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Goverment’s pension manga displays some pretty old values


Special To The Japan Times

On Jan. 12, people who will turn 20 this year attended ceremonies marking Coming-of-Age Day at auditoriums run by local governments. Some wore outrageous getups as final statements of youthful folly before “entering society” and some exercised their entitlement by getting drunk and acting out, but most bore their new status somberly and sat quietly through the boring, edifying speeches. Apparently, many even paid attention to the bureaucrats on hand whose purpose was to explain their coming responsibilities.

When you turn 20 in Japan you must start making monthly payments to the kokumin nenkin kikin seido, regardless of whether you are in school or working. In the unlikely event that you are already a full-time regular employee, you may be enrolled in the kōsei nenkin system, which means your contributions are pegged to your salary. Otherwise, you pay the set amount for a basic pension.

Many young people don’t get with the program right away, so officials of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare have their work cut out for them. Last spring, they set aside ¥16 million for a promotional campaign that explains to new adults their mandatory participation in the pension system. After taking bids, the ministry selected an advertising company that proposed a series of comic strips explicating the system in a way younger citizens would appreciate. The series went online last May, and until the beginning of January registered about 1,000 hits a day. But according to the Asahi Shimbun, on Jan. 14 some 89,000 people accessed the site, probably after having learned about pensions at Coming-of-Age ceremonies. Many reacted negatively.

In the cartoon, a female civil servant named Kaneko Toshi (a different reading of the kanji characters used for “nenkin“) visits a three-generation household and explains how the pension system works — not just the mechanics, but the economic philosophy behind fuka hōshiki, wherein the present workforce contributes the money that will be received by present retired people. The pension system is a cycle: Those who presumably paid their fair share earlier are now “supported” by younger generations. In order for that to happen, there must be a steady supply of new adults to pay into the system.

In the last of the 11 episodes, Toshi tells the family’s older, unmarried daughter, who works for the local government, and the younger daughter, a university student, how the falling birthrate has undermined this system. The older sister says to her sibling that she should get married and have “lots of children.” In the end, Toshi, who is also unmarried, takes the older sister along with her to a matchmaking party, presumably to meet a potential husband.

Asahi combed through thousands of tweets complaining about the series. Many women were offended at the implication that they had to get married and have children in order to “bridge the generation gap,” which has weakened the pension system. One tweet, shared more than 2,000 times, stated that the cartoon clarified “the social role of women” demanded by the government, since the sisters’ older brother is engaged to be married and securely employed. He isn’t a problem.

The ministry said it will revise the cartoon by March, believing the problem to be one of presentation. In an article for the online magazine Zakzak, Kaetsu University professor Yoichi Takahashi analyzed the situation, explaining that the present pension system has remained unchanged since it started, in 1959, and that at the time people who received pensions had not previously contributed to it, since it didn’t exist when they were working. All adults from then on have paid for the pensions of retirees with the assurance that they will be supported by younger people when they themselves retire. This method may be considered “controversial” by some, he says, but it is the norm for social security systems worldwide. Changing to a different system, say a “savings plan,” is politically difficult and unrealistic.

Takahashi thinks that had the explanation been presented in a conventional “essay” form, it would not have caused a fuss, but it also wouldn’t have made an impression, and he believes that while the authors didn’t effectively explain the current “generation gap” between contributors and retirees, the point was made that a gap exists and the reason for it is the declining birthrate. It’s a “sensitive issue,” he says, but an unavoidable one.

He overlooks the fact that it’s already too late to close the gap — that the working population will continue to decline as the number of retirees increases. Even if young adults started having children in record numbers tomorrow, it won’t affect the pension fund for at least a generation. The system was designed for an economy that would always be growing at a certain rate, and that hasn’t been the case for more than 20 years.

Takahashi is a popular media pundit since he once worked for the Finance Ministry. He is part of the political establishment, which sees no alternative to the current pension system. The Democratic Party of Japan recognized its unsustainable nature and vowed to overhaul the system when it was the ruling party, and when the Liberal Democratic Party regained power in 2012 it promised the DPJ it would work together to revise it, but it hasn’t and doesn’t seem to have any intention of doing so.

This mind-set was exemplified by Finance Minister Taro Aso when he told a crowd in December that social security is in trouble because women “are not giving birth.” Roundly criticized for the remark, he made it not to disparage women but rather to defend retirees, who he said were “taking the blame” for overburdening the pension system. The comment may have been taken out of context, but it nevertheless reveals how the only idea the administration has for fixing the system is to boost the birth rate, and every time it says that it just makes women angry. By now you’d think they would have gotten the message.

  • GBR48

    So the official line is that if you aren’t having kids then you are committing treason against the pension system and are the living personification of shameful failure, undermining the nation and beggaring your elders and betters.

    The reality is that the guys in suits devised an inherently faulty pension system, didn’t fix it for 20 years because it was too much hassle, and now, as the wheels come off, can do little more than apportion blame upon anyone but themselves.

    I’m amazed that the birthrate is declining in Japan. At home it’s common to see bad-tempered parents stuffing fast food in the faces of their badly behaved broods of children to keep them occupied and quiet whilst they drag them around the shops, chattering into their cellphones.

