Australian Filmmaker Shows Japanese Single Mothers, Children Face Poverty

01 February 2024

In wealthy countries, like Japan, poverty is sometimes considered a taboo subject. But an Australian filmmaker, Rionne McAvoy, wants to share the stories of women and children in poverty in Japan in his documentary film The Ones Left Behind.

The film was released last year. It shows single mothers raising their children in poverty. The women work hard. They sleep a few hours at night. And they try to balance working with childcare and housework.

McAvoy said he wanted to deal with a topic that no one wanted to discuss. The film shows discussions with poor women and experts on poverty. He said the film also shows a different side of Japanese society, where getting married and becoming a stay-at-home mother is normal for many women.

This photo provided by Japan Media Services shows a scene from The Ones Left Behind: The Plight of Single Mothers in Japan, directed by Rionne McAvoy.
This photo provided by Japan Media Services shows a scene from The Ones Left Behind: The Plight of Single Mothers in Japan, directed by Rionne McAvoy.

"In Japan, it's very taboo. I think it's a very apt title because I feel that single mothers and their children have really been left behind in society."

The film shows one woman who works almost twelve hours a day and earns less than $1,350 a month. That amount is low for a county where the cost of living is high. Monthly rent for one small room can cost one third of that amount.

Tomiko Nakayama is one of the women in the film. She said, "I have to do everything on my own." Another woman almost cries when she describes how her child stopped asking her to come to "take-your-parent-to-school" days.

Japan has one of the highest rates of childhood poverty although it is one of the wealthiest nations. One in seven children live in poverty in Japan. Almost half of single-parent homes are considered poor.

Japanese society often favors men who work full-time. Women sometimes receive lower pay and fewer benefits than their male counterparts, while working full-time and overtime.

Ayuri McAvoy produced the film and is also McAvoy's wife. She was formerly a single mother. But they say that is not why they made the film.

Rionne McAvoy said that the country's traditional culture makes women accept their difficult lives and makes them ashamed to ask for help. He told the Associated Press that the women are "keeping their public face and private face separate."

Akihiko Kato is a professor at Meiji University in Tokyo. He appears in the film. Kato said that Japan does not have a system to legally force fathers to pay for their children if the parents are separated. The Japanese government has promised to give money to people with children, but this is slow to come, he said.

Kato said that this is partly why birth rates in Japan have been so low. There were 1.2 million births in the year 2000 compared to fewer than 800,000 births in 2022.

Some people believe the modern idea of the nuclear family means that single parents, mostly mothers, have to do everything on their own. People like grandparents, neighbors and extended family members no longer seem to be able to help with children.

Yanfei Zhou is a social science professor at Japan Women's University in Tokyo who also appears in the film. She said that these changes have serious effects on children. The divide between rich and poor is growing, and children will end up in poverty, she said.

The film won the Best Documentary prize at the Miyakojima Charity International Film Festival last year. It was also officially chosen for the Yokohama International Film Festival.

McAvoy said he has long been interested in telling the story of those who society had forgotten and who do not have a voice. He said that being on the outside of Japanese culture has helped him to share stories with a new viewpoint and without bias. He said his next film will be about young people dying by suicide in Japan.

McAvoy said, "It's one thing we can do more of in society: to try recognize people's cries for help."

I'm Faith Pirlo. And I'm Andrew Smith.

Yuri Kageyama reported this story for the Associated Press. Faith Pirlo adapted it for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

taboon. something that is not acceptable to talk about or do

topic –n. the subject of writing or a discussion

society –n. people who live together in a large area under the same rules, traditions and values

aptadj. likely to do something

rent n. a regular payment for the use of property such as the use of a place to live like an apartment or home

ashamed adj. feeling regret and embarrassment for what you have done

nuclear familiesn. a family group consisting of parents and their children living in one home

bias n. a tendency to support one side of an argument over another