Ruling denying welfare for foreign residents finds homegrown, biased support


Staff Writer

The landmark Supreme Court ruling in July that found permanent residents of Japan legally ineligible for public assistance is already having an impact. Moves are afoot both at the national and local levels to try to scale back or remove welfare payments to foreign residents.

In a lawsuit filed by an 82-year-old Chinese woman from Oita Prefecture, the nation’s top court made it clear that permanent foreign residents do not qualify for public assistance because they are not Japanese nationals. Article 1 of the 1950 Public Assistance Law states the law concerns “all nationals,” which the court said referred only to Japanese citizens.

Despite the ruling, the welfare ministry has stood by its long-standing policy of offering the same level of welfare protection to foreigners as Japanese, based on a notice it issued to municipal governments in 1954.

In line with the ministry policy, the municipal governments have distributed welfare benefits — ranging from cash assistance to free health care services to housing aid — to needy foreigners with permanent or long-term residency status, including the spouses of Japanese and migrant workers from Brazil.

But the July ruling has given momentum to some forces, including those harboring anti-foreigner sentiments and advocates of cutting “waste” in government spending, to try to limit foreigners’ access to welfare.

The minor opposition party Jisedai no To (Party for Future Generations), co-founded by ultranationalist Shintaro Ishihara, plans to submit bills to the extraordinary Diet session that would give destitute foreigners a year to choose between two extremes: becoming naturalized citizens or leaving the country.

The move follows an August proposal, by a team of lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic party tasked with eliminating wasteful state spending, to restrict welfare assistance to foreigners.

“The welfare outlays to foreigners run up to ¥122 billion per year,” the Aug. 4 report by the LDP team said. “We must say it is difficult to maintain the status quo.”

The team also said the government “should create guidelines (on public assistance) for foreigners who arrive in Japan, and consider deporting those who cannot maintain a living.”

Taro Kono, a member of the Lower House who heads the LDP project team, said the envisioned revision to the welfare system would not affect permanent residents, but those on mid- to long-term visas. The changes would likely materialize in the form of denied access to public aid for a certain period after one’s arrival in Japan, to prevent abuse by those coming here just to receive welfare, he said. He added that the team has yet to decide on the number of months or years before foreigners would be granted access.

According to Kono, the rationale for creating a probational period is a provision in the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law that states the government would deny entry to “a person who is likely to become a burden on the Japanese government or a local public entity because of an inability to make a living.”

“People who come to Japan on mid- to long-term visas would undergo a lot of events here, and some of them might lose their ability to make a living and apply for public assistance. That’s fine. But if they apply for assistance right after they arrive in Japan, that would mean they made a false claim (about their reason for coming),” Kono told The Japan Times earlier this month.

“Likewise when they renew their visas, they are supposed to have means to support themselves or otherwise their requests for visa renewals would be rejected. But if it turns out that they cannot sustain their living in, say, six months after their visas are renewed, that would mean they were not truthful about their means when they applied for a renewed visa, and (this would constitute) grounds for denial of public assistance.”

The LDP team also proposed that all welfare recipients be prescribed generic drugs unless otherwise specified by doctors. If they want to be prescribed patented drugs, they should pay for their share of the costs, according to the team’s report.

The team’s proposal for an eligibility requirement for foreigners based on their period of stay appears to be more or less in line with practices in other advanced countries.

Most European countries do not have a nationality clause for welfare benefits, but do list a residency period as a condition for eligibility, said Shinichi Oka, a professor of social security at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo.

At the same time, in Europe there is little distinction among different visa statuses, Oka said, noting that whether people have permanent resident status doesn’t affect their chances of qualifying for welfare.

“I’m not aware of any major European countries that (enforce) a nationality clause for public assistance eligibility,” Oka said. “The only requirement they have is that the applicants have lived in the country for a certain period of time.”

While the U.S. and Britain in principle deny welfare benefits to illegal aliens, in France, foreigners who have entered or are staying illegally in the country are also considered as “having the right to live” and are often deemed eligible for welfare benefits, Oka said.

In the U.S., the 1996 welfare reform law severely restricted eligibility for federal public assistance for noncitizens arriving after Aug. 22, 1996, the date the law was re-enacted, according to a Congressional Research Service report issued Sept. 24.

“Laws in place for the past 15 years restrict the eligibility of legal permanent residents (LPR), refugees, asylees and other noncitizens for most means-tested public aid,” the report said.

