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Japan’s downward spiral

One in six Japanese are now poor. The new government has vowed to tackle the problem, but how?

A man receives a food handout in Nagoya. (Photo by Issei Kato/Reuters.)

TOKYO – For at least a quarter century Japan has taken great pride that its post-war economic miracle created a nation of middle-class people. Polls typically found that 80 to 90 percent of Japanese identified themselves as middle-income.

But in recent years, despite intermittent government assurances to the contrary, Japanese citizens have grown to suspect their country’s capitalist egalitarianism was a relic of the past. In fact, rising concerns about poverty, coupled with a deep discontent about the status quo represented by the entrenched Liberal Democratic Party, helped Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s party win a resounding victory in August.

It's now clear that the suspicions of widespread destitution were well founded. In October the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare released income figures for the first time. The numbers show that 15.7 percent of the population is living in poverty, as defined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD. The survey was based on data from 2006, and the situation has likely grown worse. Unemployment has risen sharply during the economic crisis, and welfare budgets have been squeezed.

The working poor, or “warking pua” as they are called in Japanese, now number 10 million out of a population of 127 million. Add their dependents, single-parent households, the unemployed and elderly people ill-served by the creaking pension system and one in six people in the world’s second richest nation is struggling....


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