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Japan’s lonely people: Where do they all belong?

by Philip Brasor

In recent weeks, three cases of kodokushi, or “lonely deaths,” have been covered extensively in the news. One involved a Saitama Prefecture family of three whose bodies were found in their apartment several months after the electricity and gas were turned off for nonpayment. Police assumed they had starved. The other cases involved two sisters in their 40s who likely froze to death in a Sapporo apartment; and the discovery of the bodies of a 45-year-old woman and her 4-year-old son in Tachikawa, Tokyo.

America’s ABC News reported that these three incidents “prompt(ed) soul-searching,” though what they really prompted, at least in the Japanese media, was a blame game targeting various authorities and an increasingly atomized society. TBS ran a long, melodramatic report on its morning “Hiruobi” news show focusing mainly on the Sapporo incident and describing the sisters as victims of an uncaring social-welfare system and isolated by a community whose members avoided one another at any cost. The reporter quoted a survey that found 70 percent of Japanese people had no desire to “allow neighbors into their lives” and, based on this figure, concluded that “Japanese are more likely to die alone” than people in other countries.

TBS pointed to a 2001 law compelling utilities to inform local welfare offices whenever customers suddenly stopped paying their bills. Since that law went into effect, less than 4 percent of such situations have been reported by utilities, which cite privacy restrictions for their reluctance to do so. The report also implied that the local welfare office should have intervened in the Sapporo case. Though one of the deceased women was receiving disability payments the office said it couldn’t enter the home of a person without being invited, which sounded like an excuse. This also became a theme of the Saitama coverage: The family was poor and apparently unwilling to seek help from the local government. A neighbor told police that one member of the family had approached her for a loan and she suggested instead that the woman apply for assistance, but the welfare office said she never did. In the Tachikawa case, the mother apparently died of a brain hemorrhage and her son, who was disabled, couldn’t feed himself. The mother was receiving a welfare allowance of ¥14,000 a month for the son and there was food in the refrigerator when the bodies were found.

Three cases, three different sets of circumstances. But all three have been used to illustrate how ineffective the social safety net is. There is little doubt that Japan’s social-welfare system is dysfunctional, but the mainstream media coverage has examined these stories from the standpoint of social responsibility, avoiding the larger context of economic reality. For instance, almost every report has mentioned the statistic of more than 700 people dying of starvation since 2000, a number that is meant to shock. However, among them, 93 occurred in 2003, 58 in 2009, and 36 last year. If those numbers illustrate anything, it’s that fewer people are starving each year, suggesting that more people are receiving help, because the absolute number of people falling below the poverty line is skyrocketing.

A recent article in the weekly magazine Gendai about the welfare system doesn’t mention kodokushi. Rather than complain that welfare officials aren’t aggressive enough in helping people, it asserts that they give out money too easily. The article describes a recent arrest in Osaka of a 49-year-old man who received ¥32 million in welfare payments over the last six years even though he makes ¥1 million a month as a traveling salesman. He had convinced his local welfare office that he was sick and couldn’t work. When caught, he admitted to the charges and explained that since welfare seemed “easy to obtain” he thought he’d apply for it.

There were 19,700 cases of welfare fraud in 2009 accounting for more than ¥10 billion. Since central and local governments spent ¥3 trillion that year on welfare, ¥10 billion may not sound like much, but experts believe it’s just the tip of the iceberg. The number of cases had increased almost fivefold over the previous 10 years in line with the general increase in legitimate welfare applications caused by the deepening recession and the rising number of elderly whose pensions aren’t enough to live off of. Forty-five percent of welfare recipients now are seniors.

Exacerbating the problem is the “lost generation,” people who graduated in the mid-1990s. Many have never held regular full-time jobs and don’t see the point in holding down a minimum-wage position when they can receive the exact same amount of money in welfare. The media characterizes this situation as a “moral hazard,” but the government seems unwilling to tackle the problem structurally by, say, raising the minimum wage. More significantly, welfare offices have no real means of tracking down welfare cheats. The only way they can check an applicant’s declaration of income is to call the bank and ask to look at the account, and banks say they can’t be bothered.

As with social security, welfare is on the verge of collapse. Last November, the number of recipients exceeded 2.7 million comprising 1.5 million households, but experts say that not everyone who legally qualifies for assistance applies for it, as dramatically shown by that Saitama family. In any case, the welfare rolls will certainly grow. The government now spends ¥29 trillion a year on all social-related programs, including medical care and pensions, and in 20 years, when the lost generation starts reaching pension age, it estimates it will need ¥20 trillion just for assistance alone.

The overarching problem is still financial in nature. Lamenting the loss of community-mindedness — which has always been overstated — is an easy way to avoid the hard work of overhauling an economy that’s been stuck in reverse for decades. Welfare officials should do a better job of helping the truly needy, but they can’t do anything if they don’t have money.