Many Japanese may regard people on welfare as not merely unfortunate have-nots, viewing them instead as contemptible slackers who don’t seek work because they prefer to stay “comfortably poor.”
Mainstream perceptions of welfare recipients in Japan are becoming increasingly hostile, said well-known anti-poverty activist Makoto Yuasa, who attributes a recent spike in public distrust to a scandal that grabbed national headlines last year.
The mother of comedian Junichi Komoto had been receiving welfare benefits for years despite her son’s obvious wealth. Although there is no actual law requiring wealthy kin to financially support a relative in need, Komoto drew public scorn for not coming to his mother’s aid.
The revelation of the comedian’s nonsupport, Yuasa said, instilled in the majority of people the misguided notion that the welfare system is burdened with undeserving beneficiaries.
“It’s a pity that the reality of welfare recipients remains largely unknown to people in Japan,” said Yuasa, noting that in fact those deemed to have taken unfair advantage of the system account for only 0.5 percent of all beneficiaries.
That’s why Yuasa, after months of preparation, published an unusual magazine in September portraying the supposed idlers as they really are. Many supported the magazine through crowd funding, eventually collecting ¥600,000.
Peppered with lighthearted cartoons, crossword puzzles and even culinary tips for low-cost meals, the 24-page Harumachi (Wait for Spring) is meant to dispel the impression that misery and corruption permeate the lives of welfare recipients.
The September release of the magazine’s first issue came shortly before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet approved a bill that some fear would further marginalize welfare recipients. If greenlighted by the ongoing extraordinary Diet session, the bill would increase fines against welfare cheats and subject applicants to reams of paperwork.
Even more worrying, the bill would authorize municipalities to take a more aggressive approach in pressuring relatives with means to support applicants, apparently reflecting the government’s reluctance to mete out benefits.
Those who say they’re not financially able to support their kin would be subject to thorough checks by the local welfare office of their income and assets to confirm their claim.
Critics decry this policy as an attempt to make it more psychologically difficult for the poor to apply for aid, as such rigorous background checks might cause family discord.
The bill follows on the heels of a 1.5 percent welfare benefit cut ushered in by Abe’s government on Aug. 1 that reports said would affect 96 percent of some 1.58 million households on welfare.
Yuasa said the growing intolerance toward welfare recipients prompted him to take the initiative in launching Harumachi, with the help of housewives, university students and volunteers.
All contributors to the magazine are unpaid. With no advertisements at this point, the only source of revenue is magazine sales and fees for a membership program expected to be launched in the near future. Harumachi, which has no major distributors yet, is available for ¥200 at dozens of bookstores and cafes in Tokyo, including Junkudo in Ikebukuro.
The first issue of the quarterly magazine features an interview, conducted by Yuasa, of two 21-year-olds, Wataru Okawara and Shingo Kamide, from Hokkaido. The two grew up in poverty-stricken families constantly on welfare. Neither, however, are on welfare anymore as they found jobs at a nonprofit group, with Okawara working as a caretaker and Kamide as a farmer. During the interview, they discuss their impoverished childhoods, but Yuasa stressed that 21-year-olds anywhere could relate to many of the things they talk about.
“When the mainstream media talk about people on welfare, it’s always about how hopelessly impoverished they are, or how possibly they’re illegally receiving benefits,” Yuasa said. “But these boys talk about some very usual stuff, like how they used to hate to study when they were young. . . . This is the kind of ordinary aspect I wanted the world to know about them.”
Yuasa plans to open future editions of the magazine with similar interviews, but he admitted it’s hard work. Given the strong prejudice against people on welfare, he said, coming forward risks exposure to online slander. He noted that Okawara and Kamide agreed to be interviewed despite knowing they faced ridicule. As expected, they drew the scorn of netizens on the popular 2channel online forum, who scoffed at their looks and likened them to spoiled couch potatoes.
Aware that the majority of the public appears reluctant to help the poor financially, Yuasa also asked business consultant Takahiro Yamaguchi to write an essay on the social return on investment in welfare recipients.
The essay cites efforts in the city of Kushiro, Hokkaido, to promote the financial independence of people on welfare. From 2009 to 2011, it invested about ¥15.1 million in making one group engage in volunteer activities, including farming, nursing the elderly and cleaning parks. These activities eventually generated a ¥53.4 million economic windfall, helped the recipients regain a healthy lifestyle, become confident and even land jobs.
“Many people are afraid that helping the poor eats into their pocketbook and risks raising taxes,” Yuasa said. “But the essay is basically saying financing the poor is, after all, not that costly, and possibly even beneficial in the long run.”
The next issue of the magazine will be out Dec. 16.
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