“The LPRs with a substantial work history or military connection are eligible for the full range of programs, as are asylees, refugees and other humanitarian cases (for at least five to seven years after entry). Other LRPs must meet additional eligibility requirements.”

For example, to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, applicants must have been legal residents for five years or be under age 18.

For the Supplemental Security Income program, which provides cash assistance for basic needs such as food and clothing, and for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which is cash aid for families with dependent children, noncitizens generally are ineligible for five years after entry and then eligible at the option of the state, the U.S. report says.

The 1996 reform had a significant effect on reducing welfare use by noncitizens, Michael Fix and Ron Haskins wrote in their 2002 report to the Brookings Institution.

Due in part to the 1996 welfare reform, the number of noncitizen families that became naturalized U.S. citizens rose rapidly, but that still does not fully explain why the use of welfare declined sharply among noncitizens, the researchers wrote, noting there is “strong evidence that the exclusion of immigrants from food stamps is leading to rising food insecurity among non-citizen households.”

In Japan, the moves to restrict foreign residents’ access to welfare are tinged with growing anti-foreigner and even racist sentiments. On Twitter, a keyword search for “seikatsu hogo” (welfare) and “gaikokujin” (foreign people) turns up a long list of sensationally worded tweets calling for an immediate ban on welfare payments to foreigners, especially Korean and Chinese residents.

The July court ruling also triggered a male resident of Narashino, Chiba Prefecture, to submit a petition to the Narashino Municipal Assembly last month to freeze welfare benefits to foreigners. The petition had a long and winded title laced with brackets that translates roughly as “A petition to immediately suspend (the inapproriate execution of) public assistance for foreigners, who fall outside the legal protection (ruled so by the Supreme Court) and yet who are given protection with no legal justification at the discretion of the city of Narashino (in the spirit of charity).”

This male citizen submitted a similar petition in the March and June sessions of the assembly, but in his latest bid, he specifically cited the Supreme Court ruling to back up his claim that foreigners should be denied welfare entirely.

The petition was voted down unanimously by the assembly on Sept. 30, with many members arguing the move is discriminatory. But for the same September session, the man submitted another petition that called for creation of a hotline to report suspected cases of welfare abuse, which he claims is particularly prevalent “among foreigners and the mentally disabled,” according to assembly member Hisako Ichikawa.

“While both petitions were voted down, nine of the 29 assembly members voted in favor of creating a hotline,” Ichikawa, a member of the Japanese Communist Party, said.

“It looks like the man will submit a similar petition again in the upcoming December session. We are watching closely what will happen next time — whether the number of members supporting the hotline might go up.”

  • timefox

    The Japanese government guarantees Japanese welfare, the Chinese government guarantees Chinese people’s welfare, the South Korean government guarantees South Koreans’ welfare, the North Korea government guarantees the welfare of the people from North Korea, the American government guarantees Americans’ welfare, and the Canada government guarantees Canadians’ welfare.

    I think that it will solve if the treaty which guarantees a foreigner’s welfare mutually is contracted between the Japanese government and foreign government.

  • Paul Johnny Lynn

    I’d like to see solid figures on exactly how many non-Japanese are collecting, and how much. I find it just a tad difficult to take “…up to ¥122 billion per year…” from a report by an LDP team as gospel. While it’s certainly not just Japan going even further down the road of blaming economic victims for their plight, it should by no means be applauded. Speaking from personal experience, Japanese employers bend and break the law regarding employees (foreign and national) with virtual impunity. One minute you’re a regular salary earner, next you’re skirting destitution and forced to seek whatever help you can find. Your former employer simply carries on and even lies about you. It’s difficult for me to see anything beyond a resurgence in right-wing sentiment, and the usual “blame the foreigners for the country’s woes” behind this. Again, not exclusive to Japan by any means, but none the less shameful for that.

  • Charles Henry Wetzel

    “The amount of welfare being paid to foreigners is 122 billion yen! That’s a really big number!” That’s what the average man on the street thinks.

    But wait a second, let’s actually do the math. Yeah, I know, you hate math, but it’s okay, we can use a calculator!

    Japan’s GDP is 536,122,300,000,000 yen (over 536 TRILLION yen). So 122 billion yen is less than 0.03% of Japan’s economy. Basically, Shintaro Ishihara with his Jisedai no Tou, and the LDP, are wasting countless hours of time on something that, at best, will save Japan 0.03% of its GDP.

