Poor Families in Today's Japan: Part Six -
Surge in the Number of Poor Japanese Families (i): Fatherless Families Hit 1.22 Million
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)
A full list of articles in this series can be found here.
This two-part article examines newly released national data on poor single-parent families in Japan.* Comprehensive, detailed surveys on underprivileged families are only conducted every few years, making their publication an extremely important source of information on these disadvantaged households. The only other sources of data are smaller regional surveys and case studies, some of which are also covered in this series. To obtain an even more in-depth view on the lives of mother-headed families, this report should also be read in conjunction with an earlier survey-related article that provides some additional insights into the lives of these families not covered in the following two-part piece. (Related article here.)
Fatherless Families Hit 1.22 million in Fiscal 2003
A newly released government survey* estimates that the number of fatherless families in Japan has skyrocketed, hitting 1.22 million in fiscal 2003. This is the highest number ever recorded and represents a massive 28.3 percent increase from the previous survey conducted five years ago. The figures also show that the vast majority of children in these households are living far below the poverty line, creating a rapidly growing underclass of impoverished families.
The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry data highlight the complete failure of government policy to address important social changes that have occurred over the last decade, particularly the massive rise in divorces involving children (see the second part of this article).
Over the past decade low female wages, a non-functional child support payment system, an inadequate social welfare policy, and a weakening of traditional family support networks have all contributed to the redrawing of the Japanese poverty map. Previously, elderly households constituted the bulk of the poor, but today the balance has firmly shifted to mother-headed families.
Most lone-mother and their children now live in poverty, with many experiencing real hardship. In 2001, the average income of a lone-mother family was about 2.52 million yen (US$23,850). The latest data estimates this has fallen to just 2.12 million yen in fiscal 2002, almost three times less than the median figure. In 2000, the average household income was about 6.17 million yen, and for an elderly household the figure was 3.19 million yen.
Some low income families are experiencing such extreme poverty that there have been a few cases of mothers and their children dying from malnutrition. One such incident was reported at the beginning of February 2005 when a 27-year-old mother and her three-year-old son were found staved to death in their apartment in Saitama Prefecture, near Tokyo. Police reported that there was no food in the apartment and the woman only had eight yen in her purse.
An unmarried mother living on a very low income in snowy northern Japan, said, "It is hardest to manage in winter because of heating costs, especially this year. I try to stay at work for as long as possible because it's warm there and my son is in a well-heated daycare center. For mothers like me daycare is free, so it is best he is there for as long as possible. At home, we stay in one room and wear blankets to keep us warm." She added, "Ever since I read about the mother whose baby froze to death because she could not pay for the electricity, I feel so worried."
International research has shown that in developed countries the three primary causes of lone-mother poverty are low wages, non-payment of child support money by absent fathers and inadequate social transfers. Japan is seriously deficient in all three categories, creating an environment in which poverty levels are almost certain to increase.
The new survey calculated that 83 percent of lone-mothers were working, compared with an average of about 86 percent for the pervious decade. The employment rates of Japanese lone-mothers are the highest in the industrialized world, although in recent years they have decrease slightly due the long recession and tough job market. Despite high labor force participation rates, their average wage has remained extremely low. This is because Japan has a widening gender-based wage gap and in recent years there has been a proliferation of low paid non-standard forms of employment in which many lone-mothers are engaged.
Child support system totally inadequate
Non-payment of child support (maintenance) by absent fathers is one of the main causes of poverty for lone-mother families, especially in Japan which has a completely inadequate collection system. (Related article here.) According to the latest survey, only 34 percent of divorced mothers had functioning support payment agreements with fathers.
The Japanese child support system is deficient in several key areas, most crucially there is no effective mechanism for enforcing the payments or collecting arrears. The courts normally do not take action if a delinquent father fails to meet his obligations. Basically, if a father reneges on an agreement, most mothers can do very little about it unless they are wealthy enough to pursue the matter through Japan's notoriously slow, time-consuming and expensive legal system. Even then, if the mother wins, the courts can only legally force a father to pay a quarter of the originally agreed monthly child support payments. Since payments are extremely low compared to the cost of living, this also acts as yet another disincentive for seeking legal redress. The current system leaves mothers and children at the mercy of fathers, who if they decide not to pay face no real penalties.
Kanami, a divorcee with three sons, explained her own situation, "My husband left us to marry a younger woman. He still lives nearby, but refuses to pay any money for the boys. The local authorities have asked him, but he refuses and they say there is nothing they can do. It seems so unfair that he can just abandon us like this and get away with it."
To try to tackle cases like this, the law was revised in April 2003 with the supposed aim of making more divorced fathers pay child support, but the half-hearted amendment has so far had zero impact. In fact, the situation has deteriorated as the average monthly maintenance payment five years ago was 53,200 yen and in the new survey it is only 44,660 yen, a decrease of 8,540 yen or 16 percent.
All past attempts to effectively amend the law have been derailed by a vocal group of conservative male lawmakers who claim that making men liable to pay for divorced children would go against so called "Japanese traditions."
For the second 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.
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.