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‘Specialness’ shrouds stories of minorities

by Philip Brasor

As predicted four months ago in this column, in September the Supreme Court ruled discriminatory and unconstitutional the Civil Code stipulation that says children born out of wedlock are entitled to only half the inheritance of legitimate offspring. The government is expected to revise the law accordingly, but some members of the Liberal Democratic Party continue to resist, saying that removing the stipulation would destroy the “Japanese family system.”

One of the strongest opponents, Liberal Democratic Party policy chief Sanae Takaichi, held a press conference where she stated that while she understands how a constitutional system operates, “many LDP lawmakers are skeptical” of the Supreme Court’s decision. “The Civil Code contains the principles of legal marriage,” she said, “and I don’t think this ruling fits those principles.” Takaichi and the other LDP lawmakers who want to “strengthen traditional marriages” have formed a study group to discuss the matter.

This faction explains its position by saying that allowing illegitimate children to have the same rights as legitimate children encourages extramarital affairs, which would seem to mean that married people cheat on their spouses for the purpose of procreation. The media have never challenged this point, which flies in the face of common sense. The same goes for the issue of allowing separate names for married couples, which these politicians claim would weaken family bonds. No reporters ever point out that allowing separate names is not the same as compelling people to have separate names, which is what the opposition implies would happen if the law were changed.

These lawmakers dwell on “principles,” which is why LDP member Seiko Noda recently stated that she fears her more conservative colleagues will try to shoot down her bill to legalize “reproductive medical assistance” for infertile couples, including the sale of eggs by third parties and the wider use of surrogate mothers, since resulting families are not considered “traditional.” According to the Asahi Shimbun, Diet members who are “sensitive about family matters” believe it’s better to be consistent and not change related laws.

In addition, the media cover the people affected by these issues as if they were special, thus projecting a negative image. As long as subjects are made to feel ashamed, the political forces who oppose what they are doing will never have to explain themselves in a meaningful way. This media dynamic explains the concept behind the new magazine Harumachi (Waiting for Spring), which is published by antipoverty activist Makoto Yuasa. The subjects of the features have received public assistance at some points in their lives. The media treats people on welfare with delicacy. “Because TV hides their faces,” Yuasa said of welfare recipients in an interview with NHK, “they seem unworthy of trust. It takes courage for them to reveal their identities.”

Harumachi profiles welfare recipients as individuals with distinct lives, interests and, most significantly, families, a point that is lost in the current debate over whether or not the government should cut public assistance benefits. The politicians who insist on preserving traditional families tend to characterize welfare recipients as deadbeats who are not making enough effort to find jobs, and in order to counter this perception, Yuasa includes articles about people who were once on welfare for long periods of time but are now employed and supporting loved ones. They explain how public assistance helped them stay on their feet while they rebuilt their lives, which is the purpose of welfare and something the media rarely conveys.

The greatest threat to the integrity of Japanese families is not the loss of traditional values but poverty, and as with illegitimacy, courts are now realizing that the law discriminates against people at the margins of society. According to a recent article in the Asahi Shimbun, in 2011 there were 756 court cases in which people sued local governments for refusing them welfare benefits. Of these, 191, or about 25 percent, concluded in favor of the plaintiffs. In 2007, the year before the worldwide recession kicked in, the portion of successful welfare-related lawsuits in Japan was only 8 percent.

Professor Jun Yoshinaga of Hanazono University told the Asahi that government statistics for welfare applicants don’t include people who are turned away from welfare offices even before they fill out applications. The standard procedure is to ask preliminary questions, and officials are trained to reject potential applicants who “look able-bodied.”

But the lower their educational level, the more difficult it is for people, regardless of age or health, to find work that can support a family. The unemployment rate for men who only graduated from junior high school rose from 8 percent in 2000 to 13.2 percent in 2010.

The case that set the precedent for the increase in successful welfare lawsuits involved a 40-year-old junior-high graduate living in Kishiwada, Osaka Prefecture, who was refused public assistance six times. During this period he applied for more than 100 jobs and sat for 40 interviews. The welfare office, following protocol, repeatedly said he wasn’t trying hard enough. In Kishiwada at the time, there were twice as many applicants as there were job openings for junior high school graduates.

And while it was incidental to his case, the fact that this man moved to Kishiwada, giving up his previous job in Osaka city, to take care of his mother-in-law should be of some interest to traditional family advocates, since one of their pet projects is to force families to support indigent members, including elderly, who might otherwise end up on welfare. At present he delivers newspapers, but the pay isn’t enough to support his family, so he receives welfare to make up the difference. Principles are all well and good, but real life is the only true test of political convictions.