In a thin notebook discovered along with a man's partly mummified corpse this summer was a detailed account of his last days, recording his hunger pangs, his drop in weight and, above all, his dream of eating a rice ball, a snack sold for about $1 in conve-nience stores across the country.
"3 a.m. This human being hasn't eaten in 10 days but is still alive," he wrote. "I want to eat rice. I want to eat a rice ball."
These were not the last words of a hiker lost in the wilderness, but those of a 52-year-old urban welfare re-cipient whose benefits had been cut off. And his case was not the first in Kitakyushu in Japan.
One man has died in each of the last three years in this city in western Japan, apparently of starvation, after his welfare application was refused or his benefits cut off. Unable to buy food, all three men wasted away for months inside their homes, where their bodies were eventually found.
Only the most recent death drew nationwide attention, however, be-cause of the diary, which has embar-rassed city officials who initially de-fended their handling of the case and even described it as "model."
In a way that the words of no living person could, the death diary has shown the human costs of the eco-nomic transformation in Japan. As a widening income gap has pushed up welfare rolls in recent years, struggling cities like Kitakyushu have been un-der intense pressure to tighten eligi-bility.
Japan has traditionally been hard on welfare recipients, and experts say Kitakyushu's practices are common to many other local governments. Ap-plicants are expected to turn to their relatives or use up their savings before getting benefits. Welfare is considered less of an entitlement than a shameful handout.
"Local governments tend to believe that using taxpayer money to help people in need is doing a disservice to citizens," said Hiroshi Sugimura, a professor specializing in welfare at Hosei University in Tokyo. "To them, those in need are not citizens. Only those who pay taxes are citizens."
With no religious tradition of charity, Japan has few soup kitchens or other places for the indigent. Those that ex-ist — run frequently by Christian missionaries from South Korea or Japan's tiny Christian population — cater mostly to the homeless.
Like the diarist, the other two men were sickly, and they seemingly starved after their applications for welfare were rejected. One, 68, was found lying face down in his apart-ment, where the gas and electricity had been cut off half a year earlier. The man reportedly told neighbors that he had been denied benefits even though he had prostrated himself be-fore a city official. At his death, he had lost about a third of his weight and had only a few dollars.
The application of the third man, 56, was rejected twice even though a city worker trying to collect an un-paid water bill reported seeing him weak and crawling on his apartment floor. Neighbors who last saw him said his legs had withered to the size of bamboo poles. His mummified corpse was discovered four months after his death.
Between 2000 and 2006, as Japan's welfare rate grew to 1.18 percent from 0.84 percent, Kitakyusha's rate grew microscopically — to 1.28 per-cent from 1.26 percent. That ranked it toward the bottom among major cities even though its economy was doing poorly. To the central govern-ment — which bears 75 percent of welfare costs, began cutting benefits in 2003 and plans to rein in more — that made the city a model.
The diarist, a former taxi driver, qualified last December after receiv-ing diagnoses of diabetes, high blood pressure and a bad liver brought on by alcohol abuse. He lived in a dilap-idated row house whose walls and roof had partly collapsed. Electricity and gas had been cut off. The case worker's goal, in keeping with the welfare office's practice, was to get the man off welfare within six months.
Three months after he started re-ceiving benefits, the man signed a form saying he no longer needed welfare. The city said it was voluntary, but an entry in his diary belies that. Writing that he was about to start looking for work, he added: "I was just about to give it a try when they cut me off. Are they telling the needy to die as quickly as possible"
Perhaps out of shame, the man with the diary did not turn to his relatives or neighbors for help, even though he had lived all his life on the block.
"2 a.m. My belly's empty," he wrote on May 25, some 45 days after his benefits were cut. "I want to fill my belly with rice balls." He added: "Weight is also down from 68 kilo-grams to 54 kilograms."