Friday’s landmark decision by the Supreme Court that permanent foreign residents of Japan are not entitled to welfare benefits will discourage more municipalities than ever from doling out such aid amid ballooning public assistance expenditures, experts said Saturday.

Responding to a lawsuit filed by an 82-year-old Chinese resident of Oita, the top court stated in the first ruling of its kind that, legally speaking, permanent foreign residents don’t qualify for public assistance because they aren’t considered Japanese nationals.

The ruling is significant in that it finally clarifies whether permanent residents are eligible to claim welfare. For years, municipalities have been distributing welfare payments to financially needy foreigners with permanent or long-term residency status, including the spouses of Japanese and migrant workers from Brazil.

Municipalities have been granting aid at their own discretion after being advised to do so from a “humanitarian” point of view by the central government in 1954. But that never meant foreigners actually qualified for the aid like Japanese. Although they could apply for it, they had no recourse if turned down, because the way the municipalities see it, welfare payments had never been foreigners’ legal right to claim.

The verdict legally enshrines this de facto state of affairs, making it official that foreign residents have no legal basis to claim eligibility for public assistance.

From now on, foreign residents will still be free to apply for welfare payments but will likely face slimmer odds of receiving them, experts said.

“The impact of the Supreme Court decision is huge,” said Eriko Suzuki, an associate professor at Kokushikan University in Tokyo who specializes in foreign labor issues.

“As municipalities nationwide are struggling to cut back on ever-snowballing costs related to welfare benefits for the poor, concerns are rising that they might (take advantage of the ruling) to stiffen their scrutiny of foreign eligibility, or even drive foreigners away before properly examining their claims,” she said, adding that rising anti-foreigner sentiment could escalate that prospect.

At present, foreigners without permanent or long-term residency visas aren’t even allowed to apply for welfare payments because their immigration status only allows them to stay in Japan as long as they’re employed.

Hiroshi Tanaka, a professor emeritus of sociology at Hitotsubashi University, agreed that the court’s decision will make it psychologically easier for municipalities to deny aid to non-Japanese.

He also denounced the ruling as “outdated” and “sure to make Japan a target of global ridicule,” as it reinforces the notoriously indifferent attitude that Japanese judges take toward the protection of human rights.

There was a time, he said, when Japan discriminated against foreigners in almost every aspect of the social security system, including child rearing allowances and the national pension plan. But that began to change after Japan joined a series of United Nations-designated treaties in the 1970s and 1980s, giving it the appearance of an “egalitarian society” true to the principals of those accords.

Yet poverty relief for the poor remains one of the few areas where foreigners are still discriminated against, or at least denied the same legal rights as Japanese.

“Foreigners pay taxes,” Tanaka said. “If you pay taxes, you should be eligible for the social security system that you’ve contributed to. That’s a common sense understanding.”

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