Poverty in Japan

Recently, the subject of poverty in Japan came up, so, uh, let me tell you about my friend Emi. She’s a dancer. We’ll get around to the poverty in a minute. Don’t worry, it’s not going anywhere.

“Want to come to my flamenco performance?” she cooed. We were sitting on the riverbank drinking cans of malt liquor and watching the sunset. Emi does this thing with her eyes that makes every crazy thing coming out of her mouth sound like an excellent idea.

“Do I?” I blurted out. “In Japan? I thought they were only in Florida!”

“Those are flamingo, you dolt. Flamenco. Like the dance?”

“Oh.” I tried to hide my disappointment by downing half a can of Kirin. I have this thing for pink birds.Watching dance is second only to baseball on Ken Seeroi’s List of Stuff I’d Rather Spend Time Doing Anything Other Than. “I’m kinda busy then,” I mumbled.

“I didn’t even tell you when it was!” she pouted.

Japanese Dance

I hate when she does that, so of course I ended up going. And really, the performance turned out great. I went to this Showa-era bar beforehand to give myself the fortitude. I knocked out an order of edamame, some lovely dried squid with mayonnaise, and several glasses of Hoppy, which is a beer-like This is Hoppy. It's a lot cheaper in Japan.beverage only without alcohol. When you get it, you mix it with ice and alcohol. I guess that’s kind of pointless really, because it just turns into like watery beer. Actually it tastes, well, pretty shitty, but it’s cheap so whatever.

Anyway, after all that Hoppy, flamenco was the most interesting thing ever. Lemme tell you, that dance has got everything—lots of stomping, guys in funny pants, women with umbrellas, and a dude on guitar. Emi wore this flowing black and red dress that looked amazing, and a little tiny hat pinned to her head.

Poverty in Japan

Dance is what Emi lives for, and she spends what little money she makes on evening classes after finishing work at the nursing home. In real life, Emi’s a healthcare worker. She went to trade school for it, after six months studying abroad in England. I know she speaks English, although she’s kind enough to speak only Japanese whenever I see her. Which is rarely, because all day, six days a week, Emi lifts elderly Japanese folks from their beds, assists them with the toilet, guides them down the hall, lowers them into the bathtub, and helps lift them out. Her back hurts all the time, and she fears she’ll eventually have to find another line of work. Job prospects for middle-aged women are not good.

There are millions of Japanese men and women like Emi, working low-wage jobs with no hope of promotion and a grim future. Call them what you like—blue-collar, middle-class, working poor, any flavor of sugar coating will do, but Japanese society is borne on the backs of such workers. In fact, it’s why people rave about their vacations here. Such prompt service! Such polite people! See, told you we’d get back to poverty in Japan.

Emi’s Bargain

What’s unique about Emi is the bargain she’s made. To afford dance classes, she lives without electricity or gas. Every day it’s a cold shower, washing clothes by hand in the sink, and using a flashlight when she needs to see something after dark. If you saw her strolling through Shibuya in heels and a skirt, you’d never know this is a woman who has no heat, no a/c, no TV, no refrigerator, and cooks in the dark over a gas camping stove. I’m not too worried about her reading this, since she has no internet.

The Japanese Working Poor

It’s easy to read reports and statistics about poverty in Japan and miss the obvious. Which is to say that every single person who’s ever visited has seen it. What’s weird is how easily it’s explained away. The grandmother scrubbing urinals in the public restroom, the old guy sweeping up leaves and carrying away boxes of dead puppies left in front of the civic center—-why, they’re just cheery, hard-working senior citizens! The restaurant cooks standing ten hours a day in rubber boots to chip ice for my Hoppy and to grill dried squid to perfection, well they all work out of pride, honor, and dedication, not because they need money like normal human beings. They’re not like everybody else, you know, those Japanese. They’ve got samurai culture.

Of course, if you saw it in your own country, you’d recognize it for what it was—people working their asses off, even well into old age, not out of some perverse industriousness, but simply because they’ve gotta eat. Ah, who wants to peek behind the Wizard’s curtain anyway? Japan makes for a great vacation, that’s all that matters. Thank God there’s a nation of folks acting all enthused about serving tourists. Because really, who doesn’t like waiting on foreigners? Japanese people could not be more thrilled.

The Wonders of Japan

When I first moved from the U.S., it all seemed fantastically romantic. Old wooden houses without insulation? That’s “traditional culture.” A family of four in an apartment the size of an American kitchen? Efficient use of space. People raising their own vegetables? Health consciousness. Sleeping on futons, eating on the floor from a table 14-inches high? Exotic. Riding rusty bicycles through the rain, and driving tiny, cheap cars? Hell, that’s just cute. What a great nation, all for my amusement.

No adult’s going to explain it to a foreigner, so that got left to the children.

Back in the Japanese School

“What’s your dream? Write it down.” This was Ken Sensei conducting what’s known as an English lesson. Forty boys and girls sitting in a freezing elementary school classroom staring blankly back at me. So I explained it in Japanese and everybody seemed relieved.

“Write anything you like,” I continued, handing out pencils and paper. “Maybe you want to be an astronaut, a doctor, or a fire fighter. You could even be an English teacher!”

Hey, just trying to be motivating. The responses I got back were equally amusing.

“My dream is to sleep in a bed,” wrote one girl.

“Soccer cleats,” wrote a little boy.

“I want to eat until I’m full,” said another a little guy. He was blue with cold. Hilarious.

Statistics on Japan

It’s hard to say how many Japanese people are technically “impoverished,” but there’s certainly no shortage of people living hand to mouth. Who chooses to reside in a massive government housing block or get up early every morning to prepare a lunch box? Plenty of Japanese folks, apparently. Where you draw the line between poverty and middle-class I don’t know, but single mothers and families living with everything they own crowded floor to ceiling in one room, recycling the bath water for laundry, waiting on a paycheck to buy groceries, and huddling around kerosene heaters for warmth is pretty far from anybody’s idea of wealth. From the big cities to the small villages, Hokkaido to Okinawa, Japan’s got its share of people taking payday loans. Not everybody’s fishing because it’s a fun hobby.

