Living standards reflect Japan's rapid economic development since the mid-1960s. Greatly contributing to the social stability of the nation is the strong sense of family solidarity among the Japanese; virtually every home has its butsudan, or altar of the ancestors, and most elderly people are cared for in the homes of their grown children. A further source of social stability has been Japan's employment system, noted for its "lifetime employment" of workers from the time they enter the company after completing their education to the time they retire. Traditionally, layoffs and dismissals of employees were rare, even during times of recession. With Japan's economic downturn of the early 1990s, however, companies were forced to downsize. By 1997 the nation's unemployment rate had climbed to a record 3.5%, and a number of middle-aged workers who had expected to remain with the same firm until retirement found themselves job hunting.
The present social insurance system includes national health insurance, welfare annuity insurance, maternity coverage, unemployment insurance, workers' accident compensation insurance, seamen's insurance, a national government employees' mutual aid association, and day workers' health insurance. It also provides pension plans designed to maintain living standards for the elderly, based on years of employment, and for families of deceased workers. Per capita expenditure on social security programs remains low, however, in relation to expenditure in many other industrial nations. There is a family allowance for all residents with children under the age of three.
Nearly the entire population receives benefits in one form or another from the health insurance system. Health insurance is compulsory for those employed at enterprises with five or more workers, and premiums are shared equally by the insured and their employers. Those not covered at work are insured through the National Health Insurance program. Other sickness and health insurance is in force among farmers, fishermen, and their dependents. Unemployment coverage is obligatory for all enterprises regardless of size; workers' compensation must also be provided by employers.
The Daily Life Security Law laid the groundwork for an evergrowing livelihood assistance program. Out of this have come laws pertaining to child welfare, physically handicapped persons' welfare, social welfare service, welfare fund loans to mothers and children, aid to the war-wounded and ill, and aid to families of deceased soldiers. The system provides direct aid for livelihood; education; housing; medical, maternity, and occupational disability; and funerals. More than a thousand welfare offices throughout the nation are staffed by full-time, salaried welfare secretaries and assisted by voluntary help. Institutions have been established to care for the aged, those on relief, and those needing rehabilitation. Numerous private organizations assist government agencies.
In 1985, a two-tiered pension system was mandated by law. The first tier consists of "national pension insurance" paid to all residents at a flat rate; the second tier consists of employment or earnings-related coverage. There are special pension programs for public employees, private school teachers and employees, and employees of agricultural, forestry, and fishery cooperatives.
An increasing number of women pursue permanent careers, although very few have attained management positions. The Equal Employment Opportunity Law encourages employers to avoid discriminating against women, but does not establish penalties for noncompliance. Women also retain the responsibility of child care and household chores. Domestic abuse and other violence against women often goes unreported due to societal concerns about shame in the family. The government is taking some action in providing shelter facilities and passing laws to protect victims. There is also an increase in the molestation of women on the railways while commuting. Sexual harassment in the workplace is prevalent.
Discrimination against ethnic Koreans and other non-Japanese minorities also continues. A serious social problem facing children in Japan is the increasing incidence of " ijime " or severe bullying at school. Several children are known to have committed suicide as a result of bullying. The Office of Ombudsman for Children's Rights is attempting to address this problem. Violence against teachers is also a growing problem.
Human rights are generally respected by the government, but there have been some reports of abuse of detainees and prisoners.