Poverty is not first thing that comes to mind when you think of Japan. After all, there are no children begging on the streets in major cities here. You do not often see Japanese citizens publicly venting their frustrations over the country's economic decline. But senior government researcher Aya Abe says Japan has the fourth-highest rate of poverty among developed countries.
She says she sees that poverty in schools where students admit to only bathing once a week. Some cannot afford to buy pencils for class.
"They may not be on the streets begging or they may not be turning into criminals, but it's there. It's just that we have to open our eyes and see," Abe said.
Abe attributes the increase in child poverty to the country's changing demographics, struggling economy and high social security premiums. She says fewer people live in three-generation households, where the parents and grandparents work. The number of single mothers has increased. The salary for young fathers has declined with the economic downturn. Social security premiums have increased in the last 20 years, putting families on the threshold of poverty.
Abe says studies conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD ) point to rising poverty in Japan before the global economic crises in 2008. But the Japanese government and public refused to acknowledge it until then - in part, because of the stigma associated with poverty.
"It was, what should I say, very unpopular for Japanese media to say anything about Japanese poverty," said Abe. "Even though OECD announced it and OECD Japan announced it in Japanese, it didn't make it into the articles."
Abe says new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has taken one important step to help alleviate the problem. Next year, his Democratic Party of Japan plans to double monthly child care allowances given to families.
But Abe wants the government to expand its financial help even more.
She wants it to simplify the process to apply for public assistance and provide educational grants for students struggling to pay for tuition at high schools and colleges. The country now only offers loans.
Abe says the government must act quickly because she says the problem will only get worse, in the next few years.