Unseen Japan

The wonder of Japan isn’t that there’s no poverty; but that it’s hidden so well. At night, armies of men pull out cardboard boxes and lay down to sleep on the sidewalks. Day laborers crowd into rooming houses, and whole tent cities spring up in parks, then disappear with the dawn. The hungry line up outside of soup kitchens. If you weren’t looking, you might mistake them for customers queuing for the latest ramen shop.

Maybe all poverty is hard to see when you visit a country, like stepping into a dark room until your eyes adjust. But gradually it comes into focus—-children living with their parents well into adulthood. Women desperate to get married. Grandparents escorted out of stores for shoplifting. A population of gamblers lost in mazes of pachinko parlors. The massive organized crime networks. Loan sharks. Hostess clubs, strip shows, snack bars, girls bars, and prostitution absolutely everywhere. Welcome to the world’s oldest wealth-distribution system. At least trickle-down Abenomics is working somewhere. You know, everyone enjoys a little economic stimulus.

Helping the Poor in Japan

So I was out walking a few months ago, and ran into this couple in their 70’s. This was during one of my periodic bouts of health, when I was trying to see how long I could delay the inevitable watching of Netflix and consumption of booze and potato chips. They were standing in the dirt lot that passes for a park in our neighborhood, staring at a tree losing its leaves. I was like, Sure is windy, huh? And they were like, Sure is. After that we got to talking for a bit until they said, Hey, why don’t you come over to our place? And I was all, Okay. So I did.

Their house seemed kind of a dark, spooky place, but by then it was nighttime, so perhaps that’s normal, I don’t know. They also had had a hole in a corner of their roof, but they didn’t seem too fussed about it, so I thought maybe that was normal too. I sat on their couch and they showed me an album full of pictures of their dead dog and served me glasses of shochu with water, along with potato chips and processed cheese spread. Oh, and squid intestines. Well, so much for the health program.

Now I drop by to see them every few weeks. Once in a while, I’ll take a carton of shochu or some pickled vegetables. The old woman gathers bags of aluminum cans from the trash. She’ll dangerously balance them high on the back of her bike and pedal unsteadily to the recycle center where they give her a handful of change. Every bit helps, I guess.

So these days, instead of taking my empty cans of malt liquor and chu-hi out on trash day, where some octogenarian might get them first, I take them directly to their house. You should see the old woman’s face light up when I arrive with a massive plastic bag gleaming with the radiance of a hundred pristine cans—-she beams like Santa himself just descended from heaven on a reindeer-powered sleigh. Well, Merry Christmas, old Japanese lady. I can’t guarantee God loves you, only that Ken Seeroi does.

118 Replies to “Poverty in Japan”

  1. This was one of the most heartbreaking posts yet. You’re right, poverty in Japan is so obvious, and yet is inexplicably difficult to convince visiting foreigners (or even, japanese people still believing the “we’re all middle class” spiel). If you’re slightly socially conscious, to live in Japan without feeling tremendously guilty you have to shut off the cognitive dissonance between services and slavery. “Aaaah Japan is so convenient” -> “if that tired looking dude is working in a conbini at 3am something is probably not right”. And there’s hundreds of thousands of those.

    On a side note, Ken, have you read that book about the 蒸発? I think it was advertised in the Japan times recently. Again, sad sad stories that for some reason are not part of the public discourse. We’d rather talk about sumo wrestlers brawling in bars thank you very much

    1. Do you have a link to that book? It sounds interesting, but there are several with similar titles. I’ve heard of the evaporation phenomena, where people just basically run away from their families and live out the remainder of their lives laying road tar and sleeping in internet cafes. Wow.

      1. Sure, here it is: https://www.amazon.co.jp/Vanished-Evaporated-People-Stories-Photographs/dp/151070826X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1512871536&sr=8-1&keywords=the+vanished

        What struck me about the book is that, while some of the circumstances told were undeniably serious, there were several examples where the problems sounded very solvable, but the people in question disappeared out of shame and inability to communicate (with their spouse, parents and so on).

        I was recently discussing with a friend about how so many niche, high-end shops manage to survive, given the state of society. We came to a mixture of the following points:
        1) there are enough rich people that buy expensive things
        2) even not so rich people would save up for months in order to buy their dream handmade shoes/rice bowl/crystal glass
        3) Japanese culture is founded on the concept of gift-giving, and there are enough people and enough special occasions that this whole industry is constantly supported.

        Still, I am not completely convinced. I am not sure that respected potters making expensive rice bowls are particularly well off. They probably sell five bowls per month and the whole system survives just because everyone accepts to live in what we would consider unacceptable conditions

    2. Thanks for talking about the phenomenon and the book, it’s going on my not so merry Christmas reading wish list…it’s something that I always had an inkling about from my own observations, but I didn’t know that it was something that people actually noticed or paid attention to…thankfully, I’m not the only one who’s thought about it.

  2. wow this is probably one of the most interesting articles so far. i was in Japan a few weeks ago and i can tell is changing a lot… maybe because of the millions of chinese tourist. im glad there is people that still care about other even in poverty.

    1. Thanks much. Yeah, it certainly seems that tourism has become Japan’s new business model. If we can no longer export products to the world, let’s bring the world here and sell them tea and rice crackers.

  3. Oh man, this is not the way I expect to feel when I read your blog.

    The image of the old folks showing you photos of their dead dog especially got me in the gut, probably because that’s the old lady I would be, and who knows if there will even be a Ken Seeroi bringing empty cans in my future.

    1. Yeah, sorry about that. Maybe it’s the coming of winter.

      Ironically, now that I’ve something of a “decent job” here, I’ve grown increasingly conscious of my good fortune, as well as the fact that many of the Japanese people I associate with don’t share it.

      Come spring, I’ll try to write more about maid cafes and ninja restaurants.

      1. Did you stop teaching English classes?
        I mean, your posts always seem to speak badly about that (or maybe it’s me being obtuse and “autistic”).

