Japan’s Feminization of Poverty

‘… we, who have been shut out from universities so repeatedly, and are now admitted so restrictedly; we who have received no paid-for education whatsoever, or so little that we can only read our own tongue and write our own language, we who are, in fact, members not of the intelligensia but of the ignorantsia.’

Virginia Woolf 2009

Japan’s Feminization of Poverty continues into the 21st Century

12 October 2012

Currently, more that eighty percent of humanity lives on less than ten dollars a day, almost two million on one dollar a day or less; the majority of these, women.

Paralleling advancements made by middle and upper class women toward independence and equality, disparity between the sexes continues to widen for the poor. A phenomenon described as “the feminization of poverty” occurs where women represent a disproportionate percentage of their respective nations poorest. UNIFEM[1] characterizes it as “the burden of poverty borne by women” (Chen 2005:37) By definition[2], it exists as the increased level of poverty differentiation mirrors the increased importance of gender inequalities as determinants of poverty. This implies a change that is conceptually and comparatively relative focusing on the existence of differences between women and men. It does not necessarily imply an exacerbation in poverty among women, rather that should societal poverty be drastically reduced among men while only slightly among women, a feminization of poverty would still exist (Gimenez 1999:338).

The term ‘feminization of poverty’, whilst controversial, is not simply a consequence of deficient income[3], rather a combination of gender associated deprivation and bias resultant of society and government inclusive of choice, opportunities (the ability to lead a long, healthy, and creative life), basic rights (freedom, respect, and dignity), prioritization of health care and nutritional needs, access to education and support services, and participatory support in community decision making (WHO 2007:842-843). Furthermore, women are frequently denied access to critical resources such as credit, land and inheritance. Caught in the perpetuating cycle of poverty, women lack access to the resources and services required to alter their situation. Though these concepts are not new, being contemporary to the writings of Virginia Woolf, they have continued throughout the commencement of the 21st century.

Although frequently ascribed as “a problem of under developed nations”, American statistics show women heading over half the households below the poverty line, a trend that continues to grow. In 1959, female-headed households represented one quarter of America’s poor; a figure that today has doubled (Gimenez 1999:340). Table 1 demonstrates that married couples experience economic security with average incomes exceeding twice that of female-headed households. Although this data is based on American statistics, it is not purely an American problem. Globally, female-headed households are discovered to be consistently poorer than those headed by men. Buvinic (1995) claims female headed households numerically range from below 20 percent in certain Asian countries, through 30 percent in Western Europe and reaching 50 percent in the Caribbean.

The “invisibility” of poverty in Japan has created a governmental reluctance to recognize the seriousness of the issue. Consequently no official ‘poverty line’ has been established, nor comprehensive surveys or studies undertaken. Despite the nonexistence of “official” statistics, Public Assistance’s “minimum standard of living” (Kanazawa 2006:4), or the OECD[4] index is used for poverty rate calculations. OECD assessments indicated a continued increase in Japan’s relative poverty[5], labeling it the highest among developed countries following America (Forster and d’Ercole 2005, Keizai Zaisei Hokoku 2006:265-66). In 2006, Japan experienced what is referred to as kakusa shakai[6]. Discussion based on empirical studies drew attention toward the existence of widening income disparities and poverty growth, while translations of documenting the poor internationally, and television specials garnered increased social interest emphasizing the countries increasing poverty highlighted by changing working patterns.

Utilizing Shotoku saibunpai chosa[7]data, Tachibanaki and Urakawa (2008) statistically indicated a consistent growth in relative poverty[8], resulting from increased poverty among single person-households, particularly women. Sekine (2008) attributes contemporary poverty causation to increasing instability, unemployment, homelessness, single mothers[9], and escalating debt. Coupled with malfunctioning and inefficient safety networks, relief has failed to surpass 16% to 20% of estimated requirements (Komamura 2002:24). These results[10]portray, the probability of female-headed households falling into poverty as extremely high. Ninomiya (2006:19) argues that Prime Minister Kozumi’s structural reforms culminated in a combination of twin disparities; the first, of “dominance”, and the second, of population discrimination within the workforce. Ninomiya contends this resulted in expanding income disparities, freedom and equality violations, and deprivation of rights to minimum living standards, education, and work, ideals which directly contradict Olympe de Gouges, Declaration of the Rights of Women, who claims that “the way [to freedom and independence] can be prepared through national education, the restoration of morals, and conjugal conventions” (de Gouge 1791). It appears that inequalities are, indeed, a cradle to poverty.

