Japan’s child cafeterias catering to the poverty stricken

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Poverty in Japan is rising. Children’s cafeterias (kodomo shokudo) which act as a kind of soup kitchen are spawning all over Japan. In 2013 there were around 21 such places. Now there are 319 and rising. These kodomo shokudo offer free or exceptionally cheap meals JPY300). These places are not purely for poverty stricken families but for those where both parents work til late. Many of these centres are voluntarily run on a twice a week to 1x/mth basis. Food is often donated by neighbourhoods or food companies.

The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture has decided to offer nutritional advice. The hope is that children will learn the benefits of a sound diet as well as cooking methods. The ministry is also hopeful that such dinner time conversation will improve communication skills. In a sense of irony, where ministries should be deeply ashamed of having such a problem exist in the first place, the call to arms is to meddle with words and advice rather than solutions to eradicate the problem.

The Ministry for Health, Labor & Welfare (MHLW) has 208 child consultation centres, which fielded over 88,000 cases in 2014, a 20.5%YoY increase or 22x the level of 20 years ago. Despite a 2.4x jump in social workers inside these child consultation centres over the last two decades they can’t keep up with the demand. The Japan National Police Agency (JNPA) statistics show a sharp jump in arrests for child abuse, 80% being due to physical violence causing injury. In 2013, 36 abused children died with 16 of them under 1 year old. Police note that child abuse is being driven by the breakdown in traditional family, unemployment and poverty.

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There are now 3.9mn single mother and 664,000 single father households in Japan which combined now contribute for almost a quarter of all households with children. This is up from 15% in 1990. Middle income America single parenting runs at 29% up from 5% forty years ago.

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Growing poverty has also led to a sharp increase in domestic violence in Japan. The rates of spouse related DV has jumped so sharply that the police were forced to introduce a new classification for divorced couples forced to live under the same roof due to biting economic conditions.

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Is it any wonder. More and more people are being hired as part time workers instead of full time meaning take home pay is generally less. For women, over 50% of them are part-time/casual. Some of that distortion is due to mothers with kids at middle or high school doing side jobs but Japan will have a tough time coping

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The Japanese Institute for Labour Policy & Training (JILPT) makes the case for employer’s reasons to hire non-regular employees clear – “To economise on wages” and “to economise on non-labour costs” are the two highest categories.

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Which brings us back to why there is growing poverty in Japan. Finding new employment for mid-career staff that have been restructured is harsh. In fact so fearful are older employees facing the sack that the total number of disputed cases has risen 3 fold since 2002 and of that ‘bullying and harassment claims 20% of total cases up from 6%.

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The recruitment agencies are aggressively pushing the ‘komon meikan’ (advisory directory) to register those 60yo and above. Around 80% of those registered are over that age with the balance predominantly over 45 years old. The agencies sell ‘spot’ services to corporate customers as an intermediary. A corporate may have need for help with setting up an overseas factory. To avoid having to employ someone full-time they can use these komon services to access an advisor for 6- 8 hours a week. To the registered ‘employee’ it is not really a bargain. If they sign up to a komon contract with a recruitment agency, they will get paid around ¥70,000-¥100,000/mth for the first year which over 3 years would be a maximum of ¥175,000/mth only if they accept two roles (more importantly if they are selected by the corporate). While 6-8 hours several days a week is the standard contract that corporates sign up to, the komon employee will effectively be getting only ¥1,250/hour pre-tax, not much more than a student would get working in a convenient store. Furthermore it is likely to work out to less than that because the ‘project base’ nature does not charge for ‘overtime. If a company decided to work them for longer hours (14 hours/week) the employee gets no adjustment. So in their first year a 60yo maybe in reality working for only ¥560/hour. Such is the glut of applicants one may feel under pressure to work for as long as required to avoid someone else replacing them. It is easy for the recruiter to put forward fresh candidates to keep their wage cost down. So even if one was to reach their 3rd year as a komon, what is the incentive for the agency to promote them over the ‘fresh retirees’? It is a dilemma the elderly workers must face. This is also a potentially loaded gun for recruitment agencies should the government realise what is going on.

In essence, the breakdown in the fabric of Japanese society is set to accelerate. In a country that lives by strict public order, this is one area that could tear the very fabric that has kept it such an enviable community for so long. Eventually economic realities matter.

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