  4. It seems really important to acknowledge the economic reality that is impoverishing us all. I’m just now getting around to reading Thoreau’s Walden; turns out things have been messed up for a long time. You both have the ability to deliver devastating realities with a cheery voice

    1. Yeah, I was recently a bit shocked to learn that the Japanese government pension is 60,000 yen per month ($530 U.S. dollars). I know a lady who lives on that alone every month. Well, she doesn’t eat too much, so I guess it works out just fine.

      Now I understand why you see so many senior citizens working.

      1. 530 dollars? That’s almost the same as developing nation’s rate (Malaysia) and it doesn’t help that things are expensive in Japan.

    1. Instead of taking a shower wouldn’t it be better take the water from the sink warm it up, and use that to clean yourself?

  5. I’ve read (and seen on pop culture) very old people working to make ends meet, but it’s very interesting seeing your very perspective. Japan, every country, is so much more than what you see on surface.

  6. “Why Ken, these problems are the same across the world…” as many Japanese would fan away discussion of unpalatable issues.

  7. Thank you for the extremely detailed and insightful post. Appreciate the time you took to write this.

    “People sleeping on sidewalks at night and then disappearing by dawn”, “Those hungry queuing in front of soup kitchens”, “Children who wrote their dreams on a piece of paper” – Now I understand why I don’t feel that poverty exists as a tourist, I don’t see these things.

    But really, how much does Emi earns? I believe Japan has a min wage system, and if she lives outside of Tokyo, rent should be cheap enough for her to consider using electricity and gas, whilst affording dance classes at the same time. Is it possible to do a breakdown?

    A friend of my friend from Hiroshima who works as a healthcare worker as well, told me practically the same situation: he works 6 days a week, but is proud to tell me he owns all the manga volumes of One Piece when I asked him about it. He still lives with his parents, I suppose. Anyway, when I was introduced to him by my friend when we met in Hiroshima, it was his first night out in months, and he looked visibly upset when we parted ways.

    I digress, but I should have asked him about his salary. Even if he earned 120,000yen/month, which is half of 230,000 yen, is it not enough? Let’s try a hypothetical breakdown outside of Tokyo

    Rent: 30,000 (maybe even lesser, never rent an apartment before)
    Food: 30,000, assuming you cook at home and only focus on the essentials
    Utilities: 20,000? (Never paid utilities before, this is just an assumption)
    Transport: 10,000, or maybe even negligible if company pays for it

    With this amount, you still have around 30,000 yen left for ”recreation” purposes. Is that insufficient? Maybe most people earn <50,000 yen or something. I don't know.

    1. You are forgetting health insurance, pension insurance, phone bill etc., which are together already 30.000 at least. And a rent of 30.000 ? Good luck finding it, even then you’d have to pay 3 months rent for start (rent, deposit, keymoney). With this low salaries there is no wonder that Japan is the last choice for expats in Asia, even Thailand, China, Taiwan or Philippines rank above Japan. https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-11-30/japan-wants-immigrants-the-feeling-isn-t-mutual

      1. Well bloomberg the last few year have lost much of it’s credibility (a bit fake news )!
        Yes Japan is not the first choice , but surely not the last either . It’s around 5 or 6 place …..

        Japan has poverty and low salary compared to expenses , but also have a difficult language and required disciple that many southeast asians don’t have , since they just lazy !

    2. Thanks much for this discussion; it’s something I think about a lot.

      To answer your question, according to “the internet,” minimum wage in Japan is 823 yen per hour. Not bad, if you’re in high school.

      But I know what you’re thinking, because I do it a lot too. I’m like, Okay, if I make 240,000 yen per month…rent’s 50,000…food and booze are 30,000…that leaves 160,000. 400 bucks a week? Party on! From now it’s nothin’ but champagne and strippers!

      Okay, here’s the real deal. Right off the top, of course, take 25% for taxes and insurance. Fine, that’s still 300 bucks a week, so we’ll just scale it back to cheap wine and waitresses. But then…you’ve gotta buy clothes, shoes, a winter coat, gloves, hats, scarves…pay for it now or later, but it all costs money…and a heater, air conditioner, refrigerator, stove, microwave, washer, lights, curtains…you might buy them once or many times, depending on how often you move and how often they wear out…dresser, bed, mattress, pillows, TV, chairs, sofa, table, bowls, plates, pots and pans, hair dryer…even a bike, or car, new tires for them both, inspections, insurance, oil changes…and modern life…cell phone, internet service, a modem, laptop…oh dang, all that plus a 300,000 down payment just to move in to your new apartment…well, no problem if you happened to have a million yen in the bank, but you didn’t, so now you’re paying interest on a loan…and then there’s haircuts, dentist bills, doctor bills, and your mom needs physical therapy, and your cousins’s getting married, and your nephew’s gotta go to cram school to learn English. Whoops, forgot to notice you don’t live in the world all by yourself. People give you Christmas gifts…fine, don’t give any in return.

      But even for yourself, you need money for education, Japanese classes, movies, even cans of coffee at the convenience store. You’ll never want a vacation, to visit anyone, or a dinner out? What about festivals, visiting temples, karaoke, meeting friends in bars…instead of just spending every night alone eating cup ramen and staring at the train line? Uhh…dating? There’s a Japanese girl who just spent three hours doing her hair, buying a new outfit, ironing her miniskirt and gluing on eyelashes, and she’s going to choose between a banker offering to take her to a French restaurant overlooking the city and you saying Uh, hey, how’s ’bout you’n me go da park’n drink wine from a box? Yeah, that’ll work, maybe sometimes. Welcome to my world.

      Did I mention savings? Assuming you’re assiduous enough to avoid debt, you’ll certainly need to put away something…for the inevitable moment when your fridge dies, your car dies, your TV dies (mine did last week, crap), your appendix bursts, your girlfriend says there’s been a happy accident…or you simply want to retire before the age of 90.

      If you want to do the math, that’s cool. Just really think about, and include, all the costs. It’s not Japan’s that’s expensive. It’s life.

      1. Didn’t you sell all your stuff before you came to Japan? If you sold it at a lower cost then you should be able to buy it second hand in Japan as well. You should date girls want you for who you are, not those that expect you to pay for expensive dates. Gold diggers are more common in Tokyo maybe…

        1. Yes, I’ve sold all my stuff, moved, and bought second-hand goods more times than I can count. Moving is a quick way to relieve yourself of any excess cash you might have laying around.

