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Home > Special Topics > Social Trends Last Updated: 15:18 03/09/2007
Social Trends #100: February 25, 2005

Poor Families in Today's Japan: Part Seven -
Surge in the Number of Poor Japanese Families (ii): High Divorce Rates Creating More Poor Families

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)

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

High divorce rates creating more poor families
Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry survey shows that 80 percent of lone-mother households were formed as a result of divorce.* At present about 978,500 households are fatherless due to marital breakup, representing an increased of 49.7 percent from the previous poll. It is estimated that in 2003 there were about 1,225,400 fatherless families in Japan.

Nationwide, the number of fatherless families in fiscal 2003 accounted for 2.7 percent of the country's 45.8 million families. The number of unmarried mothers remained relatively low, standing at about 70,500, up just two percent from the previous survey. However, over the last decade divorce rates have shot up, bringing current Japanese divorce levels in line with EU averages. On the other hand, Japan lags behind the US where rates are exceptionally high by international standards. In 2004 there were about 267,000 divorces in Japan compared to 283,854 in 2003. While the actual numbers decreased, so did marriages, so not much has really changed (see Tables 1 & 2 at the end of article).

Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University Japan and author of Japan's Quiet Transformation, explained, "The problem in Japan is the reality that higher divorce rates lead to a higher incidence of poverty, and that a lot of women are working, these two facts have not yet caught up with social policy." He added, "Policies have generally been based on a false assumption of stable families with one breadwinner."

Kingston also said, "The problem is that the ideology of the strong, stable, secure family with the husband who is the breadwinner with a secure job does not match the reality. Thus, the policies that are currently in place are clearly inadequate."

Poor children lose out to the elderly
By European Union standards, Japan has very limited social welfare provisions for poor families. Critics argue that at present Japanese welfare policy focuses far too much on the elderly at the expense of other needy groups like children living in poverty. Despite a sharp increase in the number of children experiencing economic hardship, social welfare policy continues to be almost exclusively orientated towards the elderly. Many political commentators say this is for electoral reasons as the elderly are much more likely to vote than younger age groups.

In August 2002, the government reduced welfare allowances for needy children and has since initiated a series of austerity measures. Machiko Osawa, a professor at Japan Woman's University, commented, "Alarmingly, they are now tightening the conditions for receiving welfare, making them even stricter. I think they make these assumptions in the belief that the 'family' can take care of these social needs."

Osawa believes there is an imbalance in the way the state distributes resources to various needy groups. She explained, "If you look at the way the social welfare budget is allocated, and this is probably because of the aging society, a huge proportion of the money is designated for the elderly. The social security budget seems to be driven by the needs of the elderly and there is no innovation for the changing needs of society."

However, Yoshio Maya, a professor at Nihon University Graduate School who also advises the Japanese government, rejects this argument as well as comparisons between Japanese lone-mothers and their EU counterparts. He believes Japanese welfare priorities are correct and that it is right to focus on the elderly. He said, "In Japan it is easier for this group of mothers to get a part-time job and the level of remuneration they receive for such work is not so bad. Therefore, the living standard of single-mothers is not so poor and they can manage on an adequate economic level. Also, the average number of children these Japanese mothers have to care for is comparatively low, usually one or two children."

If current policy does not change, the number of poor children living in Japan looks almost certain to increase. Furthermore, if traditional family support networks continue to weaken and divorce rates remain high, a great many more vulnerable families will fall through the ever widening gaps in the welfare safety net system, creating new tragedies.

For the first part of this article see here.

* About the survey
The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry interviewed 3,792 households randomly selected from those in the 2000 census. From this group it estimated that there are now about 1,225,400 fatherless families in Japan. The data was collected in November 2003 and released near the end of January 2005. Earlier national surveys on lone-mother households put their numbers at 789,900 in 1993 and at 954,900 in 1998.

In the survey, a lone-mother household was defined as one where the father is absent and the divorced, separated, widowed or unmarried mother lives with a child, or children, under the age of 20.

Table 1: Number of Divorces and Divorce Rate 1990-2004
YearNumber of Divorces Divorce Rate
2004about 267,000(not yet available)
Source: Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 2005

Table 2: Number of Marriages and Marriage Rate 1990-2004
YearNumber of Marriages Marriage Rate
2004about 725,000 (not yet available)
Source: Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 2005

Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. Some parts of this article have appeared in a different form in Asia Times Online, http://www.atimes.com, and those parts are republished with permission.

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

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications