Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s vision for a “beautiful country” stresses self-reliance. The media usually translates this aim in national defense terms: a stronger military that doesn’t have to duck behind the United States. To the average person it simply means you’re on your own. That buzz word of several years ago, jiko sekinin, which translates as “self-responsibility,” is the mantra of this philosophy. Some of the revisions that Abe and his supporters propose for the Constitution involve spelling out the responsibilities of citizens rather than their rights, a curious notion given that the purpose of a national charter is to define the limits of government.

But the people have always been on their own, and the rights guaranteed in the current Constitution have not been consistently recognized in practice. A group of lawyers recently filed a criminal complaint against the head of the Kokura-Kita ward branch of the Kita Kyushu city office for violating Article 25, which states: “All people shall have the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living.” The case involves a 52-year-old man whose body was found on July 10 in one of the city’s public housing units. Police determined that he starved to death and had been receiving public assistance until April, when the city stopped his benefits.

The tragedy of the case was encapsulated in an entry the man wrote in his diary: “I just want to eat one onigiri (rice ball).” The story was covered extensively by the media, and proved particularly attractive to the scandal-obsessed wide shows, which provided some of the most robust reporting. The dead man was once a taxi driver, but due to illness he had to quit working last year. He applied for welfare and started receiving benefits last December. The office kept asking him whether or not he was well enough to go back to work. He wasn’t, but browbeaten into feeling guilty, the man eventually put his seal on a jitai todoke, or waiver of further benefits. He returned to his public apartment, which one TV reporter described as “inhospitable to humans,” and shriveled up.

TV Asahi’s “Super Morning” interviewed an anonymous civil servant who stated that the Kita Kyushu welfare office has a quota: They only approve 12 applications for benefits a month. But this was not news. Kita Kyushu is considered the model for local governments looking to cut expenditures, and since 2005 there have been at least two other cases of people starving to death in the city after their benefits were cut. A Nihon TV documentary broadcast last year told of how local governments send employees to Kita Kyushu to study their methods. Experts interviewed by TV Asahi said some of these methods are illegal, but the law is difficult to enforce when it is being interpreted by a public office. The police themselves did not bring charges in the onigiri case, so it was a lawyers group who filed the criminal complaint.

In the past, such a complaint may have been difficult to prosecute, but a decision handed down by the Hiroshima High Court in 2006 could make it easier. The case concerned a middle-aged woman who was receiving benefits. She said she was pressured into signing a jitai todoke after she started a part-time job that paid ¥50,000 a month, which most people would agree is not enough to live on. She sued and lost, but the high-court judge reversed the lower court decision on appeal, saying that it was the responsibility of the local-welfare office to monitor the woman’s living situation.

The decision set a precedent, which means Kita Kyushu could be found liable in the onigiri case because it did not check on the man after his benefits stopped. The jitai todoke supposedly relieves the welfare office of responsibility since it implies the recipient forfeited his benefits voluntarily. The Hiroshima decision, however, says that the office’s responsibility does not stop there. When asked by reporters if they were aware of the Hiroshima case, Kita Kyushu officials said they weren’t, but the Asahi Shimbun later discovered that a copy of a newspaper article about the decision had been distributed to employees last October.

Kita Kyushu’s public welfare officers see potential applicants as adversaries, an attitude that seems to be institutional in nature. According to an article in Kinyobi magazine, Kita Kyushu ranked highest among local governments in terms of welfare payments in the late 1960s following the collapse of the region’s mining industry. The central government, which provides most of the funds for welfare benefits, sent advisers to instruct local officials on how to reduce payments. They learned well. According to Kinyobi, nationwide 28 percent of the people who request public assistance end up receiving it. In Kita Kyushu this portion is 14.6 percent.

Their main tool is intimidation. People fear authority, and bureaucrats in Japan are referred to as kami (gods). Welfare officials are not trained to be helpful. They are trained to filter out deadbeats. One man who was interviewed on TV said the first thing he was told by the officer when he came to apply for welfare was that the penalty for fraud was jail. He was so scared he didn’t even fill out a form.

Those who want to receive money from the government must prove that they are sufficiently miserable, in spirit as well as body. Welfare recipients are not allowed to have things that might make their lives “wholesome and cultured,” like pets or nonessential appliances. I once met a single mother who told me her benefits were cut when it was discovered she had a boyfriend. It’s assumed that if you can’t make enough money to live and you have no family to fall back on, then you’re miserable to begin with. The welfare office makes sure you stay that way even after payments start. It’s their responsibility.