Last Christmas Eve, Ririko Saito and her 11-year-old daughter gathered some plastic bottles, pots and a kettle and made several trips to a nearby park to get water. Their utility had just turned off the tap after months of unpaid bills.
"I was going to take care of it as soon as I got my paycheck in a few days," the 49-year-old single mother said. "I figured they wouldn't be so callous to cut us off at that time of year. I figured wrong."
Saito, who works part-time caring for the elderly in a Tokyo hospital and gets welfare to supplement her salary, represents a growing army of poor in a nation that continues to pride itself on being an egalitarian society despite a decades-long rise in poverty.
At 16 percent, Japan's relative poverty rate – the share of the population living on less than half of the national median income – is already the sixth-worst among the 34 OECD countries, just ahead of the United States. Child poverty in working, single-parent households like Saito's is by far the worst at over 50 percent, making Japan the only country where having a job does not reduce the poverty rate for that group.
As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe charges ahead with his "Abenomics" policies to revive economic growth, things look set to get harder, not better, for Japan's down-and-out.
Having ramped up spending on public works and business incentives, the government has also moved to shore up its finances, cutting welfare benefits last summer and last month raising the national sales tax to 8 percent from 5 percent.