    To make an analogy, I make about $28,000 a year. So this is the same as me OBSESSING and LOSING SLEEP AT NIGHT over how I can save $8 per year.

  • Charles Henry Wetzel

    And my second point is this: In the ’80s, Japan wanted cheap labor, but it didn’t want immigration (in other words, it was xenophobic).

    So they decided to let only Japanese-Brazilians immigrate, because they were racially Japanese and would therefore supposedly make better immigrants (in other words, another decision motivated by xenophobia–“we only want foreigners if the foreigners are Japanese”).

    Now, fast-forward to 2014. According to the article, Brazilians often go on welfare, because they can’t find jobs. Well wait a second–I thought that Japan’s unemployment rate was only 3.5%! That’s one of the world’s lowest unemployment rates! Why can’t they find jobs? Let’s see…what’s that word again? I think it starts with an x…
    Xena: Warrior Princess?
    OH!!! That’s right–xenophobia!

    So…xenophobia, xenophobia, and then xenophobia again led to this situation… Maybe if Japan had instead looked for “hard-working immigrants” or “well-educated immigrants,” instead of focusing on “racially Japanese immigrants,” they wouldn’t have this problem now.

  • Charles Henry Wetzel

    And my third point:
    “According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security
    Research, Japan’s total social welfare benefits reached ¥103.487
    trillion in fiscal 2010, topping ¥100 trillion for the first time.”

    Okay, so in Japan, the total welfare budget is 103.487 trillion yen. But only 0.122 trillion yen of that goes to foreigners, so that means that the other 103.365 trillion yen are going to Japanese people!

    Here, let’s do some more math:

    103.487 trillion yen / 127 million Japanese = Each Japanese person is, on average, sucking 814,858 yen per year from the welfare system!

    Now let’s do the math for foreigners:
    122 billion yen / 2 million foreigners = Each foreigner is, on average, sucking 61,000 yen per year from the welfare system!

    So…who’s REALLY sucking welfare, here? I guess I now know where my income tax (所得税) and 8% consumption tax (消費税) are going, now…

    …you’re welcome, Japan!

  • OsFish

    Very bad headline (again, and not just from this paper). Foreigners are eligible for social assistance. Period. It’s really important that resident foreigners in need know this. Even after the ruling they have the same access to these benefits as Japanese, as the text says.

    The ruling did NOT make foreigners ineligible for seikatsu hogo. The ruling explicitly recognised that foreigners are eligible, as the article text states, under the 1954 Ministry notice, which clearly and unequivocally states that foreigners should be treated the same as Japanese in assessment for this (means-tested) benefit.

    All the ruling did was make clear the grounds for eligibility. Japanese because of the law itself, resident foreigners because of the notice.

    Suggestions by tiny right-wing parties can be safely ignored, as can the thoroughly horrible individual wanting to target the mentally disabled. The LDP group, however, demands attention. The reforms suggested by Kono sound like a bad idea. While restricting access to benefits to those who have just arrived in the country is a common practice around the world, Japan is not a country which accepts large numbers of refugees or typically grants residence visas without employment or clear financial support anyway. The number of people immediately needing help is going to be very small. I cannot imagine it would save much money. Of course, if Japan is preparing to open up immigration to help ease the population crisis, this might alter the situation.

    I cannot make much sense of the presumption that someone who loses their job soon after a work visa renewal has somehow cheated the system. Company bankruptices and lay offs are not timed to match the individual visa schedules of foreign workers. The person should also have social insurance if they have been working, so again, we’re probably talking about very few people falling through the gaps in such a situation. It looks like a move that sounds aggressive and tough, but will just cause unnecessary pain to a small number of people.

    The people who need seikatsu hogo have fallen through the gaps in the system. They are vulnerable, often old, or single (abandoned) mothers, or disabled. It is a very diseased kind of populism that seeks to save money like this.

    The only issue that needs looking at is help for those municipalities with a large population of welfare recipients, both Japanese and foreign. These places, which foot part of the bill for the benefit, will be feeling the strain. However, recipient counts are symptoms, not causes of social problems. Cutting welfare doesn’t solve the problem.

  • everythinggoes

    So let me get this straight, even though Foreigners payed taxes through the standard taxes when they pay for services etc, they are still punished because they are not “Japanese”?

    Why should Foreigners pay for Japanese bad debt?

    We Foreigners don’t even have a full way to become Japanese without an approved Visa in the first place.

