Public acts of contrition don’t get any more dramatic than comedian Junichi Komoto’s May 25 press conference, where he apologized for allowing his mother to collect government welfare payments even though he’s made good money himself as a TV personality. Josei Seven, the women’s weekly that broke the story in April without revealing Komoto’s name at the time, claimed he makes about ¥50 million a year. Fifty million buys a lot of schadenfreude, and the media were at the press conference in full force, getting their cameras as close as possible to Komoto’s tear-stained face as he struggled to say exactly the right thing. It’s too soon to declare his career finished, but we won’t be seeing him on TV for a while; or, at least, we won’t see him on TV making jokes.

So let’s hope he’s saved a lot of that money. If he didn’t, he’ll be back in the bottom income bracket he occupied when his mother first applied for and received welfare after she was forced to quit her job due to illness. Given the short half-life of comedians even under normal circumstances, he might end up qualifying for welfare himself, but you can bet he won’t apply for it. The message conveyed by the scandal coverage was loud and clear: Whether or not someone is deserving of public assistance, asking for government money is inherently a shameful act.

Making that message felt is exactly the authorities’ intention. In a recent blog post, essayist Karin Amamiya describes a lawyers group specializing in welfare issues. The group says that only 1.6 percent of the Japanese population receives public assistance, and 18 percent of the people who qualify for welfare actually apply for it. In Sweden, the portion is 82 percent, Germany 64 percent. Even in the United States, where collecting any form of welfare is also deemed a moral hazard, 59 percent of those who can receive it do.

The lawyers group says the media are missing the point of the Komoto affair, dwelling on the increase in welfare rolls rather than on the number of certifiably poor people, which is also increasing. Thanks to public figures such as Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Satsuki Katayama, who has made it her life’s work to crack down on welfare scofflaws, the media becomes fixated on abuse of the system, but as Amamiya points out the welfare ministry only found evidence of abuse in 1.5 percent of cases in 2009. It is not a widespread problem, and for an understandable reason: The vast majority of people who could benefit from the system don’t take advantage of it. After the public flogging Komoto received even fewer probably will.

But what did he do that was so bad? His mother, who lives in Okayama Prefecture, started receiving assistance about 15 years ago, when the comedian, who is half of the duo Jicho Kacho, was not yet successful. Struggling comics are one of show business’s most reliable cliches. Entire variety shows are dedicated to re-creating comedians’ salad days. Eventually, Jicho Kacho got more work, and about six years ago Komoto started giving his mother money, but she continued collecting assistance after Komoto consulted with her local welfare office. A lawyer for Yoshimoto Kogyo, Komoto’s management company, told reporters that the mother submitted to welfare authorities the “proper” information about the money she was receiving from her son, but obviously it wasn’t enough for her to live off of. Komoto explained that though his income was “large,” he thought it would be all right for his mother to continue receiving assistance because he had been assured it was legal. He later admitted that he exercised “poor judgment,” but that doesn’t solve the mystery of why authorities accepted this arrangement in the first place.

What the backlash says is that society considers it immoral for a child to not assist his or her parents financially, a stance codified in the law, which says that persons related by blood are obligated to support one another, and that before approving public assistance for an individual an officer must confirm whether or not direct assistance from a relative is possible. The officer is required to contact a child, parent or sibling and ask if they can “help the applicant.” The officer can even contact sanshinto, or relatives once removed, such as uncles or nieces. In principle, the application is approved only after these possibilities are exhausted, but as with many Civil Code regulations there is no punishable enforcement. If a family member refuses to provide support for any reason, he cannot be legally compelled to do so.

Since poverty tends to beget poverty, relatives of welfare applicants are usually poor themselves. Tokyo Shimbun talked to officers in Tokyo who said that in many cases — contact is usually carried out in writing — they don’t even receive a response. Welfare minister Yoko Komiyama, reacting to the outrage occasioned by the scandal, says she will implement a policy to force relatives to prove they can’t support family members who apply for welfare. She has also asked a national bankers association to make it easier for officials to check savings accounts not only of applicants but of relatives. Though financial institutions are not obligated to provide such information, the association, caught up in all the moral fervor, said it would cooperate.

It may be a pointless gesture. The head of a Nagoya citizens group told Tokyo Shimbun that case workers are overloaded as it is without having to track down every second cousin and estranged brother-in-law. In any case it is definitely nothing more than a gesture. Makoto Yuasa of the poverty relief organization Hinkon Network has said antiwelfare sentiments run in cycles. A cheater is exposed and the government promises stricter enforcement; then a few years later someone dies of starvation after being refused assistance and the government pledges to review procedures. It’s a fact of life, just like impoverished comedians.