Aid groups say thousands of Japanese families are living under the poverty line. For many that means they cannot afford to put food on their tables. One organization is trying to fix Japan's hunger problem.
Helping families in need
Volunteers at the Second Harvest Food pantry in Tokyo fill cardboard boxes with bread, vegetables and canned goods. The boxes soon will be sent to families living around the city.
"Our three main groups of people are refugees, single mothers and Japanese who are unemployed," said Ruby Sakuma, the pantry's coordinator. "Right now we have about 140 households we are serving. They get one package of food every two weeks, a total of six packages and when those six packages are sent we send them a letter saying this is the end, if they are in really dire circumstances then we sometimes renew their order and send them another six packages."
Hard to keep up with demand
Sakuma says during this year's global economic slowdown it has been harder to keep up with demand and fill their clients' orders.
Second Harvest is Japan's first and only food bank. Workers go to supermarkets, restaurants and other businesses to collect food that often, because of damaged packaging or other problems, would have been thrown away.
This waste is what compelled American Charles McJilton to help create the organization in 2002.
"Japan every year throws away about 20 million tons of food, worldwide food aid is only about 8.5 million tons. So over two and a half times the food that is delivered in the form of aid, is actually thrown away here in Japan. But at the same time, there is virtually no infrastructure in place within Japan to get those tons of food out to individuals out there who need it," he said.
Economic downturn has political implications
Japan was hit worse than many other countries in the global financial crisis. Exports tumbled and joblessness rose to its highest levels in several years.
Some political analysts say the unemployment and economic distress that contribute to hunger helped Japan's Democratic Party win a landslide victory in recent elections.
Jeff Kingston, Asia studies professor at the Tokyo campus of Temple University, says many voters blamed the defeated Liberal Democratic Party for the nation's stagnant growth.
""There is a strong sense of disquiet, I think perhaps among some there is a sense of betrayal, the social contract has been sundered," he said. "I think in Japan there was a collective identity as a society where everyone is middle class, everybody shares the same fate, there are not huge, wide disparities of income. That myth has taken a pummeling in the past few years."
The Democratic Party, which will form a government later this month, pledges to help Japan's poor. During the campaign, the DPJ promised monthly stipends of around $260 to families for each child attending primary school.
Denial of poverty
But Second Harvest's McJilton says that if hunger is going to be resolved, it will take more than new government initiatives. He says throughout Japan, there is a denial that poverty is a problem.
"Poverty or hunger are things that exist in different countries, not here in Japan. And even among those that quote, unquote may be hungry or poor, it's quite often viewed as 'they deserved it, they are not hard workers, it's not my problem,'" he said.
McJilton says since the downturn began, the number of their Tokyo clients has doubled. Second Harvest has also received more requests from around the country to dispatch food to shelters and other charities.
And they might get even busier.
Though Japan is now showing signs of economic recovery, economists say the long-term forecast remains unclear, as exports remain weak.