MEMURO, Japan — Satomi Sato, a 51-year-old widow, knew she had it tough, raising a teenage daughter on the less than $17,000 a year she earned from two jobs. Still, she was surprised last autumn when the government announced for the first time an official poverty line — and she was below it.
Ko Sasaki for The New York Times
Satomi Sato works mornings making boxed lunches. She said her family’s difficulties began in the late 1990s, when the economic slide worsened on the island of Hokkaido, as it did across much of rural Japan.
Times Topic: Japan
Ko Sasaki for The New York Times
Satomi Sato, a 51-year-old widow, delivering newspapers, one of her two jobs. She is raising a teenage daughter on less than $17,000 a year.
“I don’t want to use the word poverty, but I’m definitely poor,” said Ms. Sato, who works mornings making boxed lunches and afternoons delivering newspapers. “Poverty is still a very unfamiliar word in Japan.”
After years of economic stagnation and widening income disparities, this once proudly egalitarian nation is belatedly waking up to the fact that it has a large and growing number of poor people. The Labor Ministry’s disclosure in October that almost one in six Japanese, or 20 million people, lived in poverty in 2007 stunned the nation and ignited a debate over possible remedies that has raged ever since.
Many Japanese, who cling to the popular myth that their nation is uniformly middle class, were further shocked to see that Japan’s poverty rate, at 15.7 percent, was close to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s figure of 17.1 percent in the United States, whose glaring social inequalities have long been viewed with scorn and pity here.
But perhaps just as surprising was the government’s admission that it had been keeping poverty statistics secretly since 1998 while denying there was a problem, despite occasional anecdotal evidence to the contrary. That ended when a left-leaning government led by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama replaced the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party last summer with a pledge to force Japan’s legendarily secretive bureaucrats to be more open, particularly about social problems, government officials and poverty experts said.
“The government knew about the poverty problem, but was hiding it,” said Makoto Yuasa, head of the nonprofit Antipoverty Network. “It was afraid to face reality.”
Following an internationally recognized formula, the ministry set the poverty line at about $22,000 a year for a family of four, half of Japan’s median household income. Researchers estimate that Japan’s poverty rate has doubled since the nation’s real estate and stock markets collapsed in the early 1990s, ushering in two decades of income stagnation and even decline.
The ministry’s announcement helped expose a problem that social workers say is easily overlooked in relatively homogenous Japan, which does not have the high crime rates, urban decay and stark racial divisions of the United States. Experts and social workers say Japan’s poor can be deceptively hard to spot because they try hard to keep up the appearance of middle class comfort.
Few impoverished Japanese seem willing to admit their plight for fear of being stigmatized. While just over half of Japan’s single mothers, like Ms. Sato, are poor — roughly in line with the ratio in the United States — she and her daughter, Mayu, 17, take pains to hide their neediness. They outwardly smile, she said, but “cry on the inside” when friends or relatives talk about vacations, a luxury they cannot afford.
“Saying we’re poor would draw attention, so I’d rather hide it,” said Ms. Sato, who lives in a blocklike public housing project in this small city surrounded by flat, treeless farmland reminiscent of the American Midwest.
She said she had little money even before her husband, a construction machine operator, died of lung cancer three years ago. She said her family’s difficulties began in the late 1990s, when the economic slide worsened here on the northern island of Hokkaido, as it did in much of rural Japan.
Even with two jobs, she says she cannot afford to see a doctor or buy medicine to treat a growing host of health complaints, including sore joints and dizziness. When her daughter needed $700 to buy school uniforms on entering high school last year, a common requirement here, she saved for it by cutting back to two meals a day.
Poverty experts call Ms. Sato’s case typical. They say more than 80 percent of those living in poverty in Japan are part of the so-called working poor, holding low-wage, temporary jobs with no security and few benefits. They usually have enough money to eat, but not to take part in normal activities, like eating out with friends or seeing a movie.
“Poverty in a prosperous society usually does not mean living in rags on a dirt floor,” said Masami Iwata, a social welfare professor at Japan Women’s University in Tokyo. “These are people with cellphones and cars, but they are cut off from the rest of society.”
Years of deregulation of the labor market and competition with low-wage China have brought a proliferation of such low-paying jobs in Japan, economists say. Compounding matters is the fact that these jobs are largely uncovered by an outdated social safety net, created decades ago as a last resort in an era when most men could expect lifetime jobs.
This has opened up a huge crack through which millions of Japanese have fallen. One was Masami Yokoyama, 60, who lost his lifetime job a decade ago as he struggled with depression after a divorce. He held a series of increasingly low-paying jobs until three years ago, when he ended up homeless on Tokyo’s streets.
Still, city welfare officials rejected his application three times because he was still an able-bodied male. “Once you slip in Japan, there is no one to catch your fall,” said Mr. Yokoyama, who finally got limited government aid and found part-time work as a night watchman.
Gaining wide attention here are statistics showing that one in seven children lives in poverty, one reason the new government has pledged to offer monthly payments of $270 per child and to cut the cost of high school education.
Still, social workers say they fear that the poor will not be able to pay for cram schools and other expenses to enable their children to compete in Japan’s high-pressure education system, consigning them to a permanent cycle of low-wage work.
“We are at risk of creating a chronic underclass,” said Toshihiko Kudo, a board member of Ashinaga, a nonprofit group based in Tokyo that helps poor children and orphans.
Ms. Sato expressed similar fears for her daughter, Mayu. Mayu wants to go to a vocational school to become a voice actress for animation, but Ms. Sato said she could not afford the $10,000 annual tuition.
Still, she remains outwardly upbeat, if resigned. She said her biggest challenge was having no one to talk to. While she said she was sure that many other families faced a similar plight in this small city, their refusal to admit their poverty made it impossible to find them.
“In bed at night, I think: ‘How did I fall so far? How did I get so isolated?’ ” Ms. Sato said. “But usually, I try not to think about it.”