    So unless there is a Full Visa that we can apply for, forcing us to become Japanese is useless.

    When Japanese allow Foreigners to stay in Japan defiantly without requiring some sort of special visa, then you can talk about “naturalized”, otherwise, don’t enforce crap down other people’s throats.

    Yes I know it’s about Welfare.

  • Scott Asahina

    I would like to know how much income tax we foreigners pay each year. Would it be cool with Ishihara and his cronies if we were also excluded from having to pay it? Would seem fair to me, but then again TIJ – This Is Japan :)

  • Ahojanen

    In facing Japan’s declining and aging population, not makeshift but comprehensive reforms on the social welfare system are inevitable. It’s also urgent.

    Unlike the common sense knowledge I don’t think there are so many free-riders on social benefits, either Japanese nationals or foreigners . In latter case, many international residents and taxpayers suffer no/limited access or entitlement to local social welfare services due mostly to their lack of Japanese citizenship. Such people “on the borderline” should be integrated into mainstream Japanese society. A solution may be to relax some requirements for citizenship application. A dual citizenship might also be granted to qualified people upon certain conditions.

  • keith emerson

    My wife is a prime example of the angry sentiment coming from this movement. She is a foreign born resident (Thailand) of Japan living in the United States collecting Japan public assistance.

  • bobby

    this is just another attempt to get rid of foreigners in Japan. Call it for what it is, the old shadow bosses don’t want foreigners in Japan period.

  • Toolonggone

    It’s just absurd to see how people like Ishihara and Japan Institute for National
    Fundamentalists echo the anti-foreigner sentiment through this kind of
    propaganda. It’s baloney. Foreign households represent less than 3% of those
    who register for public assistance–or “seikatsuhogo.” An overwhelming majority of applicants are Japanese, most of them are elderly family, those living single, or live hand to mouth under a shoestring income.

    Right-wing politicians and nationalist activists obviously want these ‘poor’ foreigners to remain as a permanent social burden in Japan so that they can get millions of votes from innocent, naïve voters.

  • Earl Kinmonth

    Precisely how many foreign nationals in Japan have been denied welfare? Not the woman who brought the suit. She was intially denied but received it on appeal.

  • rossdorn

    I am amazed to read all this comments here….

    Has it ever occurred to yoú guys, that this is Japan? A foreign country for you and me, and that they have their culture and their rules and their idiosyncrasies?

    They are not there to be as you would like them to be… You do not like it, and I agree that there are plenty of reasons for that, then pack your suitcases.

  • Earl Kinmonth

    I wonder if I am the only one who finds the emphasis on paying taxes in the comments on this article rather puzzling. Unless Japan is very different from the US or the UK, most people on welfare have always had low incomes or no incomes and have paid little or nothing in taxes. In the UK, there are cases of three generations on welfare. While there are presumably a small number of cases in any country where people go from having high incomes and paying a substantial amount of taxes to being destitute, I would imagine such cases to be quite rare. Does anyone have evidence to the contrary?

  • Crusader00

    Keep Japan Japanese. All gaijin out. As an otaku, no need to turn the Land of the Rising Sun into a fetid Turd World hell like Detroit.

    This is why I hate cultural Marxist organs like the Japan Times which act as gatekeepers for the news from Nippon.

    May Ebola-Chan pay the Japan Times staff a visit and do ecchi things with them unless they cease calls for Japanese genocide.

  • Charles

    Pardon me if this is a repost. I tried to post a comment a little while ago, but Disqus asked me to sign in again, and I think the original comment was lost.

    I am aware that many European countries are heavily taxed, in some cases more so than Japan. In discussions like these, Sweden often comes up, but I know that many European countries have high incomes taxes and high VAT taxes, often higher than Japan’s.

    In my opinion, this is not necessarily bad. Of course it depends on your school of thought (whether you are a capitalist or a socialist), but in my personal opinion, high taxes are not so bad provided that government services are comparable to the taxes being paid.

    Japan’s case differs from Europe’s case in two important ways:

    1. Japan continues to tax unemployed people with the ~180,000 yen Pension tax. In my home country, pension tax is a percentage of income, so unemployed people are exempt from paying it, because their income is nothing. In Japan, someone who is unemployed for ten years will owe the government ~1.8 million yen Pension tax. This seems very harsh to me.

    2. Most European countries are not as stingy to foreigners as Japan has been since earlier this year, after the Supreme Court ruling. Whether Japan was stingy between 1954 to 2014 is arguable, but after the Supreme Court ruling this year, Japan is definitely stingier than most other OECD countries.

