Asakusa, Japan. (Photo courtesy of Mayu Amioka)


Two perspectives: The reality of Japanese poverty

What is the reality of Japanese poverty? How much are we aware, of those suffering under the severe condition?
<a href="" target="_self">Mayu Amioka</a>

Mayu Amioka

July 15, 2022
Despite being familiar with the terms “developed country” and “developing country” since elementary school, I couldn’t thoroughly clarify the distinction when asked to explain. To clear my thoughts, I googled online and came across an answer; according to officials, the differentiation is ambiguous, because no clear criteria are shown.

Thus, to take a step further in my consideration, I thought that when contrasting developed and developing nations, many embrace images of affluence and happiness in the former. I come from Japan, and my homeland was categorized as a “developed economy,” according to the World Economic Situation and Prospects back in 2014.

Nevertheless, poverty is ubiquitous in Japan —  and the problem goes so much further than mere financial poverty, into the inadequacy of the social welfare system, and the very nature of human beings in general. 

This couldn’t be seen clearly by simply analyzing official statistics — however, I could say this based on my experience.

Once every month, I participate in medical consultation and soup-run volunteering activities in Tokyo, organized by a non-profit organization targeting homeless people, although those with different problems are also welcome to attend. I work as a receptionist there.

For every person seeking to consult with the doctor and obtain medication, I request their name and age. I have belonged to this volunteering organization since last September. I’m finally getting used to working as part of a team and getting used to being with the people who come for help.

In the beginning, for I wasn’t aware of what was going on, I only worked through assigned duties. But lately, I have become capable of spontaneously helping out. As I adapted to the new environment, slowly, those that come to receive aid opened their hearts and shared their turbulent life stories with me.

As a young, quite inexperienced person, the actuality I witnessed, the people I encountered — everything was a brand new adventure. News programs feature the “reality of poverty” occasionally, but through this experience, I was guided to recognize the genuine, lurid reality of poverty in an affluent-seeming country from multiple perspectives. Observing those seeking support, I saw with my own eyes, the alarming state of the current labor system in Japan. 

Mr. Tanaka — who has been generous to me for the past few months — brought me a couple of findings. Mr. Tanaka, as a person, is peculiar but at the same time very interesting; every time I ask for his basic information as a receptionist, he fabricates a new identity as a joke; a new name, new age.

Despite his cheerfulness, he is afflicted with severe diabetes — and has to undergo dialysis three times a week for four hours at a time — and he has been doing this for eight years. Therefore, he’s incapable of commuting to a workplace from Monday to Friday, five days a week, thus lowering the likelihood of securing stable employment. As time has gone on,  he has exhausted his savings and now has to depend on social welfare for survival.

On the other hand, a conversation with Mr. Suzuki (alias) pushed me to ponder this profoundly; I discussed it with my family, friends, teachers — literally everyone. Somehow, I embraced the stereotype that income support is hard to obtain and that those necessitating monetary assistance couldn’t access support.

However, according to Mr. Suzuki, you can easily benefit from the service as long as you have proof of regularly seeing the doctor, being unemployed and attempting to get a job but being unable to.

Mr. Suzuki, half-laughing, declared anyone could effortlessly fabricate the document for attempting to get a job but being unable to. And thus, pretend you are unemployed to receive monetary support. At that moment, I didn’t know what to say; these systems aiming to aid people might possess another, unforeseen effect of actually promoting laziness. 

Listening to the two stories, I understood the two aspects of the causes of poverty in a developed country — inevitability and self-responsibility. Adding to this, I feel this concept applies to any field; I was able to see society as a whole and simultaneously learn a life lesson. 

This is only one example of volunteering; there are so many more out there in the world, constantly calling for more volunteers. 

However, in Japan, volunteering isn’t as popular as it is in the West. In the first place, the volunteering culture didn’t originate in Japan; it is a foreign value.

In fact, the Japanese tend to display coldness toward strangers; according to the World Giving Index, Japan ranks the lowest on “helping a stranger.” There’s a trend in Japan to constantly doubt strangers, resulting in the modern phenomenon of a low percentage of volunteering participation.

Nevertheless, I want my fellow Japanese to realize volunteering is more than just “helping.” Their commitment will contribute to those who necessitate assistance, but it will also become an opportunity to identify reality, not through texts and blocks of paragraphs, but through physical experience.

We often misunderstand that we have adequately only through indirect contact, but in my opinion, direct interaction is necessary, on any occasion.

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