Shining a Light on Poverty

Shining a Light on Poverty

An Australian filmmaker and wrestler brings his documentary about a rarely discussed social issue in Japan to the Club this month.

Rionne McAvoy is used to being in the spotlight.

Under his ring name Rionne Fujiwara, the stocky 41-year-old Australian has worked as a professional wrestler in Japan since 2013, using his martial arts skills to take on some of the sport’s heavyweights. But his latest fight is against a far more formidable opponent: the poverty and desperation of Japan’s single mothers.

As a cameraman and director with an interest in social justice issues, McAvoy has produced content for global outlets like Japan’s NHK and the BBC. His new documentary, The Ones Left Behind: The Plight of Single Mothers in Japan (which will be screened at this month’s TAC Talk), is an unflinching look at an ignored social problem.

The poverty trap that mothers and children can slide into after divorce is shocking given Japan’s status as the world’s third-largest economy. In 2017, Japan’s poverty rate for single-parent households where the parent was working was 56 percent, compared with 33.5 percent in the United States. Today, as many as one in seven Japanese kids live below the poverty line, according to Japanese government figures.

“I went in knowing nothing about this [issue],” says McAvoy, describing the 18 months he worked on the documentary. “The film is my journey understanding the problem. It was filmed in a very organic, raw style. What you see is what I saw firsthand. What you learn along the way is exactly what I learned.”

The Ones Left Behind follows a handful of single moms from various backgrounds, including a Buddhist priest and a Kenyan woman. The interviewees describe their own struggles and those of other single mothers dealing with food insecurity (some rely on food pantries to provide their children with rice and other necessities like soap and shampoo). They also talk about the difficulties of seeking help in a society that values perseverance in the face of adversity.

Around 80 percent of single mothers in Japan are in financial straits and may see no way out of their predicament, Mayumi Nishida, director of the Heart Full Family Single Parent Support Group, says in the documentary. The Club’s Connections group and Culture, Community & Entertainment Committee are supporting the cost of bringing Nishida and mothers who appear in the film to the May 24 event to speak.

Amid the nation’s economic growth and embrace of Internet-centered lifestyles, people have become deaf to the plight of poor mothers, says Tetsuya Fujisawa, another Heart Full Family director interviewed in the film. They and their kids have been left behind, hence the documentary’s title.

“The most important message in the film,” says McAvoy, “is that we must recognize people’s cries for help and be more receptive.”

TAC Talk: The Ones Left Behind
May 24 | 6–8pm

Words: Tim Hornyak
Top Image of Rionne McAvoy: Yuuki Ide

May 2023