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Is there a future for the Japanese social system?

 The Big Issue Japan 04 June 2019

Amongst the world’s most developed nations Japan stands alone as the country which invests the least in its children and young people. The Big Issue Japan’s Kazuhiro Hida speaks to Ryoichi Yamano, author of the book ‘Japan-The least developed country for children’, to ask why one of the world’s wealthiest nations devotes so little time, money and attention to the social wellbeing of its impoverished children.  - By Kazuhiro Hida

Last year, Ryoichi Yamano published "Japan-The least developed country for children". Prominent in this book was its focus and analysis on how poverty has influenced child development in Japan using the methodology of previous American studies on the issue.

As Yamano states "A mother living in poverty is at great risk of giving birth to a premature baby. On top of this, Poverty during infancy tends to obstruct cerebral development, and causes delay in exercise functions, anxiety, and a lack of concentration. A child raised within a household below the poverty line is 25 times more likely to be exposed child abuse and negligence than a child raised in rich family"

Japan has only recently become aware of the fact that income level influences a child's scholastic attainments. Yet many American studies have long revealed more, that income level directly and deeply influences not only scholastic attainments but also physical development, health, well-being and emotional development. The reality is that poverty gnaws at a child's development in many layers.

"I was surprised when I went to the United States. In searching for the keywords 'poverty' and 'abuse' on a computer in graduate school I found study after study which indicated that child who grew up in poverty could easily catch a cold or get diarrhea. It made me question whether poverty really relates to such health problems for the first time. Popular magazines even regularly stated that it was obvious that a child's development was related to poverty. I got the impression that this was well known in the United States."

"There was actually the feeling that I opened a Pandora's box while I was writing the book", says Mr. Yamano. In the study of developmental psychology in Japan, people relate the problem of a child's development only to the relationships within family or school, and almost never treat it as social issue.

"Anyone who actually sees poor children recognizes that poverty obviously exerts some influences on a child's development. But the social stigma has made us hesitant to talk out loud about this problem until now."

Is child abuse pathology or poverty? New hope program "Income maintenance experiment"

Mr. Yamano went to America in 2005. While studying social welfare in a local graduate school, he worked in The Child Rehabilitation Bureau and at the day-care center in an impoverished region as an intern. Mr. Yamano, who was a social worker at a Child Guidance Center in Japan, decided to go to the United States because of the "Overwhelming gap" he felt between society and the poor families he encountered who had been accused of child abuse.

"When it comes to child abuse, people see this as a problem caused by parents' pathological behavior or personality problems, such as infant-care neurosis. ' Abuse is a disease and therefore it can be treated.' is the common opinion. Counseling is given to the parents by focusing on their personal problem. However, the income of the family I met at the child guidance center is around 100,000 yen (about $1,000) per month, or less than 3,000,000 yen (about $30,000) per annum. Even if they work hard, they never make enough for a living. Moreover, because counseling is not free, it is difficult for them to keep coming back. I got the feeling that we were trying to build a house in a place without a concrete foundation. Even if it is assembled, it tumbles because the foundation is not strong enough. Like this, without life stability, the counseling won't be effective for them."

Is child abuse pathology or poverty?

This was a theme also in the United States where opinion was divided and therefore a definitive conclusion was not reached. On the other hand, many people have admitted the strong relationship between child abuse and poverty, and a movement to remedy some of the problems brought on by poverty has been established.

As well as this, some insightful and surprising research called "Income Maintenance Experiment" and "New Hope" has recently been undertaken in the United States. These projects temporarily increased the income of randomly chosen families by providing them with access to extra services and income for a set period, raising them above the poverty line. As a result, a positive influence was clearly seen on the children's health and development.

"The general view of society in Japan is that families living in poverty lack self-responsibility. In Japanese culture, even if money is given to such families, it is assumed it will be spent away on gambling such as pachinko (a slot game). However, a different reality has been shown by this experiment. When income was secured, and child care, medical treatment and work were provided, they began to improve families' lives. They were able to save money to buy a house, or to work longer hours to increase household income. There was clearly a positive influence upon children's development."

We keep socially neglecting children.

In the United States, which has the external image of poverty and abuse, Mr. Yamano witnessed a social action that was trying to change the society and welfare to improve the environment for children. In viewing this situation, Mr. Yamano clearly recognised the problems of Japan as well.

"In Europe and America, there is consensus that if children and young people are left in poverty, social productivity goes slow, and it will consequentially cost society as a whole. The country will not survive no matter what it is done socially without investment in children and young people. I really don't understand why, especially, the people of the Liberal-Democratic Party in Japan do not understand this theory."

Conversely, many young people from the third world who have come to the United States to study social work leave with a strong conviction that when they go back to their own countries, they will strive to make social improvements. Rather ironically, they envied Japan, whose social system is relatively poor.

"Japan is only the non-Caucasian country which could significantly develop its economy in the short term, and I know why Japan could develop", they say. For one, it was diligent. Secondly, the Meiji era government promptly undertook compulsory education for the first time in the third world. 120 years later and the rate of investment in education and child welfare in Japan is the lowest of all the OECD nations. The problem of educational expenses is particularly serious. It costs 500,000 yen (about $5,000) per year for public universities, and 2,000,000 yen (about $20,000) per year for private colleges in the metropolitan area of Tokyo. This is in stark contrast to many European countries where there is no expense for going to high school or university. The message is that children in a single-parent home whose average annual salary is 2,000,000 yen must not go to university. I think that there is no future for such a country."

Today, the number of consultations at the Child Guidance Center exceeds capacity. It is a situation on the brink. The places to temporarily take care of children in poverty are exceeding capacity and law violations have become normal. According to Mr. Yamano, the living situation of poor children and the family has begun deteriorating now.

"The government still does not take seriously the increasing rate of children in poverty. And we still keep neglecting children socially.

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