Ruling denying welfare for foreign residents finds homegrown, biased support

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

The landmark Supreme Court ruling in July that found permanent residents of Japan legally ineligible for public assistance is already having an impact. Moves are afoot both at the national and local levels to try to scale back or remove welfare payments to foreign residents.

In a lawsuit filed by an 82-year-old Chinese woman from Oita Prefecture, the nation’s top court made it clear that permanent foreign residents do not qualify for public assistance because they are not Japanese nationals. Article 1 of the 1950 Public Assistance Law states the law concerns “all nationals,” which the court said referred only to Japanese citizens.

Despite the ruling, the welfare ministry has stood by its long-standing policy of offering the same level of welfare protection to foreigners as Japanese, based on a notice it issued to municipal governments in 1954.

In line with the ministry policy, the municipal governments have distributed welfare benefits — ranging from cash assistance to free health care services to housing aid — to needy foreigners with permanent or long-term residency status, including the spouses of Japanese and migrant workers from Brazil.

But the July ruling has given momentum to some forces, including those harboring anti-foreigner sentiments and advocates of cutting “waste” in government spending, to try to limit foreigners’ access to welfare.

The minor opposition party Jisedai no To (Party for Future Generations), co-founded by ultranationalist Shintaro Ishihara, plans to submit bills to the extraordinary Diet session that would give destitute foreigners a year to choose between two extremes: becoming naturalized citizens or leaving the country.

The move follows an August proposal, by a team of lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic party tasked with eliminating wasteful state spending, to restrict welfare assistance to foreigners.

“The welfare outlays to foreigners run up to ¥122 billion per year,” the Aug. 4 report by the LDP team said. “We must say it is difficult to maintain the status quo.”

The team also said the government “should create guidelines (on public assistance) for foreigners who arrive in Japan, and consider deporting those who cannot maintain a living.”

Taro Kono, a member of the Lower House who heads the LDP project team, said the envisioned revision to the welfare system would not affect permanent residents, but those on mid- to long-term visas. The changes would likely materialize in the form of denied access to public aid for a certain period after one’s arrival in Japan, to prevent abuse by those coming here just to receive welfare, he said. He added that the team has yet to decide on the number of months or years before foreigners would be granted access.

According to Kono, the rationale for creating a probational period is a provision in the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law that states the government would deny entry to “a person who is likely to become a burden on the Japanese government or a local public entity because of an inability to make a living.”

“People who come to Japan on mid- to long-term visas would undergo a lot of events here, and some of them might lose their ability to make a living and apply for public assistance. That’s fine. But if they apply for assistance right after they arrive in Japan, that would mean they made a false claim (about their reason for coming),” Kono told The Japan Times earlier this month.

“Likewise when they renew their visas, they are supposed to have means to support themselves or otherwise their requests for visa renewals would be rejected. But if it turns out that they cannot sustain their living in, say, six months after their visas are renewed, that would mean they were not truthful about their means when they applied for a renewed visa, and (this would constitute) grounds for denial of public assistance.”

The LDP team also proposed that all welfare recipients be prescribed generic drugs unless otherwise specified by doctors. If they want to be prescribed patented drugs, they should pay for their share of the costs, according to the team’s report.

The team’s proposal for an eligibility requirement for foreigners based on their period of stay appears to be more or less in line with practices in other advanced countries.

Most European countries do not have a nationality clause for welfare benefits, but do list a residency period as a condition for eligibility, said Shinichi Oka, a professor of social security at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo.

At the same time, in Europe there is little distinction among different visa statuses, Oka said, noting that whether people have permanent resident status doesn’t affect their chances of qualifying for welfare.

“I’m not aware of any major European countries that (enforce) a nationality clause for public assistance eligibility,” Oka said. “The only requirement they have is that the applicants have lived in the country for a certain period of time.”

While the U.S. and Britain in principle deny welfare benefits to illegal aliens, in France, foreigners who have entered or are staying illegally in the country are also considered as “having the right to live” and are often deemed eligible for welfare benefits, Oka said.

In the U.S., the 1996 welfare reform law severely restricted eligibility for federal public assistance for noncitizens arriving after Aug. 22, 1996, the date the law was re-enacted, according to a Congressional Research Service report issued Sept. 24.

“Laws in place for the past 15 years restrict the eligibility of legal permanent residents (LPR), refugees, asylees and other noncitizens for most means-tested public aid,” the report said.

“The LPRs with a substantial work history or military connection are eligible for the full range of programs, as are asylees, refugees and other humanitarian cases (for at least five to seven years after entry). Other LRPs must meet additional eligibility requirements.”

For example, to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, applicants must have been legal residents for five years or be under age 18.

For the Supplemental Security Income program, which provides cash assistance for basic needs such as food and clothing, and for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which is cash aid for families with dependent children, noncitizens generally are ineligible for five years after entry and then eligible at the option of the state, the U.S. report says.

The 1996 reform had a significant effect on reducing welfare use by noncitizens, Michael Fix and Ron Haskins wrote in their 2002 report to the Brookings Institution.

Due in part to the 1996 welfare reform, the number of noncitizen families that became naturalized U.S. citizens rose rapidly, but that still does not fully explain why the use of welfare declined sharply among noncitizens, the researchers wrote, noting there is “strong evidence that the exclusion of immigrants from food stamps is leading to rising food insecurity among non-citizen households.”

In Japan, the moves to restrict foreign residents’ access to welfare are tinged with growing anti-foreigner and even racist sentiments. On Twitter, a keyword search for “seikatsu hogo” (welfare) and “gaikokujin” (foreign people) turns up a long list of sensationally worded tweets calling for an immediate ban on welfare payments to foreigners, especially Korean and Chinese residents.

The July court ruling also triggered a male resident of Narashino, Chiba Prefecture, to submit a petition to the Narashino Municipal Assembly last month to freeze welfare benefits to foreigners. The petition had a long and winded title laced with brackets that translates roughly as “A petition to immediately suspend (the inapproriate execution of) public assistance for foreigners, who fall outside the legal protection (ruled so by the Supreme Court) and yet who are given protection with no legal justification at the discretion of the city of Narashino (in the spirit of charity).”

This male citizen submitted a similar petition in the March and June sessions of the assembly, but in his latest bid, he specifically cited the Supreme Court ruling to back up his claim that foreigners should be denied welfare entirely.

The petition was voted down unanimously by the assembly on Sept. 30, with many members arguing the move is discriminatory. But for the same September session, the man submitted another petition that called for creation of a hotline to report suspected cases of welfare abuse, which he claims is particularly prevalent “among foreigners and the mentally disabled,” according to assembly member Hisako Ichikawa.

“While both petitions were voted down, nine of the 29 assembly members voted in favor of creating a hotline,” Ichikawa, a member of the Japanese Communist Party, said.

“It looks like the man will submit a similar petition again in the upcoming December session. We are watching closely what will happen next time — whether the number of members supporting the hotline might go up.”