The work ethic has always been stronger in some countries than others. But very few countries have a stronger and more rigid work ethic than that found in Japan. This value system, which seems to continue unabated despite a recent recession, may be the reason for the “chrysanthemum country” having one of the lowest rates of unemployment in the world, averaging (until recently) at 2.5% of the employable workforce.

Along with this, however, Japan has one of the toughest social welfare systems in the world, with people “dying” to become accepted for monetary benefits. Actually, they are dying by literally starving to death due by not having money to buy food. A recent NY Times article gave a graphic and somber account of what has been the fate of some people who have simply fallen through the cracks of modern Japanese society and have not been eligible to receive public assistance. One 52 year old man, from Kitakyushu Japan, 800 km southwest of Tokyo, was found dead in his shanty home, apparently from starvation. A diary that he had been keeping gave a sad account of how he had been rejected from the local welfare rolls and had simply wasted away inside his home; apparently too ashamed to ask even his neighbors for help. One of his diary entries read: “I have not eaten anything for 25 days now, and have lost nearly 20 kg . All I want is to eat a rice ball. Just one rice ball! “.

Japan’s rather strict welfare system delegates the responsibility of administration to regional and local offices, some of which, like Kitakyushu, have developed an eligibility policy so rigid that very few people become accepted. And many who do, like the unfortunate man noted here, are later declared ineligible, and thrown out of the system. In fact, many people in Japan believe that persons receiving public assistance are no longer considered as lawful citizens.

The Japanese example is a far cry from other countries, especially European countries like Holland, where a large number of people have been living on the dole for years, even generations. Receiving public aid in some countries with long established social welfare programs is so attractive that in many cases people are penalized if they try to find work, resulting in their continuing to receive weekly or monthly benefits instead of trying to find suitable employment. While Israel is not quite in the same format as these European “welfare states”, particularly in light of recent economic reforms, there are still many people who apply for and receive a monthly grant known as “guaranteed income maintenance” which for an individual runs in the amount of around $400 per month and around $600 for a family of four. In addition to public assistance, there are also a number of private aid sources that people can turn to and receive food, clothing, and other basic needs.

But in Japan, where people are too embarrassed to beg or even look for food in garbage bins or other places, people like the pour soul in Kitakyushu are in dire straits indeed. “If he had just come to me, I would have helped him” one of the dead man’s neighbors remarked afterwards. And as for the rice balls, a favorite Japanese treat resembling popcorn balls in America; hopefully this poor man now has all he wants in the “world above”.