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Unveiling the truth about “women in poverty” in contemporary Japan

Atsumi is twenty-three years old. She has been living in an Internet-Café for two months. She works as a waitress at a coffeehouse, but she may lose the job if the owner finds that she has become homeless. When she was in high school, her father died of cancer, her mother left her, and she withdrew from school. A loan shark has been chasing her after the first loan. She has scarcely been surviving alone (Suzuki 2014: 16-36).


It was in 2015 that the “hinkon joshi,”or women in poverty, which include the likes of Atsumi, suddenly gained public attention in Japan. A documentary by NHK discussed the shocking fact that a third of working women in Japan were poor. Even if they marry, becoming a “wife” would not give them any advantage in contemporary Japanese society; matrimony has not become a realistic measure for women to escape from poverty (NHK Research Group 2014: 64-65). This feminization of poverty is worrying for a country suffering from a declining birth rate.

In this essay, I will look at how these women have been brought into such miserable conditions, and shed light on the lack of effective social welfare for women in poverty, which furthers their marginalization. I will focus on two groups of women in poverty: young women from fifteen to thirty-four years old; and single-mothers with children aged zero to fourteen years. This research is based on a review of primarily Japanese language literature; NHK programs; and data (2006-2014) provided by Japan’s Cabinet Office and Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare (MHLW).

Emergence of Women’s Poverty as a Social Problem

Japanese society is regarded as an egalitarian society but gender inequality has persisted in modern Japan. Sugimoto (2010) suggests that such an egalitarian myth masks the gendered aspects of the Japanese family structure (10, 156). The “traditional” family structure defined by the ie system (1898-1947) was based on a patriarchal family unit, and gender and personal relations inside and outside the family came under the control of this system (156-158). This kept the issues faced by Japanese women under the surface. After World War II, the new constitution allowed women to have rights equal to those of men. The social systems, however, such as Company Healthcare, Pension System, and Wage System, were established on the basis of traditional ideas of males as household heads. As such, gender inequality has been maintained until today.

It was only after the falling birthrate began to come under concern in the 1990s that the government started paying attention to women’s issues. Although countermeasure policies were implemented in 1994 and revised in 1999, Japan’s birthrate continued to drop from 1.57 in 1999 to 1.39 in 2011 (Cabinet Office 2014a). The issue of women in poverty gained media attention in 2011, when the National Institute of Population and Security Research made an official announcement that one third of working single women from the ages of twenty to sixty-four years old were categorized in the “poverty class” (NHK Research Group 2014: 24). The “poverty class” includes those with a total annual income below the relative poverty line of 1.14 million yen (around $10,270) (Suzuki 2014: 9, 226). In 2015, NHK broadcasted a program featuring these young women, who seem to have lost their future. Since then, people’s concern for this topic has been growing, making it one of the largest issues in Japan today.

Young Women in Poverty

Young women in poverty from fifteen to thirty-four years old are mostly non-regular workers. Their annual incomes are below 2 million yen (about $18,000). In 2014, 2.89 million women workers belonged to this group (NHK Research Group 2014: 40). About 80 percent of non-regular workers in this group have also been suffering from unstable working conditions (NHK Research Group 2014: 227). Many young female workers are pushed into the category of temporary jobs (Shirahase 2014: 69) behind the scene of increasing male temporary workers.

Moreover, many of them can scarcely escape the cycle of poverty because of childhood circumstances. They grow up in poor families that receive monthly welfare benefits of 35,000 yen to 55,000 yen (about $315 to $495) (MHLW 2006). In a country where 97% of children go to senior high school, these children often leave education after finishing junior high school. Parents habitually depend on children’s income from part-time jobs, which makes it difficult for these children to cut themselves from their parents. Even if they become independent, their low level of education prevents them from gaining regular stable jobs (NHK Research Group 2014: 32-36).

Young women who grew up in poor families have experienced various hardships. In addition to the condition of extreme poverty, they have undergone domestic violence; neglect by parents, siblings, or relatives; sexual assault by step-fathers or mothers’ boyfriends; bullying in schools; and isolation in the neighborhood. They tend to lack the ability to communicate with others. To save themselves, they escape from home. They, however, cannot find good jobs and usually fall into sex work. Prostitution operators sometimes provide them with accommodation and work, and this system often becomes a safety net. They reject any sort of livelihood protection from district welfare offices or social workers even if they remain in extreme poverty because they know that it would force them back home (Suzuki 2014: 10-12, 95-126). Such “invisible” women who fall out of social services are typically not counted into the official number of women in poverty (Suzuki 2014: 13). Insecure jobs, low incomes, and useless public safety nets have a tremendous impact on marriage and fertility among young women in poverty (Kingston 2013: 91).

