Last March, the number of individuals receiving seikatsu hogo (financial assistance from the government) exceeded 2.1 million people, the first time the record had been surpassed since 1951. Payouts this year are likely to exceed ¥3.7 trillion.
Based on the 2007 figures, Japan’s ratio of public benefit levels relative to median income, 49 percent, was 8 points above the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average of 41 percent, making its payments proportionally higher than in Britain, Sweden and Germany.
The soaring number of welfare recipients — particularly in the category of working-age individuals who are not sick, handicapped or otherwise disabled — has raised concerns that outlays will further impact negatively on the nation’s fiscal health. The system has also come under increasing criticism for ineffectiveness in screening out unqualified recipients who some are alleging have been exploiting loopholes.
Gakushuin University professor Wataru Suzuki tells weekly business magazine Shukan Diamond (Jun. 30) that despite the gradual economic recovery achieved between the time of the “Lehman Shock” of September 2008 and last year’s Great East Japan Earthquake, the number of welfare recipients increased rapidly.
The main reason for the increase, says Suzuki, came just after the so called haken-mura protests by temporary workers who had been laid off their jobs and made homeless around the end of 2008.
“The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare adopted major changes in its eligibility policies with ‘unusually loose’ oversights for recipients, which made it easier for working people to receive welfare,” he explains.
The July issue of monthly magazine Shincho 45 ran three articles under the combined headline “Seikatsu Hogo Tengoku Nippon” (Japan, the welfare heaven). In one article, nonfiction writer Yuho Tachibana noted that 20 percent of the finances of Tokyo’s Adachi Ward now go to family assistance and other types of welfare, totaling about ¥44.7 billion annually.
“The reality is that welfare recipients can receive more money than they can from working at low-wage jobs. And that’s a problem,” says Sadaji Kudo, director of the Adachi Youth Support Station, an NPO.
According to Kudo, case workers are swamped with heavy work loads, with each worker expected to process nearly 100 applicants and recipients.
“There are diligent recipients who make an effort to reduce the payouts, but I think the first thing we need to do is raise the criteria to impart them with a desire to work. Then the rate of recipients will go down of its own accord.
“In any case, I think it’s insulting for people on welfare to enjoy a better life than those who are working,” Kudo remarks.
The growth in foreign welfare recipients has also come under criticism in some publications.
According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, during 2011, 73,493 households headed by foreign nationals were recipients of welfare, with payouts estimated at ¥120 billion. Takarajima (August) reports this figure has roughly doubled over the past 10 years and now represents 3.52 percent of all recipients.
Nearly 80 percent of the foreign recipients are said to be nationals of the two Koreas or China. In one of the more flagrant cases of welfare chiseling, a group of 48 people from China who arrived in Japan in 2010 falsely claimed to be relatives of repatriated Japanese nationals who had been abandoned in China while small children at the end of the Pacific War. The 48 promptly applied to Osaka City for welfare, which was approved. After subsequent revelations that the whole thing was a hoax cooked up by a local Chinese real estate broker, the city rescinded its payouts and the group beat a hasty retreat to China.
“The checks got a lot stricter after that,” says the reporter.
An unnamed government official is quoted as saying that many foreign welfare applicants are foreign women who had been married to Japanese and divorced, and who remained in Japan to raise their children.
“But because many of them have taken jobs in mizu-shobai (the “water trade,” i.e., bars and the like), it’s unclear how much income they earn, and in some cases they may be cohabitating with males from their home country and making a show of being a single-parent household. If they have two or three children they can receive from ¥200,000 to ¥250,000 per month, which combined with earnings from their jobs will come to around ¥6 million annually.”
House of Councilors member Satsuki Katayama (LDP), one of the most outspoken politicians on the subject of welfare, tells Shukan Diamond, “The biggest problems are peoples’ declining desire to work and morality. I’m concerned over the plummeting trust in the social welfare system. Japan cannot be allowed to become a society where honesty doesn’t pay.”
When Shukan Diamond’s interviewer pointed out to Katayama that the ratio of welfare recipients (to overall population) and amount Japan pays out relative to its GDP, are lower than in other advanced economies, Katayama replied, “That’s because Japan has a significantly lower unemployment rate. While living in France, I saw lots of truly poor people living on the streets. Japan is not that kind of country. It’s nonsense to attempt simple comparisons with countries having different economic and social conditions.”