Japans Kousei Rodousho maintain the existence of approximately one million single-mother households, of which 9.4% receive public assistance. This reflects the economic vulnerability and susceptiblity of female-headed households to poverty, as a result of diminished financial and resource support. The same ministry claims that 83% of single mothers hold employment, an issue compounded by Japans significant wage gender disparity and employment role restrictions. Women’s average monthly income remains around 65% that of men’s, while part-timer’s wages are approximately 50% of a permanent employees. Typical yearly incomes for women, including childcare benefits, average 2.3 million yen[11], one third of the 7 million yen average for one-child households (Ujihisa 2006:40). Little doubt remains that most single-mother households survive under difficult circumstances, the majority resulting from divorce (74.4%) (Ujihisa 2006:39). A 2004 survey of households in Kushiro[12], revealed patterns of early marriage, followed by divorce within six or seven years, leaving a single mother with limited education and little to no work experience (Sekine 2008:56). This outcome mirrors the maternity-slave phenomenon outlined by Simone de Beauvoir (Benjamin and Simons 1979).

International Women’s movements have recently shifted priorities from employment orientation toward broader social issues, including poverty, homelessness, health care, domestic violence, assault and reproductive rights (Calhoun, Light and Keller 1997) in the belief that contemporary situations can best be enhanced through organization. Various groups seek to revive or replace disrupted traditional forms of social organization, while membership assists in mobilizing resources, rationalizing production, reducing credit associated risks and costs, as well as promoting self-confidence development and decreased interdependence. Through such organizations, women strive toward the self-determination of needs and priorities, and an improved social and economic environment.

Poverty among women remains undefinable simply through statistical reports, such as the poverty line. Many countries, including Japan, maintain traditional social and cultural norms that prevent women from accessing formal employment, and stem productive participation outside the home while also limiting their economic bargaining position within. These social inequalities deprive women of  numerous capabilities, particularly employment, resulting in higher poverty risk, while the increase in occupational gender segregation and widening income disparity increases women’s susceptibility and further perpetuates the process of ‘the feminisation of poverty’.

Table 1: Mean Annual Income of U.S Households by Household Type

  2002                                                          2005                                               2009

Number of households(1000) Median Annual Income(Dollars) Percentage of Median earnings compared with Married- couple households Number of households(1000) Median Annual Income(Dollars) Percentage of Median earnings compared with Married- couple households Number of households(1000) Median Annual Income(Dollars) Percentage of Median earnings compared with Married- couple households
All households 111,278 42,409 69 114,384 46,326 70 117,538 49,777 69
Family households 75,596 52,704 86 77,402 57,278 87 78,883 61,265 85
Married Couple households 57,320 61,254 100 58,179 66,067 100 58,410 71,830 100
Male earner (no wife) 4,656 41,711 68 5,130 46,756 71 5,580 48,084 67
Female earner (no husband) 13,620 29,001 47 14,093 30,650 46 14,843 33,597 47
Nonfamily households 35,628 25,406 58 36,982 27,326 41 38,705 30,444 42
Single male 16,020 31,404 51 16,753 34,048 51 18,236 36,611 51
Single female 19,662 20,913 34 20,230 22,688 34 20,442 25,269 35


2002 Data: Statistical Abstract of the United States 2004-2005, table 667, p.444.  http://www.census.gov/prod/2004pubs/04statab/income.pdf

2005 Data: Statistical Abstract of the United States 2008, table 670, p.447. http://www.census.gov/prod/2007pubs/08abstract/income.pdf

2009 Data: Statistical Abstract of the United States 2012, Table 692, p.453. http://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/12statab/income.pdf

Table 2: Earnings in the U.S by Gender and Job type for Year-Round Full-Time workers

