According to Comprehensive Survey of Living Conditions, a report released in 2014 by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW) of Japan, the Japanese are economically worse off now than before. The relative poverty rate (the proportion of people with net income below a defined threshold) worsened to 16.1% in 2012 from 15% in 2004. The 2012 threshold calculated by MHLW based on OECD standards was 1.22 million yen, which was half of the median equivalent disposable income. Japan’s poverty rate was the 4th highest among the OECD countries, following Mexico, the country with the highest rate, Turkey and the United States. It also noted that the poverty rate of those under 18 years of age was 16.3%, indicating that one out of six children fall in this category (http://www.nipppon.com/en/features/h00072/). The rate was 11% in 1985, 12.1% in mid-1990s, 14% in mid-2000 and 15.7% in 2009 (OECD Family Database and http://www.oecd.org/els/social/inequality).
The trend of relative child poverty in Japan is worrying. The situation affects negatively the healthy growth, both physical and mental, of our future generations as well as their outlook on life. A study carried out among high school students regarding their future plans showed a close correlation between their aspiration to go on to university and the level of their family income (http://3keys.jp/state/).
Children should be allowed to hold aspiration for the future, irrespective of their economic condition at birth or during their childhood, and should be given the opportunity to strive for their dreams. So, unless we look at the hard reality of worsening child poverty and tackle the problem today, we may wake up one day with huge inequalities and little social mobility. This must be avoided in our society, the population of which is now declining. Securing a dynamic population is of utmost importance for our society to continue thriving in the 21st century.
Following WWII, the whole of Japan struggled to make ends meet, to rebuild the country destroyed in the war and to escape from the hardships experienced during and after the war. And, lo and behold, Japan became the second largest economy in the world by 1968, though surpassed by China in 2009 (The World Bank database). For a long time, the Japanese had little class consciousness. Most people used to consider themselves as part of the large middle class in an egalitarian society.
This changed around 1990, however, when Japan experienced a sharp economic downturn. Its net worth (national wealth), including land and stock prices, reached the peak of 3,531 trillion yen in 1990, which was eight times the GDP, but was down to 3,000 trillion yen at the end of 2012 (Statistics Bureau, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication: Statistical Handbook of Japan 2014).
After 1990, a growing number of workers faced an uncertain future. They suddenly found themselves unemployed or were forced to accept “non-regular” status, giving up the job security and accompanying fringe benefits they had enjoyed before. Many new entrants to the labor market were able to find only non-regular jobs without being able to accumulate seniority or being able to claim benefits, such as bonuses, which were offered only to regular employees. Here, “non-regular workers” include part-time, temporary, seasonal and contract workers who do not enjoy company-provided social protection and other benefits that regular workers usually enjoy.
The figures below illustrate the changing employment structure in Japan. Although the total number of workers grew from 39.99 million in 1985 to 51.11 million in 2010, the rise was largely among non-regular workers — from 6.55 million to 17.56 million. The proportion of non-regular workers among all employees climbed from 16.4% in 1985 to 35.2% in 2012 (MHLW: Rohdohkeizai no bunseki (Analysis of labor economics), 2013). By 2013, non-regular workers increased to 19.06 million, 68% of which were women (http://www.stat.go.jp/data/roudou/sokuhou/4hanki/dt/).
This has led to lower average net income, but more importantly, to widening household income gaps. Among male regular workers in 2013, 39.6% earned 5 million yen or more, 37.7% between 3 to 4.99 million yen and 22.7% less than 3 million yen. Among male non-regular workers, only 4.4% earned 5 million yen or more, 15.3% between 3 to 4.99 million yen and 80.3% less than 3 million yen. On the other hand, only 13.7% of female regular workers earned 5 million yen or more, while 33% earned between 3 to 4.99 million yen and the rest (53.3 %) less than 3 million yen. In fact, 19.2% of them earned only between 1 to 1.99 million yen and 5.9% less than 1 million yen. Female non-regular workers fared far worse. Very few of them (0.4%) earned 5 million yen or more, while 3.1% earned between 3 to 4.99 million yen. Most of them were in the brackets below 3 million yen —10.9% between 2 and 2.99 million yen, 38.5% between 1 to 1.99 million yen and 47.1% below 1 million yen (Ibid.). Clearly, many women are below the poverty level.
True, there are women who work fewer hours than regular workers just to supplement household incomes. The income gap between regular and non-regular workers may be partly due to the number of hours of work, but that does not explain all cases. For example, a large proportion of contract workers put in as many hours as regular workers for much less income. While more than half of part-time workers put in fewer than 40 hours a week, a considerable proportion of them work more than 40 hours for grossly reduced income in relation to regular workers with comparable hours of work. (http://www5.cao.go.jp/j-j/wp/wp-je09/09b03010.html).
Today, a growing number of women are sole breadwinners in the family, raising their children as single/divorced mothers. As divorce has become more common (e.g. the number of divorce increased from 157,608 cases in 1990 to 231,000 in 2013, according to MHLW database on population, 2013), the number of such households climbed from 554,000 in 1989 to 821,000 in 2013. Because of women’s low wages, many are feeling the crunch. A survey discovered that among such households, 49.5% found life very difficult and 35.2% somewhat difficult, as opposed to 27.7% and 32.2% of all households expressing the same (http://www.mhlw.go.jp/toukei/saikin/hw/k-tyosa/k-tyosa13/). This helps to explain why child poverty in Japan has been worsening.
Child poverty cannot be reduced without first improving women’s employment situation and reducing gender gap in earnings. The government proposes a number of policies to address the problem. They include, among other things, reviews of employment practices and pay structures, affirmative action to help competent women advance to higher positions, in addition to increased aid to needy families. They are all fine, but I strongly suggest that the principle of “equal pay for the work of equal value”, as enshrined in ILO Convention No. 100 which Japan ratified in 1967, should finally be applied to workers in Japan.
Too many women in Japan have been pushed to low-pay jobs simply because they are women. Too many jobs women have are given a low value simply because they are done by women, even if they require skills and decision-making. The review of pay structure should therefore be made from the principle of “equal pay for the work of equal value” and not just “equal pay for equal work.” Applying this principle without gender bias should bring many women and their children out of poverty.