Women in Poverty: Japan’s Silent Scourge

Society Family Work

The feminization of poverty is a growing issue in Japan, and job losses triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic are pushing more and more women over the edge. But the full extent of the problem, including homelessness among women, is not well documented. Sociologist Maruyama Satomi has spent two decades probing the oft-hidden face of economic marginalization in Japan, beginning with her seminal field survey of homeless women.

Maruyama Satomi

Associate professor of sociology, Kyoto University. Born in 1976. Received her PhD in sociology from Kyoto University. Author of Josei hōmuresu toshite ikiru (trans. Living on the Streets in Japan: Homeless Women Break Their Silence), of which a revised and expanded edition was released in September 2021. Editor of Hinkon mondai no shinchihei (The Poverty Problem’s New Horizon) and other works.

First Encounter with Homelessness

Although there have always been homeless people in Japan, it was only in the 1990s, after the collapse of the 1980s asset-price bubble, that their numbers were sufficient to attract widespread attention. At first, the rise in homelessness was apparent only in neighborhoods like Osaka’s Kamagasaki, Tokyo’s San’ya, and Yokohama’s Kotobukichō, where large numbers of day laborers boarded in cheap rooming houses and congregated at informal hiring sites. As jobs grew scarce, more and more were unable to pay for their rooms and ended up sleeping in the open. Then the recession deepened, and the phenomenon spread to other urban districts.

By 1999, there were thought to be around 30,000 people living unsheltered in Japan, with the largest number concentrated in Tokyo and Osaka. That was the year Maruyama, then a university student, volunteered at a Kamagasaki meal center “out of curiosity,” her first full-fledged encounter with homelessness. As a third-year student, Maruyama decided to write her senior thesis on the topic of volunteerism, and that summer she commuted regularly to Kamagasaki to conduct fieldwork while helping out at the meal center. “Kamagasaki was a lively, thronging, interesting neighborhood. I really enjoyed the experience of helping out and interviewing the other volunteers at the meal center. I decided to enroll in grad school after graduation and continue my research.”

There was a dark side to her experience, however. As she was wrapping up her work in Kamagasaki, Maruyama found herself being stalked by one of the neighborhood’s day laborers. Her first reaction was simply fear for her own safety. Then it occurred to her that homeless women faced such dangers on a daily basis. Although she had noticed a handful of women at the meal center, she rarely saw any of them on the street. She wondered what it was like for a woman sleeping out among so many men, and she realized the only way to find out was to ask them herself.

Shining a Light into the Shadows

Previous sociological studies of the homeless in Japan had focused exclusively on male subjects, as if women were not even in the picture. As a grad student, Maruyama decided to maintain her focus on day-labor sites and homeless encampments, but in the context of gender issues.

Maruyama embarked on her research project in 2002, dividing her time between Tokyo, where she worked at a welfare center in San’ya, and Osaka, where she again engaged in volunteer work for the homeless. “For the first year or so, I found it impossible to interview the women around me because I felt guilty about using them as tools in my research,” she confesses. However, when she finally worked up the courage to sit down with a homeless woman and explain what she wanted to do, the woman was happy to cooperate. Encouraged, Maruyama gradually reached out to others and expanded her sample over time.

Maruyama also carried out fieldwork at a “blue tent city” for the homeless in a public park in Tokyo. “There were around 250 people living there at the time,” she recalls. “About a dozen of those were women.”

Tent city in a Tokyo public park as photographed by Maruyama in 2005.
Tent city in a Tokyo public park as photographed by Maruyama in 2005.

Maruyama was able to connect with four of the women living at the site. She established a special rapport with “Tamako,” a 36-year-old married woman with a mild intellectual disability. The youngest woman in the tent city, Tamako had been camping out with her husband for over a year and a half. She opened up her living space to Maruyama, who took Tamako’s husband’s spot in the five-meter-square tent for a week. “We would line up together at the soup kitchen, or cook store-bought vegetables over a portable butane stove,” recalls Maruyama.

Harassment and violence are an ever-present threat to the unsheltered homeless, and when a few women are sleeping among a large number of men, they are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault. One strategy for staying safe is to seek the protection of a trusted male. Some homeless women Maruyama knew would go their own way during the daytime, but camp out beside a particular male partner each night.

Between 2002 and 2008, Maruyama interviewed 33 unsheltered women at length. Their average age was 59, and the majority had been married at one point. For some, the precipitating event was unemployment—their husband’s, or their own if they were single. Others had fled domestic violence. Most had held low-paying jobs, from cleaning and trash collection to nightlife work. Many alternated between “sleeping rough” and taking refuge at women’s shelters or the homes of acquaintances.

The Changing Face of Female Poverty

The tent where Maruyama lived for a week.
The tent where Maruyama lived for a week.

The Japanese government defines the homeless (hōmuresu) quite narrowly, as “people who routinely use public parks, riverbanks, streets, train stations, or similar sites [not meant for human habitation] as their dwelling place.” Applying this definition, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare conducted its first nationwide head count of the homeless in 2003 and came up with a total of 25,296. Of those, only 3% were women. Since that first count, the overall numbers have fallen substantially. Between 2003 and 2012, the official tally dropped by 60%, to 9,576.

MHLW’s last nationwide count, conducted in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, found 3,824 unsheltered homeless persons as of January 2021. Of those, 97, or 5.2%, were women. Maruyama insists that these figures grossly understate the problem. To begin with, the government’s definition excludes women who take refuge at publicly or privately operated shelters. (Maruyama uses the word “homeless” to mean anyone without a permanent home; she refers to the unsheltered homeless, including street dwellers and tent squatters, as nojukusha.) Furthermore, she believes that unsheltered women are undercounted because they are more frequently hidden from sight.

