Bread & Roses: Warm Meals to Tackle Poverty in Japan

SNA (Tokyo) — When did poverty become normal? Conventional wisdom had it that poverty didn’t exist in Japan; that the miracle recovery during the country’s rapid growth period had given birth to a middle class of 100 million people.

In fact, horrendous poverty existed even then, such as the 1987 case of a single mother of three living in Sapporo, Hokkaido, who starved to death in her home after the local government office repeatedly rejected her pleas for financial assistance. But such tragedies were written off as exceptions to the rule of middle-class affluence.

This all began to change at the dawn of the Heisei Era (1989-2019). We began to take the issue of indigence seriously as a structural problem in society. Poverty is divided into absolute, which indicates an immediate threat to life; and relative, indicating living below a particle income standard, often in a rich country. Relative poverty in Japan entails an inability to engage in the society’s ‘ordinary’ activities, such as educating children, going out to dinner with friends, using a smart phone and the Internet.

How bad is relative poverty in Japan today? Annual disposable income of 1.22 million yen for someone living alone or 2.44 million yen for a family of four marked the official poverty line, according to a 2015 study. This left 13.9% of children in poverty, or about one in seven kids. The poverty rate has risen steadily since the study began in 1985, indicating growing inequality.

Why did poverty expand so much during the three decades of the Heisei Era? One reason is the decline job quality. Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) in 1995 announced Japanese Management for a New Era, driving huge swaths of the workforce away from the country’s traditional lifetime employment toward part-time, dispatch, and other precarious jobs. Some 37% of Japanese workers now have irregular or contingent employment. Casual gigs may even become the norm.

Worker poverty becomes family poverty, impacting children the most. Many came to suffer hunger and neglect from parents too busy to care for them properly. In 2012, grocer Hiroko Kondo set up the first ever Kodomo Shokudo (children’s cafeteria) to provide hungry children from struggling families meals free of charge.

It quickly spread and last year the number of Kodomo Shokudos around the country reached 3,718, according to a study by the NPO National Kodomo Shokudo Support Center Musubie. Finances are shaky, however. Most Kodomo Shokudo are supported by the goodwill of local residents, and few local governments have set up any kind of funding.

People in different locales coming together on their own accord because they want to do something for children warms the heart. I personally feel, though, that we must not avert our eyes to how deeply the adult poverty behind child poverty has penetrated Japanese society. We must not tie a bow on Kodomo Shokudo as a lovely example of good people doing good deeds.

Moreover, we cannot accept that the government had begun to piggyback on such goodwill as a way to avoid doing anything about the poverty crisis. Maybe it’s time for us as a society to express some righteous anger.

Recently, I heard that a Year-End Otona Shokudo (Adult Cafeteria) had offered free public meals on two occasions over the recent year-end break. There was an adult version of the Kodomo Shokudo! A non-profit named Posse and an association called the Tsukuroi Tokyo Fund planned and operated the Year-End Otona Shokudo between December 31, 2019 and January 4, 2020. I decided to check it out for Bread & Roses. I spoke with Posse Secretary-General Hiroto Watanabe and asked him what it’s like on the frontlines of Japanese poverty.

Okunuki: Kodomo Shokudo is a household expression, but I had not ever heard of Otona Shokudo.

Watanabe: Yes, but this is not the first time we have held it. The first time was in Sendai city, Miyagi Prefecture, during the super-long Golden Week break last May. It was so long due to the change of era (from Heisei to Reiwa) that accompanied the living emperor’s abdication. Such a long break meant that government offices were closed. That left those struggling with job loss and/or poverty with nowhere to turn to. So, Posse and Sendai Keyaki Union got together to provide an Otona Shokudo.

Okunuki: What kind of adults came to Otona Shokudo up in Sendai?

Watanabe: We ran it for two days, and twenty people came. We announced it online and with flyers. But it was the first time to do something like this in a local city like Sendai, so we had no idea how many would come. We suspected that many were alone and in trouble. Most were in an age range from the last 30s to 50s. They were doing irregular contingent work, with no work or income over the long weekend. One full-time dispatch worker pulled in only about 150,000 yen a month. Another could only find gig lacking any security and lived with octogenarian parents who might soon need long-term care.

Okunuki: Tell me about your belief that poverty cannot be detached from labor problems.

Watanabe: Yes, let’s look back at the year-end hakenmura (dispatch village) crisis over 2008-2009 (during which many dispatch workers were dismissed and ended up living outside in tents). The village was set up in Hibiya Park, bringing to light the existence of working poor, who cannot escape the bane of indigence even if they work. I feel that since the Liberal Democratic Party later regained power, there has been an attempt to separate poverty and labor issues. Rather than improve working conditions, a desire to escape vicious employers seems to run rampant, leading to weaker workplace solidarity. It hit home for me that even in Sendai, the idea of talking to someone or joining a union doesn’t even arise for those in real trouble. Labor unions are not reaching those who most need them.

Okunuki: I see. So Otona Shokudo introduces the weakest, most lost individuals to a possible first step.

Watanabe: Yes. A warm meal is a first step of sorts, not the end-all. Breaking bread provides a forum for wide-ranging discussion that often reveals workplace issues, such as illegal labor practices or vicious power harassment. We can later take those in need of welfare (seikatsu hogo) to local welfare offices to help them apply. Many first realize at the Otona Shokudo that they have rights protected by the law.

Okunuki: So Otona Shokudo provides an opportunity for outreach?

Watanabe: Yes, I think so. Contingent workers living paycheck to paycheck have extraordinary difficulty exercising their rights. But those are precisely the type of workers the labor movement needs. So, we have to think about how to fight for their rights in a way that ties in to the labor movement. I realized that Otona Shokudo could be a kind of gateway.

Okunuki: And this time you ran a Year-End Otona Shokudo in Shinjuku, right in the center of Tokyo.

Watanabe: Yes, Shinjuku draws people in all walks of life from all around the country. While most people enjoy festive New Year celebrations, some face only loneliness and dread. There are far more of such people in Shinjuku than up in Sendai. That’s why we saw meaning in holding the Year-End Otona Shokudo in Shinjuku.

Okunuki: How many came?

Watanabe: During two days, 102 came. We gave labor and lifestyle consultations to about forty of them. Like in Sendai, many were workers with precarious employment, terrible working conditions, and labor law violations. Unlike in Sendai, some had been evicted for rent arrears, fled their families, and were spending each night in net cafes or in McDonald’s, or when that money ran out, on the streets. Quite a few were living precarious lives.

Okunuki: In Sendai, even workers with unstable employment at least had homes or apartments to live in, but in Shinjuku, even shelter was an issue for many?

Watanabe: The Tokyo Umbrella Fund was set up by various types of aid groups. The fund provided thirty people who had lost their homes with 3,000 yen a night. We estimated that 70% of those who came to the Year-End Otona Shokudo in Shinjuku had incomes making them eligible for welfare assistance. Welfare in Japan doesn’t cover housing, which is seen as the individual’s responsibility. Disparity grows, and though Sendai and Shinjuku have their own characteristics, the problem is far more than a tale of these two cities. Working poor is a growing and serious problem in Japanese society. Workers have no choice but to raise their voice and take action to improve the situation. We at Posse plan to do everything we can to help get the labor movement going, using other methods as well as Otona Shokudo.

This article was written by Hifumi Okunuki, and originally published by the Shingetsu News Agency (SNA).