Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Starvation Deaths Shock Japan

A once-wealthy country's safety net crumbles

Japan may be one of the largest economies in the world but it is quickly becoming a country divided into rich and poor. Police believe three people found in their Saitama apartment, yesterday, died of starvation- a sad fate that highlights the worsening state of Japan’s economy.

Extreme poverty and starvation is becoming a frighteningly common occurrence in Japan despite the perception of a tidy country that takes care of its own elderly. In the last 10 years, more than 700 people have died from starvation, many of them elderly individuals, disconnected from their families. In July, the Welfare Ministry released figures showing that the country’s poverty rate had hit a record high of 16 percent in 2009, up 0.3 percent from 2006.

The Foreign Policy Association reported that national disposable income in 2009 was 2.24 million yen ($28,000), meaning 16 percent of the Japanese population earned less than 1.12 million yen ($14,000) a year. Purchasing power in Japan is 25.43 percent lower than in the US, so in relative dollars, the relative poverty level is $10,493.80, the FPA reported. The government estimates that over 1.5 million people are living below the poverty line, however this number is expected to have increased since the Great East Japan Earthquake, last year.

Although the country has a comparatively high percentage of its GDP dedicated to public welfare spending (16.9 per cent compared to 14.8 per cent in the US), only 0.2 per cent of the GDP goes towards public assistance to the poor. That’s less than half of the US at 0.5 per cent. The number of young without steady employment, is expected to reach 10 million by 2014, up from 800,000 in 1987, and 2 million in 2002.

“The life-time employment practices that Japan was once famous for have all but disappeared, and there are fewer and fewer entry-level positions,” the FPA report continued. This makes it harder for young people to afford homes or start families, which pushes down Japan’s birth rate even lower. Added to this is Japan’s seniors get the best social welfare benefits in the world. Given that the Japanese workforce is expected to shrink to 51.8 percent by 2050, this top-heavy welfare system will crush the economy and push many more into poverty unless Japan makes desperately needed economic reforms.”

The three adults, believed to be a family of two parents in their 60s and son in his 30s, appear to have died more than two months ago. The building’s landlord discovered them when he came to collect the rent. The family was in fact 6 months behind in their rent and had the gas and electricity cut off to their small, first floor apartment.

Inside, police found the bodies lying on futons without any external injuries. The apartment had been locked and was described by police as “tidy” suggesting there had been no struggle or fowl play. A handful of one yen coins were found inside but there was no food apart from some boiled sweets. NHK interviewed a neighbor who said she hadn’t seen the family since November last year. “If we had known sooner [that the family were in trouble] maybe we could have done something to help,” the neighbor said. Another neighbor claimed the wife of the family asked if she could borrow some money to cover their rent. When the neighbor advised her to speak to welfare officials she reportedly refused.

Saitama Municipal Government said the family did not register for any welfare benefits. If they had the family would have been eligible for assistance and nursing services.

Traditionally, aging parents lived with their children but a survey of Japanese high school students last year showed that only 15.7 per cent planning on caring for the parents in their old age.

Single, older men in their mid to late 50s who are unemployed or have been made redundant also make up a high proportion of those who die of starvation.

In many of these cases, the individuals have applied for welfare benefits but have been refused by the government. Without wanting to shame themselves by asking for money from family or friends, they suffer quietly in tumbledown shacks.

In 2007, the New York Times reported the story of three men who died of starvation in Kitakyushu – a city who described their welfare system as a “model”. One kept a diary of his final days with his final entry reading: “My belly’s empty … I want to eat a rice ball. I haven’t eaten rice in 25 days.’

(Anna Watanabe blogs at Rakugoka ( for Asian Correspondent ( ).)

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