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Editorial: Empathy needed in Japan to protect lives amid virus crisis and disparities

The area near Tokyo's Ikebukuro Station is undergoing a drastic change. In the past, the station's iconic West Gate Park was chaotic. Delinquent boys hung out there. It was even the stage of author Ira Ishida's novel, "Ikebukuro West Gate Park." It was also "home" to many homeless people.

Last fall, it was renovated into Global Ring Theatre, complete with a big screen and stage. There are signs prohibiting entrance from late at night to early morning, essentially shutting out the homeless people who used to live there.

After it was decided that the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics would take place in Tokyo, redevelopment in the city has progressed at a dizzying pace. And with it, there has been a certain phenomenon popping up all over the city. It is the tendency to eliminate things or people that we "do not want others to see" or "do not want to see ourselves."

But with the spread of the novel coronavirus, the Tokyo Games were postponed. The strains of society from which we had averted our eyes are now in the process of being exposed once again. A society of disparities in which people in weak positions bear most of society's burdens, losing their jobs and their homes, is rearing its ugly head.

It reminds us of New Year's Eve in 2008. A camp dubbed "Toshikoshi Hakenmura," or "New Year's Eve village for dispatched workers," was set up in Tokyo's Hibiya Park by unions and aid organizations to provide food and shelter for temp workers who had lost their jobs due to the economic crisis following the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Many who were wandering the streets descended upon the camp, and "haken giri" -- or dispatch cuts -- became a serious societal issue.

However, even after the economy improved, corporations' practice of relying on cheap and unstable non-regular labor was never fundamentally addressed.

The number of non-regular laborers continued to surge, and by 2019, had reached approximately 21.65 million. That's at least 4 million more than in 2008, and accounted for nearly 40% of all workers.

In Ikebukuro, which overflowed with unemployed people during the post-Lehman recession, the nonprofit organization Tenohasi still offers hot meals and assistance in finding apartments to people living on the streets. While taking precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus infections, the organization provides meals to over 200 people.

Among people who need assistance are those who had been "living" in internet cafes, or spent as much time as possible at family restaurants that operated late into the night while working as day laborers or part-time workers.

The number of such jobs plummeted with the spread of the coronavirus. Internet cafes are refraining from operating. It is expected that even more people will have no place to go.

Many people have weakened immune systems due to the harsh conditions they face. But there are very few means by which they can protect themselves from infection. Nonprofit organizations in Tokyo and Osaka are distributing masks they have in stock, but it's not enough.

"The number of people who come to our soup kitchens is definitely on the rise," says Kenji Seino, the 58-year-old director of Tenohasi. "A lot of people have no information, and don't know where to go to seek advice." The national and local governments should cooperate with nonprofits to offer assistance, including the provision of information.

Among the ranks of non-regular workers are people from the child-rearing generation. It is clear that if these workers were to lose their jobs or see their wages plummet, it could spur a situation in which more children are left in poverty.

Already, one out of every seven children in Japan are in poverty. It is said that half of children in single-parent households are in poverty. Such families have very little savings, and with the nationwide school closures, there are no school lunches, meaning that money spent on food rises. Under such straitened circumstances, it's possible that children's health could be at risk.

Japan has thus far failed to take full-fledged measures addressing children's poverty. It is essential that sufficient child allowances be distributed as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, "kodomo shokudo," or "children's cafeterias," which have had no choice but to shut down to prevent the spread of infection, have increasingly been providing children with handmade boxed "bento" meals to take home. People tend to exclude or reject others in order to prevent themselves from infection. But it is encouraging that measures to support those in weak positions are spreading.

The private sector's steady efforts, including nonprofit organizations' soup kitchens, are barely serving as safety nets.

In recent years, the disparities between the haves and have-nots have expanded around the world due to globalization. In Japan, too, the number of those who are wealthy has increased, while the middle class has thinned down during the eight years of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration.

As the stresses of society have grown, the coronavirus outbreak has weighed so heavily on the lives of the people that it has become difficult to maintain a sense of unity necessary to tackle the spread of infection. It is time that we fundamentally re-examine the disparities in our society.

The gap between the rich and the poor must not lead to a gap in health status, or between life or death. It is important to spread the message that every single one of us is a member of the same society. That will help us envision what our society will look like after the coronavirus crisis is over.

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