KITAKYUSHU, Japan 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 convenience 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 recipient whose benefits had been cut off. And his case was not the first here.
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, because of the diary, which has embarrassed city officials who initially defended their handling of the case and even described it as "model."
In a way that the words of no living person could, the diary has shown the human costs of the economic transformation in Japan. As a widening income gap has pushed up welfare rolls in recent years, struggling cities like Kitakyushu have been under intense pressure to tighten eligibility.
The fallout from the most recent death has shown just how far the authorities in Kitakyushu went to achieve a flat welfare rate.
Japan has traditionally been hard on welfare recipients, and experts say this city's practices are common to many other local governments. Applicants 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.
With no religious tradition of charity, Japan has few soup kitchens or other places for the indigent. Those that exist run frequently by Christian missionaries from South Korea or Japan's tiny Christian population cater mostly to the homeless.