    3. You are not wrong with your budget. When I just came to Japan in 2010, I lived in Tokyo (10 minutes walk from Shinjuku station) on about 70,000 per month, for about half a year. I paid 40k for a bed and utilities in a shared room with another 2 peeps, 15k for food (I ate quite well, you just need to know where to shop). Rest went to misc. spendings (health insurance) and booze. I also traveled through all Japan by hitchhiking without spending a penny. I was young and happy.

      Now I make 1 mil per month and still magically have no money. Heck.

  8. I really enjoyed this post. I think that it’s too easy for visitors to Japan to ignore the marginalized members of society, even if they are increasingly a majority. Your blog is very thoughtful and I appreciate your hard work in this post especially. Do you write for any English language newspapers in Japan, or have you thought about a regular column or a book?

      1. oh my.. serious lol. nice one DQ

        Ken, thank you for yet another great piece. Every time I hear someone talk about how fascinated they are by Japan (often), I refer them to your blog as ‘must read’. You’re doing the world a service.

        Side anecdote/factual backup: when I lived in Tokyo, my kids School organized an ‘onigiri for the homeless’ event where we all made stuff to hand out. I imagined there would be just a few takers – but no, the well-mannered line stretched around Ueno park.

        1. That’s a great thing you did. Particularly during this holiday season, I hope people everywhere will do a little for those less fortunate than themselves.

      2. Heh, I agree that you should probably keep up your writing in this blog format so that you can write about what you want, when you want it (more frequently please!)…without an editor or “the guys in corporate” looking over your shoulder.

  9. My son (who recently returned home after living in Osaka and Kobe for the past 4 years, turned my on to your blog. I became obsessed with reading every night before bed…sometimes two or three entries at a time. I enjoy your style and humor so much. I would often be holding back hysterical laughter so as not to wake my husband.

    I remember the very sad day when I ran out of articles. I felt better when I realized, I can read them all again! Thank you for your latest entry, I enjoyed it very much. We (your fans) are always anxiously waiting…

    Merry Christmas Ken! 🙂

  10. “Maybe all poverty is hard to see when you visit a country”

    Intentionally so. I had a couple friends visit Japan, a few years ago. One of them had lived there for a decade or so. The other one, it was his first time. He got back and said “Japan is amazing. So clean! So rich!”

    The one who had lived there said, “There’s plenty of poverty in Japan, too. We were a block away from a cardboard-box camp. I could have taken you there if you wanted to see it. They just don’t take tourists that way.”

  11. Ultimately, we can agree that poverty is what you make out of it. There are always trade-offs you have to make in life, and if you so choose to live a particular lifestyle, then be prepared for the sacrifices.

    Good discussion.

    1. Yeah! Poor people are poor because they’re lazy. Not like billionaires who worked all their way to success. Tell him Ivanka.

      1. Let’s keep things civil…there are degrees of choice and degrees of circumstances. You may not completely agree with his interpretation (and I don’t completely), but he has some valid points. Try to take a page out of Ken’s example and be respectful and informative with your response.

        1. Thank you Jonathan. Appreciate the defence.

          To ネトウヨ潰せ,

          While some people are poor by circumstances (being born into such a family, lacking resources the resources to study and move up, hence contributing to a vicious cycle), there are also people who choose to be poor by choice. Just like how there are billionaires who inherit their wealth, there exists also billionaires who worked their way up.

          Degrees of choice and degrees of circumstances, Jonathan sums it best.

          1. There are any number of reasons people find themselves in financial trouble. But one thing’s certain—it’s not only about the individual.

            Case in point…two relatives of mine. One recently had an operation. Nothing life threatening, but certainly necessary. The bill? Forty-two thousand dollars. Before that, the other relative had cancer. Guess how much? Seriously, guess. Almost a million dollars in treatment. Yeah, welcome to American medicine. Thank God they both had decent health insurance, which covered most of the expenses, although not all.

            And you can see what would happen if they didn’t…or if your wife or husband or child or grandparent needed help. One person without proper insurance can bankrupt an entire family. Even non-emergencies—your best friend’s car breaks down, your son gets accepted to law school, your uncle gets sued—can drag a person, or an entire family into financial hardship.

            So I don’t see it as simply an individual phenomenon. Wealth, or poverty, radiates out like ripples on a pond.

            1. True. I never could understand how America can charge its citizens such exorbitant prices for healthcare. Then again, that is the price you pay for capitalism, where each individual is expected to fend for himself. Is it worth it in exchange for being the World No.1 Economy? That is not for me to say -every system has its pros and cons

  12. Not hard to see why locals view us ‘mericans as lazy and wasteful. They’ve been drinking the Green tea Kool-Aid so long they really believe the crazy amount of work they do for terrible wages and everyday gaman is just normal, middle class livin’.

  13. I was a healthcare worker before, but now I’m a programmer in Japan. My salaries are not so high as that of in the world but I’m satisfied for now.

    In Japan, wages of healthcare workers is really cheap although there are many tasks to take care of elder people.
    However whenever you want to get more money in Japan, you can quit current jobs as soon as possible, learn some new skills and get better jobs because Japanese companies don’t have enough people who have some skills, especially of IT technology.

    I assume house rent in Japan is one of the cheapest among developed countries.
    So it might be heard too harsh, but Japanese people can overcome their poverty whenever they hope to do.

    1. I’m very interested in Japans IT market. What areas are demanded with good return?
      For example as a Software Engineer you would earn the around the same salary as lifting a crate from A to B 8 hours a day in my country, which is majorly disappointing to say the least. And I’m not including Japan “voluntary” overtime expectations.
      Do you have any thoughts on maybe system administration or network engineering? Or somewhere in the telecommunications, last time I checked that area is kinda lacking and may hold good job opportunities.

  14. I saw an abandoned building full of homeless people near shinimamiya station in Osaka when i visited there, some are huddled together in front of a vending machine drinking beer. I didn’t stare at them to observe because they might get offended, a southeast asian staring might upset them. Coming from a country with its own problem of poverty it was an eye opener that even a considered great nation such as japan also have the same problem. But i really enjoy my stay and will be back soon.

