Struggling to Get By

Japan's single moms need better jobs -- and more aid.

(this article first appeared in the may 9, 2005 issue of newsweek international)

A pen and notebook in hand, Asako Yasuda gazes into the laptop screen on a conference table. Career counselor Kayoko Ozawa is demonstrating how to use a public job-search Web site. After a few clicks, a couple of possibilities emerge, but no full-time position. "You'll get something, I promise," Ozawa tells Yasuda, a high-school graduate and former hairdresser. "I cannot relax until I find a stable job," she says.

Yasuda hasn't relaxed since she divorced her husband after their daughter was born four years ago. Living in a one-room apartment, she earns $1,300 a month waiting tables, barely enough to support them. Yasuda, 30, belongs to one of Japan's fastest-growing populations: financially strapped single mothers. A government survey released in 2005 showed the number of single-mother households -- 80 percent of them resulting from divorce?surged to a record 1.2 million in 2003, up almost 30 percent from 1998. Their average annual income is $19,600 -- a third of what an average Japanese family makes -- and down from $21,500 five years earlier.

To be sure, single mothers everywhere often have a hard time making ends meet. But in Japan, the world's second largest economy, public assistance is stingy -- and shrinking fast. In 2002, the law was changed to limit government child support of $400 a month to single moms earning less than $12,150 a year (down from $18,600). Kyoko (who asked to withhold her surname), 37, a computer programmer in Tokyo with a 10-year-old son, earns $1,600 a month and pays $700 in rent. "In several years we'll need a lot more money for his high school," she says. "What happens if I get sick and hospitalized or something?"

Dads are little help. Only one third of divorced mothers have child-support agreements and a mere 20 percent actually receive regular payments. That may soon change: until a year ago, a woman had to go to court requesting seizure of her ex-husband's income each time he failed to pay. But last April the law was revised to allow her to request long-term payments with one court visit. And since last month, courts were allowed to fine deadbeat dads, too.

Other recent public efforts include helping single moms find work -- even though more than 80 percent already have jobs. "Single mothers are doing what they can," says Chieko Akaishi, director of the Single Mothers' Forum, a Tokyo-based nonprofit. The problem is that many employers are unwilling to hire single moms; the jobs they can find are mostly part-time and low-paying, with few benefits and little security.

Despite their hardships, not all single moms are pessimistic. A 2003 survey by the Single Mothers' Forum found that more than 90 percent of them are scraping by. Yasuda is one of them. "The pride that I'm taking care of my child by myself has kept me going," she says. One day she'd like to send her daughter to Spain, where a cousin lives. "People might say it's too extravagant for a single mother, but I like having a dream," she says. First she needs a job.

(c) 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

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