2002 2005 2009
Women Men Women Men Women Men
Median Earnings 21,429 31,647 31,858 41,386 26,030 36,331
By Job Type
Management/ Business/ Financial 36,861 53,044 46,795 65,767 45,591 51,014
Professional 31,791 50,966 42,012 61,025 39,890 48,856
Sales and office 20,362 30,684 29,286 40,106 24,119 32,168
Resources, construction and maintenance 16,489 27,758 19,066 30,222 17,535 31,032
Service 11,883 16,752 20,733 26,706 14,298 20,564
Production and transportation 17,953 26,202 18,206 29,434 20,028 30,021
Armed Forces No data No data 30,949 37,327 33,277 42,355


2002 Data: Statistical Abstract of the United States 2012, Table 624, p.412. http://www.census.gov/prod/2004pubs/04statab/labor.pdf

2005 Data: Statistical Abstract of the United States 2008, table 628, p.416. http://www.census.gov/prod/2007pubs/08abstract/labor.pdf

2009 Data: Statistical Abstract of the United States 2012, Table 650, p.422. http://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/12statab/labor.pdf

Table 3: Trends in Japanese wage levels

2000 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Average Income 330,000 330,900 330,600 328,800 318,100 323,000
Male Income 370,300 372,700 372,400 369,300 354,600 360,000
Female Income 235,100 238.600 241,700 243,100 243,200 243,600


2000/2006/2007 Data: Japanese Working Life Profile 2008/2009 – Labor Statistics, the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training, 2008 p.47

2008 Data: Japanese Working Life Profile 20010/2011 – Labor Statistics, the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training, 2010 p.47

2009/2010 Data: Japanese Working Life Profile 2011/2010 – Labor Statistics, the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training, 2011 p.47

Table 4: Probability analysis of causes of poverty in Japan (1995,2001)

#Explained variable: Household at or below relative poverty line =1

1995 2001
Marginal effect Standard error Marginal effect Standard error
Single female household 0.415 0.053 0.472 0.050


Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare Income redistribution Survey

Graph 1: Gender Wage Gap by Country, 2009


OECD, “Table I: Earnings Dispersion, Gender Wage Gap and Incidence of Low Pay [1999 and 2009],” OECD Employment Outlook 2011 (2012): pg. 264.

Graph 2: Australia – Gender Wage Gap by Industry in 2010


Graph 3: Japan- Gender Wage Gap by Industry in 2008

 Source: ITUC CSI IGB, Frozen in Time: Gender Pay Gap Unchanged for 10 years (2012).


Chen, M., Vanek, J., Lund, F., Heintz, J., Jhabvala, R., and Bonner, C. 2005, ‘Progress of the World’s Women 2005: Women, Work and Poverty’, United Nations Development Fund for Women, pp. 36–57 Online: Accessed 26 September 2012, http://www.ucm.es/cont/descargas/documento6327.pdf

ITUC CSI IGB, 2012, Frozen in Time: Gender Pay Gap Unchanged for 10 Years. http://www.wageindicator.org/documents/publicationslist/publications-2012/120307-gender-pay-gap-ituc-2012.pdf

Treiman, D. and Hartmann, H. (Eds.) 1981 ‘Women, Work, and Wages: Equal Pay for Jobs of Equal Value’, Committee on Occupational Classification and Analysis Assembly of Behavioral and Social Sciences National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., Online: Accessed 2 October 2012,

Woolf, V., 2009, Three Guineas, eBooks@Adelaide, The University of Adelaide Library, University of Adelaide, South Australia 5005, Online, Accessed: 14 September 2012


Simons, M.A., Benjamin, J., and de Beauvoir, S. 1979, ‘Simone de Beauvoir: An Interview’, Feminist Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Summer, 1979), Feminist Studies, Inc., pp. 330-345 Online, Accessed: 14 September 2012, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3177599

de Gouges, O., 1791 ‘Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Female Citizen’Cited in Gav Levy, D., Applewhite, H., and Johnson, M. (eds.), ‘Women in Revolutionary Paris, 1785­-1795’, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, IL, pp. 92­96. Online http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1791degouge1.asp

Buvinic, M. 1995, ‘The Feminisation of Poverty? Research and Policy Needs’ cited in Kottak, C.P., 2009 ‘Anthropology: The Exploration of Human Diversity”, McGraw-Hill, New York.