  15. Some of my closest friends are independent musicians, (emphasis on ‘independent’) and live the same life as your friend Emi. They spend all their time practicing, rehearsing, and performing. They work jobs such as cleaning, stacking shelves and living in tiny outlying apartments for the privilege of paying to play to five drunk people in a shitty dive somewhere.

    That may have been a choice once, but after a while there is no alternative, there aren’t many opportunities for 30 somethings that didn’t get on the corporate ladder.

  16. This is why I pay the lion’s share when the students go out for a nomihodai. I make a good salary and feel I want to help. Of course, sometimes, I overdo helping and my bank account is empty, but the young people need some fun.

  17. This is super powerful for many reasons. It’s heartbreaking, for one. The other thing is that as Gen X and Millennials get older in the US, that is going to happen to us. There are VAST numbers of us who don’t have retirement money. We’ll be working until we die. Thank you for sharing this. You’re such a good dude for bringing that couple your aluminum.

    1. I feel bad for not doing more, really. Of course, there’s a lot of people who need help, so perhaps doing something, however small, is better than nothing.

      You’re right to be concerned about retirement. It’s a problem for people around the world. You really can’t start saving too soon. In most countries—including Japan and the U.S.—we can be pretty sure the government’s not going to bail us out.

    2. I agree that perhaps Japan is an illustration of what a rich country looks like when it’s not experiencing an expectation of unending property price rises (or bubble) like in many western countries. There, at least the population that manages to get on the property ladder can afford to finance their lifestyle and retirement through the increasing equity in their homes, whereas in Japan, most property outside of Tokyo is a fraction of what older generations paid. As millennials are less and less likely to own their own homes, they are in effect like the current Japanese.

      1. One of the more surprising things I learned from living here is that, unlike in the U.S., Japanese homes almost always lose value. They’re essentially akin to a car, in that they depreciate over time, and thus don’t provide a means of accumulating wealth.

        Of course, seeing that the homes here are largely constructed out of paste, matchsticks, and hairballs, it’s easy to understand why.

        1. It’s a really interesting synthetic economic variable, though, right? I remember reading Hawaiian Richard Kiwosawa’s “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” books, and it was the first time I’d heard someone say that a house is not an asset, that an asset brings you income. An expatriate Japanese idea? Really contrary to the western way of thinking. Hawaii being literally between the west and the east, culturally.
          In the western world real estate is no longer a good investment, but that’s a new phenomenon. Trump got rich through property dealing.
          In Japan, the artificial limited lifespan for housing (due to earthquake regulations) and for cars (especially in Japan, where – is this true? – do cars have to be under a certain number of years old to be registered or sold or something?) means that the housing market does not get over-inflated by investors as it has almost everywhere else.

          1. Hi there E.rex,

            Just to answer your question: according to the exactly one Japanese person I asked, you can still purchase and register old cars. They just have to pass the bi-annual inspection.

            Once in a while, you’ll see an old car on the road, but granted, they’re pretty rare. For a country said to value tradition so highly, folks sure like shiny new stuff a lot.

          2. E.Rex,

            Yeah it’s from a few different factors. One of them is that quite realistically a lot of the houses weren’t around because of earthquakes, fire, war in the last century…so there may be a thinking with many Japanese that homes are not supposed to be permanent. Also, particularly after the war when there was a big rush to rebuild, a lot of those houses were pretty substandard and definitely needed to be rebuilt. Also, with continuous changes in building codes, particularly earthquake related, it was just easier to knock down and rebuild houses as opposed to bringing them back to code. Finally, think about how well you would maintain your house if you thought that the next buyer wouldn’t care anyway…so lots of those houses aren’t exactly desirable from a functional or presentation basis. My personal take is that houses decrease in value because most of your buyers say they do…if you can find someone to pay you at least cost, then good for you…more likely though EVERYONE will say it’s worth nothing.

        2. Yeah I actually just bought a place in Japan, and here in the US my coworkers just can’t fathom when I tell them that your purchase price is basically the land and demolition value…that after 10 years your house depreciates to zero value regardless of the nice granite countertops or whatever improvements you do. I’m leaning on reforming the house since I do like the old house aesthetics, but yeah it does put a cap on overheating residential markets.

          1. I’m curious as to why you bought a property. I like the thought of it, so I’d be interested in hearing your rationale. Also, it sounds like you still live in the U.S. If so, why buy in Japan?

            I recently read a statistic about property ownership in Japan, and a disproportionate number of properties are owned by foreigners. The Japanese themselves seem far less interested in buying here.

            1. my understanding is that rich people around the world like to buy properties in stable countries as investments, or at least a relatively safe stash. Japanese may just be more likely to make news about anything with the word ‘foreigner’ in it.
              What I heard anecdotally is that purchase prices are relatively low relative to rents, so investors can get good cash flow. Also I’m sure tax is a huge issue – maybe foreign investors are less subject to Japan’s inheritance tax, which deters JP buyers?
              My Chinese friends told me that many companies in China offer [overseas] property purchase and management services.

              1. Yukita,
                I’m in no way an expert on taxation or real estate, but yeah if anything I think your first point may be more accurate…that purchase prices are relatively low and you can potentially turn it into an income stream. I think Ken touched on that in the comment thread in his AirBNB post (talking about the number of Chinese and overseas owners renting out property).

                However, as a stable and potential growth investment…I don’t think it applies as much to Japan; maybe something you see more in Canada or the US. I don’t think there’s a big an upside towards property growth based on demographics as well as what’s been discussed here about how housing loses all value after a few years. Also, I need to dig into it more, but regardless of your residence, Japanese assets are subject to local inheritance tax.