    But, just for the sake of argument, let’s say that Europe is just as highly taxed, just as uncompassionate and lacking in empathy towards the poor, and just as stingy towards foreigners as Japan. Do two wrongs make a right? Just because something bad happens in Europe, does that make it okay for Japan to do the same thing?

    Europe had the Inquisition, the Spanish, English, etc. wiped out literally millions of natives with their European diseases and superior weaponry, and oh, yeah, Nazism and the Holocaust. “Europe does it, too” is not a very good excuse.

  • Charles

    First of all, I respect your debate style, and admit that perhaps I was comparing the wrong numbers (it is ambiguous in this article what the 122 billion yen referred to–they just called it “welfare,” so I just searched for “welfare” when finding my total welfare number for all of Japan, but you have pointed out that they were referring to only one type of welfare, or seikatsu hogo, so I stand corrected, maybe). Rather than name-calling or “Don’t like it, leave.” or “They do it in foreign countries, too.” cliches, you used numbers and logic. Thank you.

    Overall, I agree with what you said, and agree with you that perhaps I was underestimating that total piece of the seikatsu hogo pie from which foreigners were taking. I was thinking the total pie was 103.487 trillion yen when actually it is much smaller than that.

    However, I will point out one small flaw in your post. You wrote 3.4 trillion yen. However, the article that you linked to states 3.8 trillion yen (“今年度の生活保護費は、長引いた景気の低迷で受給者が増えるなどしたため、国と地方を合わせておよそ3兆8000億円となり、リーマンショックが起きた6年前の1.4倍に上っています。”–“As for the outlay of this year’s seikatsu hogo, because of the recipients of it increasing, etc. in the economic slump, which has been dragging on, combining the country and the regions [of Japan], it is about 3.8 trillion yen, and it has increased 1.4 times versus six years ago when the Lehman Shock arose.”).

    However, you are still right that, presuming that the LDP was talking about seikatsu hogo (I’m still not sure they were), and presuming that the LDP number is correct, that foreigners are taking about 3% from the pie even though they are only 2% of the population. Okay, well, that is a problem that needs to be addressed, but there are much less severe ways of addressing it than simply stating “no foreigner, even a permanent resident, has any entitlement to welfare,” which is what the Supreme Court did this year.

    If I ruled the country, this is what I would do:

    – Permanent residents (永住者 and 特別永住者) can continue to receive welfare. They have, in most cases, lived in Japan just as long, paid into the tax system just as long, etc. as most Japanese, so they should be just as entitled.

    – However, I would limit Long-Term Residents’ (定住者) entitlement to welfare, for the simple reason that many so-called “Long-Term Residents” have not actually been here for a long time. Because unlike permanent residency, which is EARNED either by being born here or living here for a long time, Long-Term Resident status is often GIVEN OUT to people fresh off the boat, usually from Brazil, Peru, or elsewhere in South America. Some of these people may have lived in Japan for less than a year, yet may have a “Long-Term Resident” Status of Residence, which is quite frankly unfair to other foreigners who have lived here for years and are still on one-year extensions. Why should so-called “Long-Term Residents” be given everything on a silver platter without putting in the requisite number of years here, first? If they want to live in Japan for 10, 20, 30 years, etc. and then claim welfare, then fine, but by that point, they probably won’t be so-called “Long-Term Residents,” anymore, they’ll be “Permanent Residents.” I would have absolutely no problem with welfare being limited only to foreigners who have worked in Japan for 10+ years. However, that position is less extreme than the Supreme Court ruling or the Jisedai no Tou’s radical far-right ideas.

    – Once (most of the) so-called “long-term residents” (many of which have not actually lived here for a long time) have been weeded out from receiving welfare, and only the permanent residents are receiving it, I think Japan will find that foreigners are receiving less welfare per capita than Japanese, at which point the LDP and Jisedai no Tou should stop complaining. However, if this turns out not to be the case, than perhaps it is time to investigate why permanent residents are taking it. Is it because they were not allowed to pay into the National Pension system until the 80s, and therefore have not accrued enough National Pension payments, and cannot collect a National Pension when they get old? Is it because of discrimination? Don’t just blame the foreigners–address the root causes of the problem. Perhaps the reason foreigners are taking out a (possibly) disproportionately high amount of welfare (according to the LDP) is because that is the corner into which they have been driven.