“People who volunteer at soup kitchens tell me they’ve seen a lot more women in the food lines of late,” she notes. “If you include all the women taking shelter at internet cafes and fast-food restaurants,” she says, “I’m sure the number is much higher.”

Abandoned by the Roadside

Even in the midst of the pandemic, homelessness is unquestionably down from its peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Public policies to assist the homeless are one important reason.

In 2002, Japan enacted its first legislation for that purpose, formally known as the Act on Special Measures Concerning Assistance in Self-Support of Homeless. The law mandated the provision of shelters, vocational training, and job-search assistance for the homeless. Originally due to expire after 10 years, the law was renewed for another 5 years in 2021 and extended an additional 10 years in 2017. In addition, in 2015 the Diet passed the Act to Support the Needy, which includes enhanced support for people in danger of becoming homeless. It has also become easier for people of working age to receive welfare assistance in the form of Livelihood Protection.

“When I was starting my research, people would be turned away at the welfare office on the grounds that they had no fixed address,” recalls Maruyama. “These days, there’s a somewhat more enlightened attitude toward public assistance. More people are able to secure it before they end up on the streets, and people who do find themselves temporarily without a home have more options for escaping that way of life.”

But for those that remain, life on the streets becomes harsher with each passing year. One reason is that they are getting older. Another is that the authorities have become less tolerant of encampments.

“It’s becoming very difficult to pitch tents in a public park or along a riverbank, so a larger percentage of the homeless are sleeping rough, which is so much harder. I lived in a tent for a week, and I really appreciated the advantages of having a place to shelter, put your belongings, and even cook a simple meal. At the big tent cities, nonprofits would provide people with basic supplies. But that sort of arrangement is no longer an option.”

In the absence of tents and lean-tos, homeless women have gravitated to train and subway stations, which offer a modicum of safety as well as shelter from the elements. But the price of a few hours’ shelter is an exhausting nomadic existence, since vagrants are never tolerated for long.

“We need to figure out a new approach to supporting these people, who have basically been abandoned by the roadside.” says Maruyama.

Gender Inequality and Poverty

While homelessness has declined in Japan, poverty is a more pressing problem than ever, especially among women.

“One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in the ten years since I completed my survey is that poverty among women has emerged as a major public issue, with the focus on single mothers, older women living alone, and young women who are being driven into the sex industry.”

A less visible problem is “intra-household poverty,” the current focus of Maruyama’s research. The unequal or unfair distribution of financial resources within the household may seem like a paradox in Japan, where women traditionally control the purse strings. However, because income is measured on a household basis, with the husband as the default head of household, such poverty tends to go unrecorded.

“Surveys show that the women are responsible for managing household finances in about 70 percent of Japanese families—a much higher frequency than in Europe,” acknowledges Maruyama. But studies have also shown that people actually tend to spend less on themselves when they have responsibility for managing the household budget.”

In Japan, moreover, married women typically earn far less than they need to live on, relying on low-paying part-time and temporary jobs for ready cash. “This is why they tend to stay with their husbands even when they’re victims of domestic abuse. When they do leave, they immediately slip into poverty.” As a result, women’s poverty—like women’s homelessness—is often hidden from view. Maruyama believes that better indicators are needed to gauge each family member’s free access to the household income so as to more accurately assess and respond to the problem of poverty among women.

Japan’s Biased Safety Net

As the pandemic drags on, and more and more women find themselves chronically unemployed, the need to update Japan’s safety net is growing urgent, says Maruyama.

The social safety net is broadly divided between social insurance (health insurance, unemployment insurance, and the old-age pension) and public assistance for the disabled and needy. Social insurance relies heavily on contributions from employers and is sharply biased toward permanent employees and their spouses.

“Women tend to work in nonregular jobs, and more and more of them are single. For these women, public assistance is often the only recourse. But people resist applying for Livelihood Protection, because there’s still a big stigma attached to it.”

There are other forms of public assistance available to women, but Maruyama has found that people are rarely able to access the optimum combination of benefits from this patchwork of programs. Furthermore, government’s Women’s Protection Program, which offers support mainly for victims of trafficking and domestic violence and abuse, is based on the 1956 Prostitution Prevention Law. It has come under sharp criticism for its insensitivity to human rights issues and to the growing diversity of women and their needs.

A cross-partisan group of Diet members is currently campaigning for new, broader legal framework to help women in need. But Maruyama argues that a more comprehensive reform effort is needed to strengthen public-private cooperation and coordinate the various components of the social safety net (including maternal and child welfare services) if women are to access the benefits they need.

“Poverty and homelessness among women is going to get worse in the days ahead,” warns Maruyama. “Over the short term, the most important thing we can do is get Livelihood Protection to the women who need it.” A system of rent subsidies for low income earners should also be on the agenda, she says.

In addition, Maruyama wants to expand public awareness of women’s poverty to encompass married women who lack the resources to escape their situation. “Their invisible poverty and the visible poverty of single women are part and parcel of the same problem.”

(Originally written in Japanese by Kimie Itakura of Nippon.com. All Photos courtesy Maruyama Satomi unless otherwise noted. Banner photo: © Pixta.)

women Nonregular employees Part-time work poverty single mothers homeless coronavirus