Editor’s Note: This story does not look like a story about long-term care planning. It is, actually, a story about what is happening in Japan as a result of weaknesses in long-term care planning.
The beating of a 4-year-old boy on Christmas Eve went on through the night. Covered with bruises and having suffered catastrophic internal bleeding, he was pronounced dead at a hospital. Soon after, his mother and her two boyfriends were arrested.
While the news of the child’s death sparked outrage and horror in Japan’s media, Orie Ikeda, a single mother of two, says she can understand how such a brutal assault occurred in Minoh, the affluent dormitory town near where she lives.
“It could have been me,” she said quietly. “I didn’t abuse my children only because I was lucky.”
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Ikeda managed to get on a government training course that helped her secure one of the lowest-paid jobs in Japan: Looking after the nation’s growing cohorts of elderly.
Most single mothers in Japan exist on less than half the national median income, the poverty line defined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Their children are, on average, poorer, less educated and have fewer prospects — an underclass in a wealthy and aging nation that can ill-afford to lose a significant chunk of its future workforce. One in every seven children in Japan experiences poverty.
Failing to address that will cost Japan 2.9 trillion yen ($26.3 billion) in lost incomes and 1.1 trillion yen in lost taxes and social security payments for each year of children at school, according to the Nippon Foundation in Tokyo. The estimate calculates the impact over the future working life of 15-year-olds.
It’s also a lost opportunity for a country that desperately needs as many young, highly skilled workers as it can get.
Even after decades of stagnation in the shadow of China’s economic rise, Japan is still among the 10 wealthiest nations with more than 10 million people in terms of GDP per capita.
But almost none of that wealth trickles down to Japan’s single mothers. Fewer than half of them receive alimony, and even if they can get a job, the odds are stacked against them. Working women earn roughly 30% less than men doing a similar job in Japan, and about 60% of women who work hold part-time, contract or temporary jobs where pay is lower and benefits can be non-existent.
Yet while Japan’s overall population is declining, the number of single-mother households in the country rose by about 50% to 712,000 between 1992 and 2016, according to the labor ministry. The child poverty rate for working single-parent households in Japan stood at 56%, the highest among OECD nations, compared with 32% in the U.S.
Those that get alimony or child support from their ex-spouse or live with their parents are the lucky ones. In Japan, single parents are more likely to live in poverty with a job than without, according to the OECD.
“Your choices become very narrow when you don’t have money,” said Ikeda, 52. “You must put up with a lot of small things.”
What made the Christmas Day death especially shocking for Japan is that Minoh is the last place where most people would expect it to happen.
Mayor Tetsuro Kurata, 44, had tried to make the city a national model of child protection, installing hundreds of surveillance cameras along the roads children use to go to school and parks, and analyzing a database with the assistance of social groups that would monitor children’s progress at school and home for any sign of trouble.
Then, Kurata got the call just before dawn on Dec. 25.
“It was unbearable; it’s Christmas,” said Kurata, who has three sons, the youngest of whom is also 4. “We couldn’t stop it even though we were involved. What were we doing?”
Visitors flock to Minoh from nearby Osaka to hike in its famous park, with its picture-postcard Japanese bridge in a wooded glade below a waterfall. Single-family homes dot rolling streets shaded with maple trees.
The crime scene itself is in a freshly painted white apartment complex on a small hill, where the smell of cut grass wafts in the air and fallen leaves are neatly piled. A nearby house holds piano lessons for children.
Behind that facade, the city’s report of the crime tells a different story, one of hardship, brutality and a struggle to keep up appearances in public. The single mother of two boys was sick and looking for a part-time job. When she found one at a supermarket, she couldn’t start because she didn’t have childcare during Sunday shifts.
She had already been reported for possible neglect in the town where she used to live. She turned up at her boys’ school with two men, who she told staff were cousins. Two weeks before the older son was killed, a teacher visiting the mother’s home noticed a bruise on the left cheek of the younger son.
“The mother was also a victim,” said Tsuyoshi Watari, who runs Atto School, a nonprofit organization in Minoh that helps students from single-parent households. “I grew up with one parent and my mother was very strong. But I had a hard time and walked a tightrope to finish college.”
The reasons why Japan’s single parents and their children have slipped through the net are not just about money.
Much has to do with the twin taboos of being a divorced mother and being poor. In addition, public spending has favored the old — an increasing proportion of the electorate. Work prospects for single parents have also been eroded — years of economic stagnation hollowed out Japan’s once-ubiquitous salaried middle class, replacing many positions with low-paying, part-time or contract jobs.
“It’s wrong,” said Ikeda, who has struggled to secure childcare while serving senior citizens whose costs are largely covered by a public insurance program. “It’s extremely difficult to raise children.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has encouraged women to “shine” by balancing child rearing with a job, and official female labor participation rates have risen, partly due to the increase in the number of part-time positions.
For one single mother in Minoh, Abe’s challenge seems more like a dream.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because of fear about her ex-husband, she said that, for her, “shining” would be simply to live a normal life. She said she felt she was at the bottom of society and her priority was just to be able to feed her child.