Japan redraws its line in the sand for poverty


If an income of ¥10 million a year can’t save you from poverty, what can?

When “Suzuki-san” (as we’ll call him) declared personal bankruptcy five years ago, he was ¥70 million in debt. His story is told by Spa! magazine as part of its report on personal bankruptcy. Suzuki is a financier. If expert knowledge can’t keep you in control of your personal finances, what’s the next best thing? Prudence, of course. People should live within their means. Advice like that, offered to the poor, may be insulting or condescending. But who can’t live on an income of ¥10 million a year?

Suzuki couldn’t, and he’s probably not alone. He’s 48 now, working on a postdownfall comeback. He sold securities for a leading financial firm and was very good at it — good talker, good listener, convivial dinner companion, a good fellow to drink with and no skinflint. To make money you must spend money — preferably company money, but if limits are clamped on that, as they began to be circa 1995 when recession bit, then you must spend your own, if you care about rising in the world.

So Suzuki wined and dined clients with his own money. His debts rose but his sales soared — so dramatically, in fact, that he failed to notice his salary wasn’t keeping pace. Life was high and life was fast. He lost all sense of limits. A new home, brand name goods, foreign travel — you can get drunk on it all!

The awakening, when it came, was very rude indeed.

Personal bankruptcies rose like a wave, then fell like one, peaking in 2010 at 180,000-odd cases nationwide, down to about half that by 2016. It’s movement in the right direction — a not very consoling thought to those left behind.

Bankrupt, Suzuki sold everything, and then — might he have been punishing himself? — quit his job. “I was afraid they’d fire me” — the ultimate indignity. A new start seemed called for, but you’re a less saleable commodity, pushing 50. Earning half what he used to at a new, less prestigious job, he slowly eroded the mountain of debt. The worst, he says, was sympathy from former colleagues and clients. They meant well, no doubt, but sympathy, to its object, can sound like gloating. In his mind, if not in fact, they’re saying what he knows is true: “It’s your own fault, stupid.”

The new job went badly; it was decline embodied. He chafed, squirmed, finally quit. The one comfort — a big one — was his wife. “I told her everything; she stayed with me.” They moved to South Korea, where he’s working his way up again — he hopes — as an online investor.

There are so many cracks a person can fall through. It’s true in most societies; shockingly so in Japan, which a generation ago seemed by and large to have solved its poverty problem. Now, one-sixth of its children grow up in poverty, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Poverty today is not poverty as it used to be, and poverty here is not what it is in less favored parts of the world. But soup kitchens, springing up all over the country, are a decidedly disturbing necessity.

One of a roughly estimated 400 nationwide is in Tokyo’s Ota Ward. Haruko Kondo opened it in 2012 in the organic grocery shop she owns. The inspiration, she tells the business weekly Shukan Diamond, came from one of her customers, an elementary school vice principal who, in the course of conversation, happened to say, “There are kids who, apart from school lunch, get by on no more than a banana a day.” Kondo was shocked. She’d lived in the neighborhood for years and yet had no idea. Japan is too prosperous a country for kids to be going hungry in. She got busy. Her “children’s cafeteria” dispenses hot meals for kids, families, anyone dropping by. She’ll take ¥100 from those who can spare it, less or nothing from those who can’t, no questions asked.

It’s a wonderfully humane gesture, of which not everyone wholeheartedly approves. Tokyo Metropolitan University professor Aya Abe fears governments using individual acts of kindness to justify their own inaction, when what’s needed, she tells Diamond, is precisely action on a level only municipal and national governments can rise to.

But democratic governments go where voters lead them. Do voters want the poor relieved of their burdens at public expense? An episode that occurred a year and a half ago in Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, suggests otherwise. The phrase “hogo namenna” may recall it to mind. It means “Don’t make fools of the welfare system.” Municipal employees staffing the welfare department wore jackets bearing that printed motto on the back. The mayor apologized, but the response at the time tended toward sympathy — not for the needy but for those who are fed up with them.

These are tough times. One-third of households nationwide get by on earned income of less than ¥3 million a year, which is not quite poverty but uncomfortably close to it. An Asahi Shimbun report last week summed up an increasingly prevalent view among working people: “It’s hard enough for us. Get by without welfare.”

Here’s another of Spa!’s stories: “Uemura-san,” 43, went through university, like so many people, on student loans, and began adult life ¥6 million in debt. His graduation coincided with the onset of the “hiring ice age,” a corporate response to the recession that relegated young people now in their 40s to a lifetime of emotionally unrewarding, financially unremunerative part-time work. Uemura, juggling two low-paying part-time jobs, broke down under the strain. His health giving out, he quit and declared personal bankruptcy. His grandfather, who had guaranteed the loan, was dragged down with him. Worse — being bankrupt, his job options, limited to begin with, grew still more so. He can no longer work as a security guard, or in the financial and real estate sectors.

Worse even that that, he says, are the slights his position exposes him to. A hotel in the United States, for example, refused to accommodate him because, having been declared bankrupt, he’d been stripped of his credit card.

It says something about poverty in Japan — though precisely what it says is open to interpretation — that he was able to afford the trip in the first place.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”

Japan redraws its line in the sand for poverty
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