    In Japan the kids are polite and behave themselves whilst the parents carrying tiny ones round in little hammock things, slung round their necks, dote on them.

    Back home, a trip in a bus on a weekend or during a school holiday is enough to put a person off parenthood. Being in Japan makes me wish I had kids.

  • How about fixing the men in the country? Chivalry is out the window here. Most Japanese women do not want to marry the average Japanese man – that doesn’t clean, doesn’t cook, and generally has a mother complex. Of course, there are exceptions to all this.

  • J.P. Bunny

    Hey gals! Get out there and have a whole passel of kids! Just don’t expect to be able to take any real maternity leave. Paternity leave? Not a chance. Maybe you can leave them kiddies at one of the fine children’s centers, such as the Children’s Castle. Oops. Seems the government can’t be bothered to keep places like that open. Maybe you will get lucky and work for a company will all kinds of benefits to help you raise them kiddies while working. Or, maybe the government will allow companies to keep you on as a “contract” employee for eternity, thus excluding you from any benefits. Forget the kids, have a good time and let the future sort itself out.

  • HiroP

    The problem is not with Japanese Women and yes with Japanese Men, many Japanese men looks like they are forgeting that their country have Women and are getting unattracted to the opposite sex, the number of ”Herbivore Men” is growing many men are turning assexual also Japanese Women tends to have a very bad life due to bad Women Rights, many Japanese Women would rather live alone or marry a ”Gaijin” man than Marry a Japanese Man.

  • Perogyo

    Although I do not disagree with you about hoping for a husband with a high salary, I think that a nod has to be given to the systemic issues that keep women from working fulltime.

    Let’s take your example: husband and wife work fulltime, husband makes 4 million a year, wife makes 2 million a year, they have 2 kids under school age. They now need to pay approximately 9man a month for daycare. Plus they need to both pay pension and health care and income tax.
    Now, their next door neighbours have the same income and same family setup, except the husband makes 6million a year and the wife stays home. Or he makes 5million and she works part-time while the kids are at kindergarten. They pay approximately 4.5man per month for two kids at kindy. She pays no income tax, and he can write her off as a dependent. She also pays no pension premiums despite being eligible at 65 for a pension. They also receive a sizable amount of money from the municipality every year for sending their kids to kindy, calculated on their reduced tax burden.

    There are PTA duties and someone has to take time off when the kids get sick and who is going to stay with grandma in Sendai when she is hospitalized and needs someone to wash her gowns? Employers in Japan are never happy about people taking time off, female or male, and as long as that full-time employee is causing trouble for her co-workers why not get her to reduce her hours to part-time because then the company doesn’t have to pay their half of her pension and health?!?

    Before we ask mothers why they don’t work in Japan, we have to ensure that they aren’t penalized for working.

    • Charles

      Well said. You make some very valid points. Most of the points you bring up are about a dysfunctional tax/pension system that punishes hard work. And I definitely agree with you on those things.

      I just get annoyed (not at you, but other posters) when people constantly blame Japanese men and make generalizations about their “mother complexes” and how they never cook or clean. Japanese men are already working extremely hard (too hard, some would say) and it is unrealistic to expect them to do anything more. Of course, there are situations where the woman works longer hours or in which both spouses work equal hours, and in those cases, he should pitch in too, but this is a small minority of marriages here.

      The system needs to be changed. As you pointed out, the tax system punishes working moms by levying a bunch of regressive taxes on them as soon as they start working more than a certain number of hours, and the state bends over backwards for housewives (no matter how few children they had, even zero children), paying them generous pension benefits that their husbands earned while shafting working housewives with the piss poor payouts of Kokumin Nenkin. Really insulting to hard-working mothers, or actually, all workers, if you ask me.

      So…I basically agree with everything you wrote. I wish that other posters would stop making young, 20s or 30s Japanese salarymen, who are already burdened with extremely unforgiving gender roles of loyalty to the company at almost all costs, the bogeyman. They are victims of this system, too.

  • Yakimi

    >Goverment’s pension manga displays some pretty old values

    Clearly, this can not stand. Destroy the Four Olds! Long live the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution!

    Among the questions we should actually be asking are—what is wrong with speaking to “pretty old values”? Why shouldn’t we believe that men and women ought to assume separate responsibilities tailored to their biological constitutions? Why must we repudiate the values found in every great civilization for an egalitarianism that is utopian in inspiration, if not ambition?

    I see nothing dangerous nor offensive in the idea that women ought to bear children. I can not say the same for the idea that individuals ought to indulge their every desire untempered by long-standing cultural expectations or societal demands.

    A healthy society needs children. Only women can bear children. Therefore, women ought to bear children to to ensure a healthy society. Men, in turn, have the responsibility of providing for that family.

    Instead, we have abandoned this ancient and universal wisdom for an aggressive concoction of egalitarianism and egotism. We demand that women do all that they want to do and we demand that the sum of their endeavors be exactly equal to that of men. Since this formulation is impossible to satisfy, the ideology that attempts to meliorate it can have its permanent revolution.

    Our ancestors were not ignorant. They knew how to run a civilization, after all. Perhaps the solutions they devised are worth pursuing. They would think us insane for reacting with skepticism, let alone outrage, to the idea that women ought to bear children.