                My personal take is that’s fine…trying to build familial wealth leads to overall inequality…I love my kid and all, but when I pass away, I won’t care about my assets anymore, and I’m hoping that he was brought up the right way and can take care of himself and his family. I received and will receive nothing from my grandparents and parents…and I don’t understand why people get all worked up about “passing stuff on…”

            2. Ken,
              Well, I bought property because long term I plan to go back to Japan…though the soonest would be when the kid is off to college. I didn’t buy in any of the big metropolitan centers (though still somewhat convenient if I did want to hop on a quick train ride over) so the purchase price was a fraction of what I had been squirreling away as part of a down payment here in the SF Bay Area. I also decided that since real estate is ridiculous here…I don’t plan on buying any time soon at these levels especially if I have no desire to stick around after my kid is out of the house.

              I don’t think of it as a long term investment since I don’t have a very optimistic view of the real estate market in Japan, particularly outside of the big cities. It would be nice to rent it out and all, but it does need a bit of work and, yes, most people are telling me that it’s easier to just tear it down and build the house I want (even with the older aesthetics)…though being out in the US makes managing property a little difficult and I have no plans to have a management company or my in-laws manage the day to day of having tenants.

              I just wanted to have most of my living concerns squared away for when I do decide to “retire” or settle down in Japan…as for what to do when that time comes…heh, maybe Seeroi it?

              1. Fixing it up and renting it sounds like an option. Have you actually stayed there, and how is it? Just out of curiosity, how much do you pay in annual taxes on the house?

                Overall, I think it’s a cool project. Ironically, I’ve been talking to some folks here who’re talking the same thing after retirement—only moving to other Asian countries where real estate is even cheaper. Guess everyone’s looking for a way to make their yen go further.

          2. As the mortgaged owner of a property outside Japan, 10 years seems like a realistic timescale for the true lifetime of a house. Our place is 10 years old, and so much needs replacement and repair… Sure, it’s not the cost of rebuilding, but it’s still an enormous expense.

            1. Renovation of any property will cost money and take time. If you’re not a trades person, not only do you need to buy tools, you need to learn how to use them. I spend hours watching DIY tutorials on YouTube. Time also needs to be spent researching and sourcing materials at the best price. DIY is stressful, and often leads to domestic disputes. You save money by DIY,……which you may end up spending on a divorce!

  18. “like stepping into a dark room until your eyes adjust.”

    This hit me hard. Lived in my Central Tokyo bubble for many years, so I say with a bit of shame and self-disgust that the dazzling lights kept me from seeing the pain and suffering of those less fortunate.

  19. Wow, I thought that Mr. Wong and I would be the first to respond…I guess this topic really struck a chord.

    So in our house we watch a lot of Japanese TV, random variety shows, travel shows, and the occasional tribute to the shokunin. They’ll show a shot of the guy’s place (small living area with his whole family next to his shop) and some times the guy’s kid. When asked if the kid’s looking forward to being the successor, invariably the kid will mutter a 「そうですねぇ。。。」 with downcast eyes.

    Like you said, what tourists and even many Japanese take for granted is that the cost of good service at all times (including 3 AM in some random, inaka conbeni) or super, specialized, niche goods and cuisines is probably someone who doesn’t have a choice or who doesn’t know any other kind of life.

  20. Hi Ken,

    Thanks for yet another insightful post piercing “that bubble” a bit once again.

    As for the redesign of your site, would it be possible to bring back the nested vies in your comments section?

    To me, all is displayed in a flat manner, making following conversations a pretty challenging exercise, which is a pity given all the great contributions.

    Thanks again for your work, beer is on its way,

    1. Hey Ramon,

      Thanks again for the contribution. That’s very kind of you.

      Yeah, I’m not too thrilled with the way the comments look. That functionality came built-into the new theme. I’ll have to see if there’s a plug-in that makes them more readable. I appreciate the feedback.

      Edit: Okay, I made a minor change, so the comments should now be nested. Let me know if this looks a little better.

        1. My pleasure. It seems to be working. Whew.

          Fixing the site is like searching for something on Google. Either the answer pops up immediately, or it takes weeks. Seems like there’s no in-between.

  21. Hey,
    I have been through all your posts and comments section twice. But, I have to say this may be your best one yet.

    Anyways, recently I found a little stretchable pocket in my own poverty ridden budget for your beer. I hope the elderly couple can get a couple of aluminum cans from my donation to you.

    Keep writing.

  22. Ken.
    Thanks again for a great piece.
    A little off topic but I was always fascinated watching the can collectors fill their bags full of uncrushed cans resulting in an enourmous and precarious load on the back of a bicycle.Back on topic,would you be kind enough to ask your friends why they don’t crush their cans,and most everybody in Japan for that matter?
    Cheers Craig.

  23. So where is all the wealth? Still stuck in the accounts of companies?
    Why do companies so viciously refuse to give higher salaries or talk about raises?
    I’ve recently even heard that Abe will lend 600 million yen (?) from companies for something.

    1. Addition: Personally I think, the reason for freezing wages is a cultural one.
      I never understood why Japan keeps their senpai/kohei system, basically a direct awareness of a super strict social hierachy. It can be abused so much, and the kohei simply has to take it and shut up. This is useful to drill soldiers to follow orders when quick decisions have to be made. But everyday life? To me, it makes absolutely zero sense, no use whatsoever.
      Why would an employee one day ask his boss, if he can get a raise? He is the kohei and expected to play his role. He will get his raise when the senpai feels like it.
      If life is tough for the employee, yeah well, gambare.
      You would think that now that employees have such a good position right now with all the labor shortage, they will make demands for their service. No, they are just a small kohei, or least they have been drilled their whole life long to think they are.

  24. I really appreciate this article and learning more about this aspect of Japan. Increased awareness will hopefully help provide some more solutions for folks impacted.

    The president of second harvest Japan was on TV Tokyo the other night. The video does’t appear to have found it’s way to youtube yet but you can get a summary of the content from the website.


    Basically, there’s more than enough delicious food for everyone in Japan but there are huge obstacles in the way of getting the food to people. I hope Emi can receive a few meals from them as well.

  25. For those interested on the topic who can read french (sorry), I would recommend to read the book “Le Clou qui dépasse. récit du Japon d’en bas”, which was writen by a french worker-priest after 20 years working in a small subcontractor company.

    For a more historical perspective, still in french “Misère et crime au Japon du XVIIe siècle à nos jours” by P. Pons – structural causes, social represetations, etc.

