.

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