Friday, October 12, 2007

Welfare in Japan

I just read this story in the New York Times about the state of welfare in Japan. Three men have died in the past 3 years in the city of Kitakyushu, which is supposed to be the "model" for welfare systems in Japan. The men died because their welfare benefits ran out and they couldn't get them renewed.

In Japanese society, it is expected that people rely on their families when they are in need, not on greater society. Receiving welfare or charitable assistance is considered shameful in Japanese society, even more so than in the western industrialized countries.

When I lived in Japan, my friend used to volunteer in a children's hospital. No one ever talks about unwanted children in Japan, but they do exist. She used to tell me about the relatively healthy children who lived in the hospital because they had nowhere else to go. It's expected that families take care of their own. Abortion is accessible, and because of the importance of bloodlines, adoption is relatively rare.

Last year I saw a very chilling Japanese DVD called Nobody Knows, based on a real story, about a family of Japanese children who had been abandoned by their single mother. They subsisted on the meager amount of money she left them. They were able to exist unnoticed on their own for quite some time, because observers just looked the other way. As a child, I was a big fan of the Boxcar Children--the idea that children could exist on their own without parental guidance was fascinating to my independent spirit--but the real-life story was very disturbing and terribly sad.

Japan is a beautiful, fascinating country. Japanese society is much better about taking care of and respecting its elders than our society. I understand that patients who stay in Japanese hospitals are brought meals by their family members. I found the Japanese to be incredibly generous to their families, friends, and acquaintances (and strange foreigners like me).

But every country has its dark sides. What happens when people do not have any family to care for them? As the NYT article points out, Japan has no religious tradition of helping the poor. Most charitable organizations are run by Christian churches or missionaries.

I hope that these deaths are a wake-up call to Japanese society, but I fear that they will not be enough to change the deep-set opinion that the less fortunate have somehow brought it upon themselves.

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