  26. I don’t understand, Abe, just gave 2.8 Billion to what the UN for medical insurance for OTHER Countries. And yet, his own people could really use that money. Makes no sense to me. Jeff Bobela.

  27. Wow, touched a nerve here Ken by the looks of it. Must be Christmas indeed! Was talking about this in class with a bullish looking JTE with a Texan accent the other day , asking her what she thought about rising wage disparities etc. Her quick off the hip response was, “ well you know it’s much easier to live on small salaries these days. Haven’t you seen , you can get a bento at Genki now for just over 200 yen! “
    Problem solved innit.

    1. Right you are, a 200-yen bento, 2,000-yen bicycle to ride through the rain, 20,000-yen apartment with a one-burner stove, two pairs of cheap socks, and a hot water bottle to get you through the winter…who wouldn’t be happy with that?

    1. Thanks much, Esther. I’m more than happy to hear feedback, whether positive or negative. Of course, I am glad you found something good here.

      I know I joke around a lot, and sometimes I’m a wee bit sarcastic. Probably just some flaw in my genetics; don’t take it too seriously. I really do love Japan. Some of the time.

  28. Might be a good time to grab a second-hand FG-800 and sing the blues, Ken. You have the jus solis cred, for starters, and poverty never held melody back.

    Humor aside, it’s the best way to cheer your friends up, specially when you suck.


    1. You know, I do think about playing the guitar again. I did enjoy it. But that’s about the time I think, Hey, for 2018, what’s a good, time-consuming hobby to keep me from both studying Japanese and writing about Japan? Guitar would fit that bill rather nicely.

      1. Hey, it was just an idea, no need to threaten me with abstinence! I take solace in the hope that it’ll generate more anecdotes for us.

        Who knows. I may even join your blues jam in 2018 with nylon strings.

        Merry Xmas, Ken.

        1. No worries. “Abstinence” isn’t a word in my vocabulary. Got another half-baked article in the works right now; probably be fully baked by New Years. Merry Christmas to you as well, Pat.

    1. Jesus, now you’re reminding me of Friday night. Too much damn Hoppy…

      Honestly, I can’t tell white Hoppy from black. Aside from the food coloring, it tastes virtually the same. Think I lost my taste buds around the third bottle.

  29. As someone from Hawai’i, a lot of the homeless/poverty situation in urban Japan always looked familiar to me.

    Is it a beautiful place? Absolutely. But we do a pretty good job of glossing over just how bad some of our problems are. Just go a little ways off Waikiki with all the high end shops and you’ll start cruising through homeless camps…

    1. You know, the first time I heard about poverty in Hawai’i, it surprised me. I mean, it’d just never occurred to me. In retrospect, it seems obvious.

      You’re right, it’s very similar to Japan. There’s a massive difference between the lives of tourists and short-term visitors and that of the local people. I suppose it’s like that anywhere.

  30. Ken — found your site today. I enjoyed what I read so far. Lived here in Kansai for 15 years. – been around here for 28, and your articles are spot-on. Thanks, and keep it up.

    1. Thanks for the props. It got me thinking—I wonder how many people like me, or us, there are in Japan. (I’ll just gratuitously lump you into the same group despite knowing absolutely nothing about you.)

      What I mean is, Westerners who speak fluent Japanese and live the same lives as Japanese people. (i.e. not students, those working in international environments, sponsored by expat packages, or the military.) I’ve probably met 10 over the years.

      There are certainly plenty of Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Nepali, and Korean people. But long-term Westerners are pretty rare. I wonder if 5,000 is a reasonable estimate.

      1. I’m Filipino but left Manila when I was 2 and didn’t set foot outside of the US until I was 18…so if you would consider me as non-Westerner then congratulations, you have wholeheartedly adopted the Japanese mindset on ethnicity and nationality!

  31. I wonder if the number of US citizens seeking a life elsewhere has increased after the last election. It seems like not even America knows what America is doing.

    1. It wouldn’t surprise me. And yet, I hope that wouldn’t anyone’s reason for jumping ship. I’m pretty sure there’s always a pasture greener than the one you’re fenced into.

  32. Woo, the Hinamatsuri anime is soon.

    You know, for the gag manga it is, it felt surprisingly uncomfortable at moments. I mean, it’s normal for a comedy to do social commentary – I’m looking at you, Zetsubou sensei – but even Kumeta’s works mostly seem obvious only in retrospect. However, as a total opposite to this, Hinamatsuri’s gags combine blatantly showing the social problems of Japan with an utter lack of interest in commenting on them.

    tl;dr: woo, the Hinamatsuri anime is soon. Hope it’s as good as the manga.

  33. As I am the somewhat unconventional tourist of Japan, I have to say that this article surprises me less than expected. What was really new to me was the extent of those doing cheap labor and getting just by.

    But, if you’re not walking completely blind through Japan and walk just a little off the usual tourist routes, poverty will basically jump in your face. Be it Shin Imamiya in Osaka, Kita Senju in Tokyo, Ishigaki-City, or Iwaki in Fukushima. The whole Island of Shodoshima. Basically all former industrial or tourist towns that have somehow passed their glorious times.

    I find this such a strange contrast. I spent Christmas in Haimurubushi, and the place was packed. And not just there, all the ferries and flights as well. So while there is this huge amount of poverty and almost-poverty, you will still find an excess of Japanese who are able and willing to spend their money in expensive Hotels, Restaurants, and on luxury products.

  34. thank s to write, that s many wont see.
    Now i know , i m not crazy.
    just yesterday i saw a man pick up part of onighiri from garbage, sure for eat., and i m living in a good middle level area., not in sanya.
    Also many others looks in better conditions, but many of them for buy clothes don t buy food.

  35. so she pay to dance , what a stupid thing to do ..
    After some lines i see Emi’s Bargain ” To afford dance classes, she lives without electricity or gas” OK so she’s definitely stupid !
    is that for really , and i thought Japanese people weren’t fall for naive choices like Example Netflix 😛

    My dream is to sleep in a bed,” wrote one girl. well futon are way nicer , so just a spoiled brat not know what good for her ….

