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Women, families, foreigners in Tokyo food line as pandemic-induced poverty tightens grip

Warm, hand-made bento boxed meals ready to be handed out at the "Toshikoshi Otona Shokudo 2021" (New Year's adult canteen 2021) are seen at St. Ignatius Church in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Jan. 1, 2021. (Mainichi/Sumire Kunieda)

TOKYO -- St. Ignatius Church in the capital's Chiyoda Ward is busy this first New Year's Day since the start of the coronavirus crisis, but not with worshippers. The economically hard-pressed people lined up at the Catholic church this day -- young women, families, and foreign nationals among them -- are there for the bento boxed meals being distributed to those in need.

    "Self-help and mutual-help only go so far," said a spokesperson for the main organization behind the "Toshikoshi Otona Shokudo 2021" (New Year's adult canteen 2021) event. "Now is the time for public support. We want the government to take steps to stop a wave of people in poverty from ending up on the streets."

    The meals being handed out include the bento box and soup, while staff are also giving clothes to those who want them. In addition, there are professionals on-hand dispensing advice on labor issues and daily life problems.

    One of the people there for the food was a 34-year-old graduate student carrying her 3-year-old daughter.

    People eat their "Toshikoshi Otona Shokudo 2021" (New Year's adult canteen 2021) bento meals outside as a coronavirus transmission countermeasure near St. Ignatius Church in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Jan. 1, 2021. (Mainichi/Sumire Kunieda)

    "This is the first time I've been to a place like this," she said. "I thought they also might have medicines and children's clothes." Her income has plunged since the pandemic made it impossible for her to do her part-time job, while the suspension of her student loan repayments during the coronavirus crisis has been but a small help.

    Another woman, a 44-year-old who worked as a part-time receptionist among other jobs, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Parties have almost dried up because of the coronavirus, and I had nearly zero income in December." She added that she'd had steadily less work since about March last year. In a normal December, she said, she'd pull in 600,000-700,000 yen (about $5,800-$6,800). Now, she has less than 200,000 yen left in savings and is several months behind in her public health insurance premiums. "If things go on like this for another month or two, I won't have anywhere to live. I'm serious."

    In the 2008-2009 New Year's period, just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered the global financial crisis, a similar event for temporary workers who got laid off was held. Then, almost all the people coming to seek help were men. Not so this year, young women with babies and even whole families joined the same food line as the middle-aged men who live on the streets.

    Cooking expert Nahomi Edamoto is overseeing the bentos. At first, she and her team made meals for 200 people, but these were all gone in about two hours. They cooked some more, and by 4:30 p.m. they had given out about 300 meals. Because of the coronavirus, the people had to eat them outside, on chairs set up along a nearby embankment. The day was sunny and relatively warm, so conditions were good.

    People line up at an "adult canteen" daily live consultation booth where there were notable numbers of women and foreign residents, at St. Ignatius Church in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Jan. 1, 2021. (Mainichi/Aya Shiota)

    Some foreign residents were also there for the meals. Ferbie Toledo, a 37-year-old English teacher from the Philippines, was there with his 35-year-old wife and their 6-month-old baby and their son, age 5. The family comes to St. Ignatius sometimes for mass, and was delighted when they learned of the bento event.

    Toledo said he had been living in Japan for 10 years, but his classes were mostly cut because of the pandemic, while his wife, who also works as a teacher, has been on maternity leave since their youngest son was born in June 2020. He told the Mainichi that they are pinching every penny, but that the family's savings are drying up. He hopes that his wife will be able to go back to work in April, and that the family will be able to hold out until then.

    In the line for receiving professional advice was a 31-year-old Cameroonian, who said with a hardened expression that she didn't have any food, money, or work. She arrived in Japan last February and filed a refugee claim. She was released from an Immigration Services Agency of Japan facility in June last year but had nowhere to go, and is now staying at a shared house in Tokyo's Itabashi Ward introduced by a nongovernmental organization. She says she wants to get a residency status soon, but that the pandemic is slowing the process down. She added that she had no family left in Cameroon, and wanted to make Japan her home.

    A 46-year-old Iranian woman had lost her part-time job at a meat processing company last year because of the coronavirus crisis. Now, she earns 9,000 yen (about $87) a day as a security guard at nighttime construction sites, and sleeps at a restaurant owned by a friend. She didn't have health insurance when she was living at a shared house, and worried that she would catch the virus there. She told the Mainichi that little information on daily life support programs reached foreigners in Japan, while internet connections and the Japanese language were also tough hurdles. She then asked if there were any free Japanese language classes she could take.

    "If things go on as they are, more and more people will be pushed out onto the streets with no way to support themselves," said Tsuyoshi Inaba, of the Emergency action for covid-19 disaster and the Tsukuroi Tokyo Fund organizations, which backed the food giveaway.

    When a state of emergency was declared last spring, internet cafes shut their doors, forcing day laborers who spent their nights at such establishments onto the street. And since October, people who have run through their savings after losing their jobs to the pandemic have apparently been joining them on the curbside in increasing numbers. More people in their teens and 20s are joining the ranks of Japan's impoverished.

    Tsuyoshi Inaba, one of the event's organizers, is seen at St. Ignatius Church in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Jan. 1, 2021. He says that "we've reached the limits of self-help and mutual help." (Mainichi/Sumire Kunieda)

    Inaba believes it is important to expand continuous special coronavirus crisis cash payments and housing aid, and to bolster efforts to get the word out about welfare programs.

    "There is a program to lend empty private houses to people who have lost their own homes, and I'd like to see full use made of that," said Inaba.

    (Japanese original by Sumire Kunieda and Aya Shiota, Integrated Digital News Center)

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