Family Trends: Part Two -
Poor Families Suffer as the Japanese Economy Continues to Deteriorate
J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)
This article originally appeared in another form in the March 19, 2003 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and is reproduced here with permission from the publisher.
A full list of articles in this series can be found here.
The alarming rise in the number of Japanese children living in poverty is perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of the country's prolonged economic woes. Most of Japan's poor children live in mother-headed households and over the last decade their ranks have rapidly grown as the country's divorce rate has soared. A battered economy, inadequate welfare policies and the government's complete failure to respond to changing family trends has compounded the plight of millions of disadvantaged children. As the economy continues to spiral downwards, the problem is reaching crisis proportions. Many psychologists blame the excessive economic hardships faced by single-parent families as an important factor behind the worrying rise in lone-mother suicides. In 2003, a record high divorce rate and the worsening economic outlook seem almost certain to accentuate an already critical situation.*
The provisional population data for 2002 shows that divorces hit an unprecedented 292,000 cases, the highest number in living memory. The upward trend in the statistics has been gaining momentum during the entire decade-long economic downturn and currently shows little sign of abating. In concrete terms, the 2002 figure represents an increase of 6000 divorces on 2001, equivalent to a 2.1% increase in just one year. This is at the same time as the number of marriages dropped by a hefty 5.6%. These figures mean that when the divorce rate is eventually calculated for 2002 it will exceed the record 2.27 per thousand people level that was recorded in 2001.**
Japan's 2.27 divorce rate now places the nation amongst the middle ranks of industrially advanced nations, ahead of such countries as the Netherlands (2.1), France (2.0), Portugal (1.9), Greece (0.9) and Italy (0.6), but behind Germany (2.3), Sweden (2.4) and the United Kingdom (2.6). Japanese commentators still tend to compare their country with the United States (4.1), which creates the false impression that the Japanese divorce rate is relatively low. The U.S. divorce rate has been high for many decades and is atypical by European standards.***
The number of mother-headed families in Japan substantially increased throughout the 1990s. A national survey is conducted on this social group every five years and it clearly illustrates the huge rise in numbers. The 1993 National Survey on Lone Mothers Household and Others registered 789,900 lone-mother households while the next survey recorded 954,900 in 1998. This was an increase of 165,000, which corresponds to an astonishing 20.9% rise in just five years. As the current divorce rate is on a sharp upward trajectory, this figure will have considerably increased when the 2003 results are published.
The severe degree of lone-mother poverty is visible in the income data from the most recent Citizen's Basic Living Survey published in August 2002. A married couple with children under the age of 18 had an average annual household income of about 7.26 million yen. This compares with an average annual income of a lone-mother household of just 2.52 million yen. This figure is almost a third lower than that of a two-parent household. This indicates that the average single-parent family lives way below the poverty-line which is normally measured as a household income falling below half of the national average. The survey also revealed that the long recession is affecting all families. Asked about their financial position, 59.3％ of married couples with children said they felt their economic situation was difficult. Not surprisingly, 81.6％ of Japanese lone-mothers responded to the same question by saying that they were experiencing extreme hardship. Although this survey was published in 2002, the data was gathered in 2001. In the intervening period the economic situation has considerably deteriorated meaning that poor families are now suffering even more.****
Although employment rates for Japanese lone-mothers are some of the highest in the developed world at about 86%, the average wage of these women is usually extremely low. Additionally, most Japanese fathers fail to pay child support payments for the upkeep of their former families. Unlike every other industrially advanced country, Japan has no effective legal framework for enforcing payment. Social welfare benefits for lone-parent families are totally inadequate and in recent years have been the target of aggressive austerity measures.*****
The Japanese government has failed to come up with any kind of effective strategy for reducing the level of poverty experienced by mother-headed families. Instead, over the last few years it has adopted an ultra-conservative approach of trying to discourage divorce by restricting the eligibility to various lone-mother welfare entitlements. For example, from August 2002 the income threshold for receiving a single-parent benefit called Dependent-child Allowance was lowered to below 1.3 million yen from 2 million yen. Groups representing single-parents have reported that this measure has caused increased hardship for families already on borderline incomes. There have even been a few tragic cases where children have either starved or frozen to death directly as a result of poverty. Lone-mother suicides for financial reasons have shot up in the last five years with local and national newspapers carrying daily reports of such tragedies.
Traditionally, Japanese people relied on family networks to support them in times of financial difficulty. However, as family ties have weakened and the slim welfare budget for mother-headed households eroded away, a large number of children now find themselves living in real poverty. Furthermore, there has been a depressing rise in cases where lone-mother families have completely fallen through the safety net with very tragic results. The increasing severity of the economic situation in 2003 will almost certainly compound this already serious problem. Eventually, the sheer scale of the social crisis will force Japanese lawmakers to adopt policies that take into account the realities of modern Japanese society. Until then, the plight of Japan's many poor children will continue to worsen.
A full list of articles in this series can be found here.
* Parental Suicide in Japan
NBR'S Japan Forum, 11 March 2003
** Family Trends in 2003: Declining Birthrates, Fewer Marriages, More Divorces
Social Trends: Series #26, GLOCOM Platform, 6 February 2003
*** The Current State of Divorce in Japan: Record Number of Marital Dissolutions in 2001
Social Trends: Series #10, GLOCOM Platform, 7 October 2002
Living Longer, Divorcing Later: The Japanese Silver Divorce Phenomenon
Debates, GLOCOM Platform, 5 August 2002
**** Poorest Japanese Families Getting Poorer
Social Trends: Series #4, GLOCOM Platform, 28 August 2002
***** Child Support Payments in 2002
Social Trends: Series #6, GLOCOM Platform, 9 September 2002