    My point is like any other country, there are people who are just poor -impoverished and people that blow their money is worthless things like big house, expensive electronics , dance (like Emi) , gym , and many other thing that maybe nice but we can live as moderate poor without them !

    1. What great insight from someone who has never met PASSION. Poor unfortunate soul who has never felt strongly enough about anything to sacrifice comfort to pursue a dream. He says “definitely stupid” – we haven’t done a comparative IQ test so I cannot speak to his intelligence, but I can definitely weigh in on Emi’s. Better to have pursued your dream, followed your passion, than to have lived a half life. Live well, and die with no regrets.

  36. Wow your blog is amazing, I’ve been living in and out of Japan since I was 8 years old (now I’m 22) and I love your writing, some of the experiences you’ve been through I see myself.
    Keep up your good work!

    1. Thanks a bunch. That really means a lot coming from someone who’s known Japan their whole life.

  37. Dear Seeroi-san,

    wow, it’s already two years since I first read your blog entry. I never could get it off my mind. In particular your experiences as a teacher surely were hair-raising. When I’m in Japan I noticed how many small kids use trains unattended, and I liked to believe that Japanese just raise their kids so that they can look after themselves from an early age on. But I was never quite sure. Now the Japantimes confirms that there is a fine line between independence and neglect.

    Maybe it’s the late-autumnal darkness that inspires such thoughts. I hope you have a nice Christmas nevertheless and that you can enjoy New Year’s celebrations. May the new year hold 108 blessings for you.

    Best regards,

    1. “. . . there is a fine line between independence and neglect.”

      That captures Japan pretty well. Foreign folks seem to take things at face value much more than they should, without pausing a moment to ask questions. It’s easy to conclude that the kids are protected in some sort of collective utopian bubble, and foreign news outlets write it up as such. Don’t get me started on Japan’s “cat islands” either. Sorry, I digress. I’ve simply talked with so many women who were molested as children. And there are endless sad stories in the newspapers. There are literally signs everywhere warning children to be careful, to call the police, to run into safe places. Do a Google Image search for 子供 110番 . 子供 means “child” and 110番 is the number for the police.

      When you see a child riding the train alone, maybe that’s just a kid whose parent can’t spare the time to go to and from school with them. Dad was transferred to another prefecture and Mom’s at home taking care of an infant. Maybe sending that child to school on the train is the best they can do. Or maybe not. Maybe Japan is just that safe of a society. But it’s weird that anyone would jump to that conclusion.

  38. Communism sucks , Socialism sucks but most of all capitalism sucks , the richest country in the world USA has 43% of the population living near or below the poverty line. I’m so lucky that I live in Europe 30 years ago I was down and out living on the streets but thanks to the system I got a way out now I’m 61 living on a small disability pension but I got my own house paid the last mortgage 3 years ago so I have a great life compared to billions of people who weren’t so lucky as me to be born in the best part of the world for working class heroes.

  39. Just read this after reading your breakfast blog post…. Been in Japan 26 years, live in a very very middle class part of town, run a successful company, am literally surrounded by people are very comfortable financially and you are so right, poverty is so hidden/ concealed to the extent that if you go about your daily business without really seeing what’s in front of yer nose, you would never know it’s there. Very thought provoking and a huge knudge in the ribs, bravo sir!

    1. Thanks much. Very true–we often only see what we expect to see. And sometimes we don’t look very hard.

      Lately, I’ve been apartment shopping. Now, here’s an eye-opening exercise—walk through random neighborhoods anywhere in Japan and look at the number of apartments that are truly horrible. There are tons of places you frankly wouldn’t want to live in. First floor apartments with one small window, places next to railroad tracks or adjacent roaring streets and stagnant canals; buildings simply run-down, or apartments above loud, smokey restaurants. That Japan doesn’t get a lot of coverage in guide books. I suspect the occupants aren’t enjoying much of the “very very middle class” life.

      The same is true for jobs. There’s a lot of folks doing hard, low-wage, even horrible jobs. But it seems every description of “the Japanese” paints this nation as one steeped in deep, meaningful culture, producing cheery, humble, and obedient staff, thrilled to serve up buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken and deliver Dominoes Pizzas. It’s demeaning to reduce this nation to such a postcard image.

      Now, I’m not suggesting we should focus on the negative aspects of this country; far from it. Rather, I hope we can reach a more balanced view of Japan. To understand it not as some sacred, special nation apart, but as one full of normal people, struggling through real lives—some parts good, some parts bad—along with the rest of humanity.

  40. I was taking a moment to learn a little bit more about poverty in Japan—it’s capitalist like any other current country, I knew it had to be there—when I found your article. In Appalachia, we generally have the opposite issue of being labelled as wholly impoverished by outsiders, yet what you describe of Japan is very familiar. There are many people and families like Emi and the old couple in my home town. Maybe it’s harder here, but with enough sheltering, and if you vigilantly avert your eyes to the pan-handlers, one could be led to believe everything is fine—nothing needs to fundamentally change. It definitely isn’t fine here, and I don’t think it is anywhere.

    You’re a wonderful writer, thanks.

    1. Thank you, that’s very kind.

      Japan’s often said to have a large middle class, and that’s true to the extent that most people live in similar circumstances. The rub is that “middle class” in Japan would be close to “poverty” in many other countries. A one- or two-room apartment for a family of four, where the most prized possession might be a bed. It’s astonishing how little people actually have. Of course, put another way, it’s equally astonishing how much Americans have.

      It’s hard to compare Japan to Appalachia, because so many Japanese people live in urban areas. Even what’s called the inaka (countryside) is often just suburban. The folks who actually live in the countryside typically have vegetables and livestock to subsist upon, so that’s something. Much of the real poverty lies in the cities, with people working long hours to maintain a very low standard of living.

      I often wonder why Westerners idolize Japan, when this seems so obvious. Tourists post videos laughing about how small the apartments and hotel rooms are, as though Japanese people enjoy living in such circumstances. They take pictures of people riding bicycles in the rain and crowded on to train cars. I guess it’s amusing, so long as you don’t have to live it every day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *