“I am not sure if I ever really loved him,” Yui murmured in an even tone. “But Japanese culture is a bit different. I was afraid of becoming a nokorimono. That’s what they call women here who get to a certain age and still isn’t married. You’ll end up just becoming a spinster. Then no man will want you. But that rationale doesn’t prepare you for when you end up divorced and you are suddenly a single mother.”
Yui married a childhood friend who, by her own admission, felt like more of a friend than would-be-lover. After eight years of marriage, it was clear that the relationship had reached the ultimate stalemate. On the wrong side of 30, Yui found herself completely alone – with no job or income – and a 6-year-old-son to look after.
Despite being ranked amongst some of the richest countries in the world, nearly none of Japan’s wealth filters down to single mothers. Less than half of them receive alimony, and in a culturally misogynistic society, women earn significantly less than men in the same role. Japan’s child poverty rate ranks as the highest among OECD nations; in single-parent households where the parent is working it is 56 per cent, compared to the US which stands at 32 per cent.
There is no such thing as joint custody. When divorce occurs, most times, financial responsibility for any children falls on the women since she is typically awarded full custody. With no system to enforce child support payments, fathers often provide little assistance. Women, who may have previously quit their jobs to be full-time mothers, find it difficult to balance looking after their child while landing a well-paid job.
Yui managed to find a job working part-time, but still, she struggles to earn enough to cover bills, food, and the needs of a boisterous young child. She believes that Japanese infrastructure is geared towards two parents raising a child, and not one, and as such, there are not sufficient resources in place for those who find themselves in her position.
“Even if you go back to work, it doesn’t mean that you will suddenly get out of financial troubles,” Yui complained. “For the most part, the poverty and all the other issues still exist. You still can’t find affordable rent or someone who will be willing to lease you an apartment.”
Single mothers like Yui experience formidable difficulties to acquire a home. Japanese law requires a guarantor, who is liable for paying the rent. Normally, the husband will be the guarantor while the wife is viewed as the tenant. So, unless there is support from family, single mothers will find it very challenging to secure inexpensive rental since a low income will mean they are unable to act as their own guarantor. And in an over-populous city like Toyko, the rent is sky-high.
Yet, one organisation may have found a solution to help single mothers. Established in 2008, the Tokyo-based charity, Little Ones, has won top awards and gained international attention because of its work.
It is estimated that there are around 9 million abandoned homes in Japan, known as akiya, which has also generated another national issue. The team at Little Ones identified an opportunity to address both economic problems: the superfluity of empty properties, and the discrimination and poverty single mothers experience.
The organisation gets in touch with the owners of the vacant homes and works alongside real estate companies to refurbish them for affordable housing for women and their children. Little Ones stands in as the much-needed guarantor on the rental contracts, meaning that should the woman fall behind on payments, they will cover the costs for her. Furthermore, they also provide her with assistance for job searches and an overall support network.
Leilani Farha, the UN special rapporteur on adequate housing told Positive News, “ “Little Ones is an ingenious project that addresses the stigmatisation and discrimination that single mothers experience in access to housing.” She also said that she hoped the award would encourage all levels of government and society to give single mothers “the support and opportunities they deserve.”
Since its inception, Little Ones has been the first and only one of its type in the country. It has housed over 200 single mothers in Japan with rent costing around 20 per cent less than the market value. With the project growing steadily, it tackles the social stigma against single mothers.
The Japanese government has recently implemented new policies to provide cost-effective housing options to those on low-income, which includes the funding for renovations on the empty properties that Little Ones are sourcing for their project.