[Viewpoint] A place for the rich and the poor
The day before yesterday, I parked my bicycle for a while in Shinjuku, Tokyo, and when I returned, the bicycle seat was missing. So I had to walk my bicycle to a nearby repair shop and get a new seat. The repair shop owner recommended buying a bicycle lock, since the number of bicycle thieves is increasing. I felt bitter as thoughts of Japanese crime sprees filled my head.
The Japanese take pride in their public security, which they say is the best in the world. However, that security is now being shaken. Statistics show that robberies increased by 17.5 percent in the first half of this year compared to the same period last year, and purse snatchings specifically rose 14.8 percent. Convenience store robberies increased by 60 percent to 487 cases.
Japan has suddenly turned into a hotbed of crime. The Japanese Police Agency has explained that most cases are impulsive crimes committed out of financial distress, reminding me of Jean Valjean from Les Miserables, who stole bread out of desperate poverty.
You might doubt such poverty exists in the second-largest economy in the world, but it is the reality.
The Gini coefficient, which measures the gap between the rich and the poor, has increased during this decade. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare plans to conduct research on poverty next year for the first time, and that decision reflects how serious the problem has become in that country. Having accomplished extraordinary economic development after the end of the Pacific War, most Japanese citizens came to identify themselves as middle class, and poverty became an abstract concept, not something one personally experiences.
However, after the bubble burst in 1990, the situation changed drastically. Japanese society was initially flooded with a growing number of homeless - people who lost their jobs and left their families. As the globalized economy led to constant restructuring, the employment structure changed and the number of freeter, or irregular part-time workers, grew rapidly.
Even though they fulfill similar tasks to regular employees, they became the “working poor” who couldn’t become economically independent. They are not only poor as individuals but also do not make regular pension or tax payments, which is a great loss to the state as well.
Despite the growing gap between the rich and the poor, Japan has social structures in place to help the working class. Right next to the luxurious Imperial Hotel, you will find Gadoshita, a famous restaurant alley below the railroad tracks.
In order to efficiently utilize urban space, railroad tracks were built above ground, and the space below the tracks house restaurants to give the common people a place where they can make a living and eat.
This symbolizes the social contract that calls for coexistence between the middle class and the working class.
With the emergence of retail giants, many small businesses have disappeared. But you can still find all sorts of mom-and-pop stores in every alley. There is room for the working class to make a living if they try.
Today, however, the Japanese are frustrated by the growing poverty.
Voters are eager to change the ruling party in the upcoming general election on August 30. The Democratic Party, the main opposition to the ruling Liberal Democrats, is garnering support with a drastic policy focused on the redistribution of wealth, free high school education, a 550,000 yen ($5,800, 7.2 million won) maternity bonus, 310,000 yen annual childcare benefit and free highways.
While some are wary of excessive populism, even the patient Japanese cannot stand this level of poverty.
The Japanese example illustrates why the Lee Myung-bak administration’s centrist policies are well-timed, as long as they don’t become intoxicatingly populist.
*The writer is the Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.