Restructured Regions and Families: The Feminization of Poverty in the U.S. Author(s): John

Wiepking, P. and Maas, I., 2005 ‘Gender Differences in Poverty: A Cross-National Study’, European Sociological Review, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Jul., 2005), pp. 187-200, Oxford University Press, Online, Accessed: 26 September 201, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3559515

The World Health Organization on Health Inequality, Inequity, and Social Determinants of Health Reviewed work(s): Source: Population and Development Review, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Dec. 2007), pp. 839-843Published by: Population Council Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25487636. Accessed: 07/10/2012

Martha E. Gimenez The Feminization of Poverty: Myth or Reality? Crit. Sociol. March 1999 vol. 25 no. 2-3 pp.336-351  Sage Publications Online, Accessed: 27 September 2012, URL http://crs.sagepub.com.ezproxy.usq.edu.au/content/25/2-3/336.full.pdf+html

Tachibanaki, T and Urakawa, K., 2008 ‘Trends in Poverty among Low-income Workers in Japan since the Nineties’, Japan Lobor Review, vol. 5, no. 4, Autumn (2008) pp. 21-47, The Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training, Tokyo.

Kanazawa, S., 2006 “KozoKaikaku no moto de Seikatsu Hokai to Seikeihi: Saichin, Seikatsu Hogo, Nenkin Undo no Zenshin no Tame ni”, Chingin to Shahai Hosho 1421

Cabinet Office, 2006 Government of Japan, Keizai Zaisei Hokoku pp. 265-266

Forster, M., d’Ercole, M., 2005 ‘Income distribution ans poverty in OECD countries in the second half of the 1990s’, OECD social, Employment ans Migration Working Papers, no.22 OECD, Paris.

Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, various years, ‘Shakai Fukushi Gyosei Gyomu Hokoku’ (Social welfare service reports), Health and Welfare Statistics Association, Tokyo

Komamura, K., 2002 “Seifuthi Netto no Saikochiku: Teishotokusha Setai no Jokyo”, Shukan Shakai Hosho 2208

Ninomiya, A., 2006 ‘Shinjiyu Shugiteki Kakusa Shakaika no Kozo to Sono Kokufuku Shiten’, Chingin to Shakai hosho 1427

Ujihisa, H., 2006 “Boshi Katai no inkon to Sekiatsu Hogo: Jido Sondanjo kara Mita Boshikatai no Seikatsu to Kuno”, Chingin to Shakai Hosho 1409-1410

Calhoun, C., Light, D., and Keller, S., 1997 ‘Sociology’, 7th ed., McGraw-Hill, New York.

Sekini, Y., 2008 “The Rise of Poverty in Japan: The Emergence of the Working Poor”, Japan Lobor Review, vol. 5, no. 4, Autumn (2008) pp. 49-66, The Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training, Tokyo.

[1] The United Nations Development Fund for Women, commonly known as UNIFEM (from the French “Fonds de développement des Nations unies pour la femme”)

[2] An exact definition is dependant on two subsidiary definitions (1) of what is poverty and (2)what is feminization.

[3] however it should be noted that, worldwide, women earn on average slightly more than 50 percent of what men earn

[4] Organisation for Economic co-operation and Development (OECD)

[5] this is poverty relative to society as a whole, and in comparison to others within the same society.

[6] Literally translated as “society of income disparity”

[7] income distribution surveys

[8] According to the Kousei Rodousho’s (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare) Shakai fukishi gyosei gyomu hokoku (Social Welfare Services Report), the number of households receiving public assistance exceeded the one million mark in 2005, and had reached 1,075,820 in 2006.

[9] Globally this is commonly attributed to male migration, civil strife (war and conflict, both internal and external), divorce, abandonment, widowhood, unwed adolescent pregnancy, and, more generally, the idea that children are women’s responsibility

[10] Refer to Table 4

[11] In Osaka

[12] A portal city in Hokkaido

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