Single Mothers in Poverty

Another group of women in poverty comprises single mothers. Single mothers symbolize the Japanese case of “feminization of poverty,” as well as cases in other countries (Goldberg 2009: 1). These women had an average income in 2005 of 2.15 million yen (about $19,500) even after government support (Hertog 2009: 57). Their income level remained unchanging despite the average annual income for regular workers reaching 3-3.99 million yen (about $27,278-36,273) in 2007 (MHLW 2008). Women become single mothers as a result of divorce, unwed pregnancy, or their husbands’ deaths. According to Hertog (2009: 56), 42.5 percent of single mothers have full time jobs. Even if they are regular workers, however, there is a large disparity of 30 to 50 percent in wages between men and women, which places single mothers at risk of poverty. About 60 percent of them are engaged in non-regular, temporary, or part-time work such as clerical, sales, and service jobs (Shirahase 2014: 80). Single mothers have to endure low income and unstable jobs in the Japanese social mechanism.

Welfare benefit is not enough for survival. In 2005, “almost 60 percent of single mothers had an annual income of less than 2 million yen (about $18,000)” (Kimoto & Hagiwara 2009: 9). To boost their income, they can apply for a Child-rearing Allowance of up to 15,000 yen (about $135) per month for a child from zero to fourteen years old, but when their children reach 15 years old, they are barred from receiving public assistance (Kimoto & Hagiwara 2009: 15-17). From 2016, the 15,000 yen allowance has been reallocated to babies aged zero to two years old, and the allowance for three-to-fourteen-year-old children reduced to 10,000 yen (about $90) (Cabinet Office 2014b), even though the monthly expenses for a child under 17 years old was about 69,300 yen (about $630) in 2002 (Cabinet Office 2014c). Single mothers desperately need more public aid in raising their children in Japan.

Since 2013, there have been policies in place to help single mothers live independently, but their efficacy is questionable. The Self-reliance and Economic Independence Support Program for Single Mother Families, often managed by the local government, has provided skills-development training classes in order for single mothers to find stable jobs, but it has neither enhanced their educational level nor corresponded to job offering support (Hertog 2009: 57). Another program is run by the National Association for Single Mothers’ and Widows’ Welfare, which manages job search centers and provides training courses for single mothers in municipalities. The problem is that the executives of the Association are conservative war widows who are not trained in welfare and maintain an informal hierarchy inside it: war widows at the top, then divorcees, and lastly unwed mothers who are discriminated by other members (Hertog 2009: 61).

Lack of public child-care centers is a big problem for working single mothers. Many single-mothers are forced to work as non-regular workers since company employers are reluctant to hire employees who often take leaves or holidays for their children (Kimoto & Hagiwara 2009: 15). The number of licensed, reasonably-priced child-care centers is limited.

In urban areas, unlicensed child-care centers help mothers who work long hours. However, not only are the fees expensive for single mothers but accidents also occasionally surface in these child-care businesses, the worst being deaths of children (MHLW 2009). Local governments have been making efforts to increase the number of licensed child-care centers, but there remain long waiting lists.

Furthermore, similar to young women in poverty, single mothers prefer to stay away from public services. Mothers fear that their children will be separated from them and placed in children’s homes if social workers find the miserable conditions in single-mother families unacceptable. Single mothers do not want to be separated from their children, their source of energy for survival. Mothers who have experienced life in children’s homes, in particular, strongly refuse to let their children stay in such institutions because they know how terrible their children’s lives there would be, both psychologically and physically (Suzuki 2014: 70-75). Thus, such mothers and their children, and their impoverished conditions, remain invisible in society.


As we have seen, women in poverty share common issues. In addition to lower incomes from non-regular work, they are isolated from families, relatives, friends, and neighbors. Social security systems are flawed, not well-known, and impractical for people in need. Such factors lead them to fall into the category of the “poorest women” (saihinkon joshi) who are almost invisible to those who lead ordinary social lives. The issue of poverty among women, therefore, encompasses a variety of problems, including families in poverty, gender inequality, social isolation, and inefficiency of public service systems. Women’s poverty is a recent issue in Japan that has not been sufficiently examined in terms of exact conditions and outcomes. Against the background of a rapidly aging Japan, reducing the number of young women in poverty and improving the working environments of single mothers is essential for a prosperous future.


Featured image taken from this site


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