News ID: 218207
Published: 0940 GMT July 13, 2018

Poverty in Japan: Underclass struggles to achieve upward mobility

Poverty in Japan: Underclass struggles to achieve upward mobility

With the exception of women who work to supplement household incomes, almost all part-time workers belong to the underclass.

Last month, Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai said during an LDP gathering in Tokyo that people who opt not to have children are ‘selfish’ given the country’s demographic crisis.

That remark received a lot of attention. However, much less was said about another comment Nikai made during the same speech, that there are no homes in Japan where people go hungry, essentially implying that there are no poor people, Japan Times wrote.

As a matter of fact, there have been several books published over the past year about the country’s changing class structure. In ‘Shin Nihon no Kaikyu Shakai’ (The New Japanese Class Society), sociologist Kenji Hashimoto said that class divisions are widening. Traditionally, there were two classes, an owners’ class and a workers’ class.

The rise of the white-collar employee following World War II created a middle class, but in principle even these salarymen belonged to the workers’ class.

Hashimoto breaks the current population down into five classes.

He defines the owners’ class as those who employ at least five people. They number, in his estimate, about 2.5 million, or 4.1 percent of the working population. Their average (annual?) income is about ¥6 million, weighed down somewhat by the many small business owners who belong to this class.

The new middle class numbers 12.85 million or 20.6 percent of the working population, and includes people in administration, engineering and higher education. Their average annual income is a little less than ¥5 million. Then there’s the regular employee workers’ class, the largest group at about 22 million, or 35 percent of the working population.

The traditional middle class is made up of self-employed individuals, numbering some eight million people.

Finally, there is the layer known as the underclass, which is made up of non-regular employees and numbers about 9.3 million or 15 percent of the working population.

Regular full-time employees are protected to a certain extent by organizations like the Japanese Trade Union Confederations, usually referred to as Rengo, but non-regular employees have very little protection or representation to help them receive raises or gain benefits.

With the exception of women who work to supplement household incomes, almost all part-time workers belong to the underclass, which Hashimoto said has expanded in size in recent decades and become a fixed class.

The biggest problem is that once a person is hired as a non-regular employee they tend to be stuck in such a position for the rest of their lives, even if they change jobs. So even if the economy improves, the lives of the people in the underclass don’t.

The easiest solution, said Hashimoto, would be to increase the minimum wage, which varies from region to region but tends to be in the ¥800 to ¥1,000 range.

If the minimum wage were increased to ¥1,500 an hour, someone working full-time would make at least ¥3 million a year, enough to live comfortably.

Even if both spouses only make minimum wage, a couple could count on a household income of about ¥6 million, which would make it possible for them to start a family.

But as it stands, minimum wage earners barely get by. The underclass in Japan makes roughly 40 percent of the national median income, while in Europe, the underclass makes anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of the median income, depending on the country. In terms that Nikai might appreciate, Japan is basically divided into two economic groups: Those who can marry and afford to have children, and those who can’t.

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