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Home > Special Topics > Social Trends Last Updated: 15:18 03/09/2007
Social Trends #11: October 17, 2002

Inadequate Social Welfare Provisions for Poor Japanese Families: Increasing Cases of Destitution in 2002

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)

A full list of articles in this series can be found here.

By European Union standards, Japan has rather meagre social welfare provisions for poor families. Although the state provides various forms of social assistance to needy families, in 2002 a growing number of these people were slipping through an increasingly overloaded and unfunded social safety-net. As traditional family support networks continue to weaken, many poor families will increasingly fall through the deficient welfare system. Chronic poverty caused by the long-economic recession is often cited as a major factor behind the country's currently sky-rocketing suicide rate.* However, far less attention has been given to the inadequate framework of social transfers that is a major contributory factor behind the kind of destitution which leads to suicide and other tragedies. Although the case described below is an extreme example, it graphically illustrates what can occur when the welfare system fails.

The following account was compiled using three different articles which appeared at the end of February 2000 in two Japanese national newspapers, the Yomiuri-shimbun and the Mainichi-shimbun. Although the events occurred at the beginning of February, they were not reported in the media until the end of the month. **

At about 11 pm on the evening of 8 February 2000, a young woman in Utsunomiya city, Tochigi Prefecture, rang for an ambulance. The 29-year-old mother told the emergency services that her infant daughter had lost consciousness and she was very concerned about her. When the medical team arrived, the child was in a critical condition and died shortly afterwards from hypothermia.

The apartment in which both the mother and child were living was discovered to have no electricity, gas or water. All had apparently been cut off because the family could not afford to pay the bills. Mother and daughter had been able to survive mild winter temperatures under these conditions, but a sudden cold spell had sent temperatures plummeting. As a result, the baby froze to death in the unheated apartment.

An autopsy revealed that there was nothing in the little girl's stomach and she was suffering from malnourishment. This had considerably weakened the child and was cited as being a contributory factor in her death. The mother was also diagnosed as being undernourished and required hospitalization for malnutrition.

It is believed that the infant had not eaten any food for a week while the mother had not done so for about two weeks. They had been able to obtain water from a communal tap in the apartment complex and this had sustained them. The family had no money with which to buy food as the mother was unemployed and there had been a delay in processing her social assistance claim.

The woman had applied for child allowance in October 1999, but had not received any payments. According to officials at the Utsunomiya city hall, this was because the mother lacked a bank account number which is a requirement before money can be remitted. At a later date, it was determined that the mother qualified for social assistance payments (seikatsu hogo) and these were eventually sent out to the mother. Tragically, the household did not receive the money until 9 February 2000, which was the day after the baby died of the cold.

An official at Utsunomiya city hall said that because of privacy concerns, they had not inquired about the mother's economic circumstances when she initially applied for child allowance. On that occasion, it appears the mother did not seek advice on what kinds of support benefits were available to her and the child. The mother was quoted as saying that because she was totally unaware of the existence of social assistance, she had not made any inquires about it during her first visit to the welfare department in October 1999. This lack of knowledge appears to be one of the main factors behind the long delay in receiving any form of assistance.

The woman's neighbours knew little about the mother or her plight, only recognizing her by face. She was living in an apartment block that was mostly inhabited by young, single people. Distant relatives in the same city had helped pay her rent, but this assistance ceased at the beginning of the year. The relatives had possibly moved away. Gas and water supplies were cut off in January due to non-payment of bills.

Before getting pregnant, the woman had worked in a department store. She later quit this job, doing some part-time work for the post office before becoming unemployed. Apparently, the father of the child had disappeared sometime before his daughter was born. The couple had not married and the father's whereabouts were not know. The mother was quoted as saying, "When I became pregnant, I was very happy. Even thought the father was absent, I thought I still could bring the child up alone."

While policymakers would maintain that an infant freezing to death due to poverty is an atypical occurrence in Japan, it nevertheless dramatically highlights the inadequacies of the current social safety-net for the most vulnerable families.

According to government statistics released in August 2002, lone-mother households (comprising divorced, separated, widowed or unmarried mothers and their children) are the poorest families in Japan. The majority of mother-headed families now live well below the poverty line. Government figures also show that there has been a massive rise in the number of such families over the past decade. ***

As the Japanese divorce rate continues to soar, the number of women and children living in poverty is certain to increase still further. Despite the already severe levels of poverty amongst these families, the government has so far completely failed to produce a realistic plan to deal with this mounting social crisis. ****

To date, the only government response to this disturbing social trend has been to reduce the welfare budget for mother-headed families. From the beginning of August 2002, Prime Minister Koizumi enacted measures restricting the eligibility to dependent-child allowance (Jidoufuyouteate). Previous reductions in this allowance have been accompanied by increases in poverty rates among mother-headed families. Mothers are still entitled to social assistance (Seikatsu hogo), but the criteria for receiving it have become stricter due to recent austerity measures.

A rising number of poor families combined with decreasing welfare budgets are certain to exacerbate already existing deficiencies in the system. Poverty prevention is an area of policy that Japan must urgently address, otherwise it runs the risk of child poverty rapidly becoming a wide spread social phenomenon.


* Parental Suicide in Japan
J. Sean Curtin, NBR'S JAPAN FORUM, Monday 11 March 2002

** Konkyuu…2saijoji toushi
[Destitution…2 year girl freezes to death]
Mainichi-shimbun 26 February 2000, p. 21

Konkyuu nohate 2saiji toushi
[Dire destitution 2 year old freezes to death]
Yomiuri-shimbun , 27 February 2000, p. 34

Seikatsu hogo shiranakatta hahooya – Utsunomiya no nisai joji suijaku toushi
[Mother knew nothing of social assistance - malnourished two-year old infant girl in Utsunomiya freezes to death]
Yomiuri-shimbun , 28 February 2000, p. 34

*** Poorest Japanese Families Getting Poorer
J. Sean Curtin, Social Trends: Series #4, GLOCOM Platform, 28 August 2002

**** The Current State of Divorce in Japan: Record Number of Marital Dissolutions in 2001
J. Sean Curtin, Social Trends: Series #10, GLOCOM Platform, 7 October 2002

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