A student-led movement is campaigning to raise Japan's minimum wage and improve the lives of low-paid workers, many of whom struggle to meet their basic needs despite toiling long hours.
Some 1,500 people took to the streets in mid-April in Tokyo's Shinjuku area, one of Japan's business and commercial centers, to call for a uniform 1,500 yen per hour minimum wage across the country.
"Reduce inequality," "Raise wages for people working in the nursing industry" and "Don't vote for politicians who are indifferent to poverty," chanted the protestors, led by members of an anti-poverty movement called Aequitas.
Rie Fujikawa, a 25-year-old member of the group, consisting of those mainly in their 20s, said, "We want to eat something other than bean sprouts and poultry. We want to buy children what they want."
Aequitas, which means "fairness" and "justice" in Latin, was formed by university students in September 2015. Its founding members were inspired by the Fight for $15 movement in the United States, which was set up in 2012 by fast-food workers in New York City to demand higher wages and better working conditions.
According to Fujikawa, the average minimum wage in Japan was 823 yen per hour in fiscal 2016, which translates into about 1.7 million yen per year based on weekly working hours of 40 hours.
At that level of annual income, workers cannot even afford to go to hospital, she said.
With the minimum hourly wage raised to 1,500 yen, workers could earn more than 3 million yen a year, a level that would enable them to receive necessary medical services while expanding the scope of their options in life, said Fujikawa.
Fujikawa said when she was a child, her father, a dental technician, also delivered newspapers to support his family. But he became unemployed after he was injured while delivering newspapers, an incident that forced her to take a part-time job while attending high school.
She borrowed money to complete her college education. Her monthly repayment of 15,000 yen will continue for 30 years.
A 20-year-old university student who marched in the protest took the loudspeaker and said, "Not all students can participate in the rally because they have to devote most of their time to work. People like me -- who have sufficient time -- are taking action on their behalf."
Writer and activist Karin Amamiya took part in a rally organized by Aequitas in December 2015 for the first time. The 42-year-old writer said she was deeply impressed by group member Fujikawa's speech at the rally.
"Fujikawa was calling to the crowd from her soul," Amamiya said. "As I have been involved in anti-poverty movements, it was very encouraging to see young people like her raise their voice."
Aequitas branches have been formed in Kyoto and Nagoya as well. Shoji Hashiguchi, a member of the Kyoto branch, was a part-time teacher at Osaka International University.
In his last lecture at the university on Jan. 25, Hashiguchi talked about workers' health and rights while showing the video of a December 2015 speech by Fujikawa.
One of his students who attended the last class was quoted as saying, "I have recognized how serious poverty is for people."
Hashiguchi, 39, attended a graduate school to study labor sociology. He has also worked for a labor union set up for individuals.
He said his clients at the union include a nursery facility employee who was dismissed after making critical comments about the employer and a nonregular worker who received power harassment from the superior.
Hashiguchi said he bargained collectively with the employer of the worker who received power harassment. "Some employers in this country see workers just as a cost element."
Some companies sell their products for unduly low prices as the price-cutting race has intensified, Hashiguchi said. "As a result, workers are paid inappropriately."
If their wages are low, workers will spend less, leaving Japan's overall consumption slack, he said, adding low-margin, high volume business will spread further. "If the minimum hourly wage is raised to 1,500 yen, consumption will be invigorated, helping turn around the economy."