Eliminating pension discrimination

Some aspects of Japan’s social security programs are still built on the assumption that the husband is always the breadwinner in a household and that the wife stays at home to take care of family matters.

Recently the Osaka District Court ruled that a provision in the pension program for bereaved families of local government employees is unconstitutional because it unfairly sets a minimum age for a husband to be entitled to benefits after his wife dies. The ruling has been appealed by the pension authority.

Such provisions also exist in other pension programs. They are based on an obsolete household model, and they should be reviewed and replaced with new rules that reflect the changing economic realities for families.

The Nov. 25 ruling concerns the case of a 66-year-old former company worker in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, who lost his wife in 1998. A teacher at a local public school, she committed suicide after struggling with depression, and her death was recognized in 2010 as one that happened in line of duty as a public servant.

The man sought pension benefits for bereaved families of local government workers, but his demand was rejected the following year because the local public servant accident compensation law of 1967 stipulated that a husband needs to be at least 55 at the time of his wife’s death to be eligible for the payout.

The man, who was 51 when his wife died, filed a lawsuit claiming that the provision is discriminatory because no such age limit exists for women who lose their husbands in similar situations.

The court said it is irrational to restrict eligibility for pension benefits based on the spouse’s gender and ordered the pension authority to annul its decision against the man’s demand.

Similar provisions also exist in retirement pension and labor accident insurance programs for company employees. For example, a full-time housewife of a working man who belongs to a pension program for company employees is entitled to payouts for bereaved families when the husband dies if she is 30 years or older (or for payouts for a period of five years if she’s below 30), whereas the husband of a woman who has a job is not eligible for such benefits unless he is at least 55 when the wife dies.

The Osaka court said the rule made sense when the law was enacted in 1967 — when it was common practice for husbands to work full time and for their wives to stay at home as homemakers. But social situations changed. In many cases, both spouses work today, and an increasing number of males hold nonregular jobs because of the changes in traditional Japanese corporate employment practices. So, it is irrational to determine pension eligibility based on gender, the court said.

Other gender-specific rules in welfare programs have come under scrutiny in recent years. In 2010, single-father families became eligible for child-rearing allowances that had earlier been provided only for single-mother households.

Even when the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami led to many single-father households, payouts to bereaved families in the national pension program were limited to households led by wives who had lost their husbands or to the children of the deceased men. The law has since been changed, making households headed by widowers eligible beginning next April.

Expanding the scope of welfare payouts of course requires additional funds, which may mean increased premiums or taxes. The government must make efforts to gain people’s support. Keeping intact irrelevant gender-based rules or allowing these rules to mandate archaic gender roles in families cannot be justified.