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Japan eyes 'seamless' measures to fight child poverty, yet for many struggles continue

Maki Shirahata sits at a table with children at a facility supporting them, in Chofu, Tokyo, on Nov. 30, 2019. (Mainichi/Kazuhiko Hori)

TOKYO -- New guidelines to fight child poverty in Japan received Cabinet approval on Nov. 29 after being revised for the first time in five years. The guidelines call for "seamless support from a parent's pregnancy to a child's independence in society," with a detailed approach to spotting problems and enhancing support.

It remains difficult, however, for those in poverty to lift themselves out of their situation, and it is not yet clear whether effective support will reach them.

One recent weekday evening in the suburban Tokyo city of Chofu, a stream of young people in their teens and 20s filed into an apartment having arrived from their own homes and workplaces

"I'm home," one young visitor called out.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center, attends a meeting on measures to counter child poverty, at the prime minister's office on Nov. 29, 2019. (Mainichi/Naotsune Umemura)

"Welcome home," came the reply. "Have you been in a fight? Your face looks that way."

The young people had arrived at a facility operated by Kiitos, an incorporated nonprofit organization. Greeting them was the organization's 70-year-old head Maki Shirahata. She and other staff members at the facility provide young people with hot meals, support their study and help them find jobs, among other activities.

In 2010, the facility began accepting children from households that were struggling financially. Many of them were referred there by the Chofu child and family support center and the city's education board. Some of the children are in in a struggle with poverty. There are also children there who have disabilities, or whose parents are disabled. Some have been subjected to domestic violence. In recent years, the number of children of foreign nationality has also been rising.

In addition to providing a place for young people to gather, Kiitos provides support for the households of children it looks after, sometimes covering their utility bills. "To provide solid support for children, you need to know the state of their households well, and forge a relationship of trust with the parents. A fine-tuned response is essential," Shirahata says.

One man in his 20s who has frequented the Kiitos facility for many years was raised in a single-parent household. The family struggled to pay for food, and often couldn't buy the clothes they needed.

Maki Shirahata sits at a table with children at a facility supporting them, in Chofu, Tokyo on Nov. 30, 2019. It is a daily routine for them to engage in casual conversation. (Mainichi/Kazuhiko Hori)

"My mother worked part-time jobs day in, day out while struggling with depression, and didn't have time to go and see the local government. I have no recollection of us ever receiving financial support," the man said.

After he graduated from high school, the man was given interview training at Kiitos while receiving a welfare benefit. He currently works as a contracted employee at an IT firm. Still, his take-home pay is only around 100,000 yen and some, and he can barely cover his rent and food expenses.

"I don't know what my life will be like tomorrow," the man confides. He wants the government to provide the minimum level of support that people need to preserve their livelihoods.

Another 49-year-old Tokyo woman who spoke to the Mainichi Shimbun is raising two children, who attend junior high and high school, by herself. She previously worked as a junior high and high school teacher, but a year and a half ago, she fell ill and left her job, and is now receiving a disability pension. She has been digging into her savings but doesn't know whether her children will be able to continue going to high school.

"I thought I should prepare them mentally for it, and told them, 'You might have to drop out of school.' I really didn't want to tell them that," she confesses.

The woman got divorced about 10 years ago, and had struggled as she juggled work and child-rearing. When they were little, she had to take them to separate child care centers and picked each up from the facilities. She also often had to bring her work home.

"I didn't have any hope. I was just busy," she recalls. "I didn't even have time just to let my mind go blank." Her husband was often late in depositing money for child support, but it was stressful for her to get a lawyer to prod him to make the payments. Government guidelines have continuously focused on promotion of measures to secure child support, but the woman says she wants the government to consider a system that forces people to make payments, from the perspective of the children's rights.

While receiving a disability pension, the woman looked for another job, and took a computer course under a job assistance scheme, among other steps. She also made use of local government work counselling and private career counselling services but was unable to receive an empathetic response that led to work.

"I want them to act before it's too late, such as by politely mediating with the places of employment," she says.

Japan's guidelines to counter child poverty are reviewed every five years under the law on measures to counter child poverty that entered into force in 2014.

Child poverty rates are defined as the rate of children under the age of 18 who live in households whose incomes do not reach half of Japan's average income. The poverty rate in Japan climbed to 16.3% in 2012. In 2015, it dipped slightly to 13.9%, but it remains a fact that many children are still facing tough circumstances. A government panel discussing the guidelines focused on the fact that the poverty rate is high among single-parent households, and that there are widening gaps in the level of support by area.

Aya Abe, a professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University whose research interests include poverty and social disparity, says that uniform standards should be introduced in Japan to make sure that the level of support does not depend on the region a child is raised.

Under the latest guidelines there are 39 indices of poverty, up from 25 five years ago. New indices include the rate of nonpayment of utility charges and the frequency of being unable to buy food or clothing. However, the guidelines provided no strategies on how to lift up children and guardians in need of support.

"We don't see the government coming out with any new concrete measures; officials are merely implementing existing policy, like raising the minimum wage or utilizing work training benefit systems," Abe says. She calls for a stronger response from the central government.

"Measures for children of foreign nationality and those with disabilities also need urgent attention," she adds. "Considering the current state of affairs in which poverty is being passed on from parents to their children and even their grandchildren, the government should have incorporated new countermeasures without simply sticking to precedent."

(Japanese original by Kazuhiko Hori, Political News Department, and Takuya Murata and Eri Misono, Lifestyle & Medical News Department)

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