One in six children live in poverty in Japan, supposedly one of the most prosperous countries in the world.
The nation’s child poverty rate was a record-high 16.3 percent in 2012, according to figures released July 15 by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.Some children give up on advancing to higher levels in school due to poverty, while others do not get enough to eat. How can we create a society in which a child’s economic situation does not control his or her future?

The government plans to release an outline of child poverty countermeasures this summer. In anticipation of this, The Yomiuri Shimbun is examining the current state of affairs and exploring the issues involved.

Rise in divorce boosts child poverty

The child poverty rate represents the proportion of children whose families have incomes below the level that would allow them to live an average life. The criteria are set by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Household income is divided by the number of people in the household and each individual is placed into national rankings. Then authorities count the number of children under 18 years old whose families have less than half-Y1.22 million in 2012-the median income.

The child poverty rate has been worsening since 2003. It rose 0.6 percentage point in 2012 compared to three years before.

The increase in one-parent households due to the rising divorce rate is thought to be one cause of the situation. There are thought to be about 1.24 million single-mother families nationwide. They have an average annual income of Y1.81 million, half that of single-father families.

Yet only about 10 percent of single-mother families receive welfare benefits.

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Focused on med school with no money for studies

The Yomiuri Shimbun , August 28, 2014
This is the fourth installment in a series.

The open window in a public housing unit in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, lets in the smell of the nearby sea.

A boy in his third year at a prefectural high school was studying at his desk by the window on the evening of July 30. “I will absolutely show them I can get into a medical university,” he said, his face tense.

The selective entrance exam at the end of August was coming up, and for days the 18-year-old had been studying at least 10 hours per day at school and home.

He had wanted to become a doctor since he was a second-grade primary school student, two years after his parents divorced.

At the time, he was hospitalized for asthma and was being cared for by a male physician. The doctor would come to his side as soon as his breathing became labored. He even checked on the boy on his days off, coming to the ward in his ordinary clothes.

“I want to be like that,” the boy thought.

To support him, his younger brother, 16, and younger sister, 14, the boy’s mother, 38, worked on construction sites and part-time at gas stations.

Their lives were difficult, with little money for pencils or books. But no matter how tired his mother was, she listened enthusiastically to what had happened at school that day and helped with their problems.

“My family is poor but we can talk about anything. I’ve never considered us unhappy,” the boy said.

His classmates prepare for the entrance exams with preparatory schools and at cram schools, things the boy cannot afford to do. “I don’t want to be beaten by those guys who have enough money to study,” he said.

A graduate from his school gave him some question books, which he worked on until they were tattered. He has always been at the top of the class in tests at school.

Two years ago, a chronic disease his mother had contracted worsened and she started receiving welfare benefits. She asked her son not to go to med school because of the expense, but he refused to give up on his dream.

He researched universities and decided to aim for private schools that gave free tuition to top students, or national and public universities that charged the same yearly tuition of about ¥500,000 for all departments.

Becoming a ronin—a high-school graduate who failed to enter a college waiting for another chance the next year—was not an option for the boy. Even if he goes on to university, he will no longer be eligible for welfare benefits, so he would have to support himself.

“Even if I get in right out of high school, will I be able to handle both a part-time job and the demands of the medical department?” he wondered.

Pushing aside his worries, he turned back to the desk.

Lowered sights

“I really wanted to go to a four-year university,” an 18-year-old student at a junior college in the Tokai region said this spring, smiling sadly.

The girl’s family became poverty-stricken after their business fell on hard times due to the sluggish economy and her parents got sick.

In March of her first year of high school, the family was evicted for failing to pay rent. She spent about two weeks in protective custody until her father came to get her. The family had found a place, but paying rent again proved impossible, and they were evicted a year later.

The girl’s father refused to apply for welfare benefits, and later he demanded she quit school, but she pleaded to be allowed to continue. After lots of agonizing, she consulted her homeroom teacher last spring and visited a children’s welfare center, where she was placed under protective custody.

Soon afterward, her father died of a disease and her mother disappeared. She spent the last year of high school with a foster family.

The girl wanted to attend a four-year university, and even visited some schools, but eventually gave up after considering how much school and living expenses would be.

She narrowed her choices to junior colleges, won a privately funded scholarship with no need of repayment and was chosen as a special scholarship student who was exempt from entrance and other fees.

Even then, she was unable to support herself, so she took part-time jobs in a supermarket and at a cram school.

She is also borrowing ¥50,000 per month from the Japan Student Services Organization. She estimates she will owe at least ¥1.2 million by the time she graduates.

“But I’m lucky because I can keep studying at a junior college,” she said, though it sounded like she was trying to convince herself.

Economically disadvantaged children are less likely to proceed to higher education. They cannot afford to attend cram schools and often lose their desire to study. Many never acquire the necessary scholastic abilities.

Even if they do have the ability, with no way to pay for school and living expenses, no small number elect not to seek higher degrees.

According to government statistics, 47.4 percent of children go on to university, while only 15.6 percent from households that receive welfare benefits do so.

To sever the “chain of poverty” that shackles children with the poverty of their parents, calls are rising for more support for students seeking higher education, such as tuition reductions or exemptions and more scholarships