The government’s campaign to get more people to apply for My Number identification cards, which streamline the use of the My Number system in social security and taxation matters, hasn’t been entirely successful, mainly owing to the public’s concern over privacy issues. Every resident of Japan has been issued a 12-digit My Number, so the trick is to persuade people to apply for the card, which contains a chip that will someday connect to individual information in the government’s database. Some people who applied for the card in order to receive their pandemic-related government payout earlier this year found that it was not necessarily an easy process.

One person who is eager to get more cards in the hands of the public is Heizo Takenaka, minister of internal affairs and communications during the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and currently an adviser to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who used to be his vice minister. Takenaka is currently promoting universal basic income, an idea that has been discussed in other countries as an alternative to conventional social welfare, and feels that adoption of the card is essential to its implementation. Universal basic income is simple: The government provides every person, regardless of age, economic status or employment situation, a fixed monthly payment. In principle, it obviates the need for unemployment benefits and public assistance.

Takenaka outlined his plan during a recent appearance on the BS-TBS news show, “Hodo 1930,” saying that universal basic income would replace most public welfare programs. His plan would provide ¥70,000 a month to everyone whose income is already below a certain threshold. If a recipient’s income rises above that line, then they would return the stipend. The My Number card would link individual bank accounts to the plan.

Heizo Takenaka is currently promoting universal basic income, an idea that has been discussed in other countries as an alternative to conventional social welfare. | KYODO
Heizo Takenaka is currently promoting universal basic income, an idea that has been discussed in other countries as an alternative to conventional social welfare. | KYODO

In a Sept. 24 report on the BS-TBS appearance, news service J-Cast pointed out that Takenaka is credited with helping Koizumi realize his privatization dreams, chiefly through Takenaka’s plan to liberalize the job market, an achievement he has since taken to the bank as chairman of Pasona Group Inc., one of Japan’s biggest temporary staffing agencies. In a word, Takenaka was one of the most vocal proponents of neoliberalism at a time when neoliberalism was conspicuously ascendant in the government. Consequently, many people may be puzzled by his embrace of universal basic income.

In a piece for Yahoo News, labor policy expert Haruki Konno contends that universal basic income is misunderstood. On the surface, it sounds like an all-purpose safety net that separates income from labor. As it stands in Japan, when a person loses their job they are entitled to unemployment benefits that are dependent on the individual looking for a job. Universal basic income removes the pressure on a person to take a job they may not want, whether due to low pay or poor conditions. Furthermore, people who receive public assistance tend to live with a social stigma that would also be eliminated with universal basic income.

But these merits, according to Konno, are offset by compromised basic services for things such as health care, education, old age security, child care and housing. If universal basic income is implemented as a replacement for any or all of these services, life becomes more difficult for those of limited means. And while Takenaka hasn’t talked much about basic services in his outline for universal basic income, they seem to be targeted in his plan.

Weekly magazine Shukan Post ran a feature warning of the suffering that would result if Takenaka’s proposal became law, with a cover headline in white characters against a bright red banner stating that such a proposal would mean the end of national health insurance and pensions. Konno says the loss of these programs will again force people to take jobs they may not want, and he thinks that is Takenaka’s purpose — to expand the labor pool at the lower end of the economy. In the process, the government saves money on welfare and social security.

As far as the belief that universal basic income leads to laziness, it’s difficult to imagine anyone in Japan surviving, much less thriving, on ¥70,000 a month. In isolated experiments overseas, universal basic income was implemented to help narrow the gap between rich and poor created by the free market system, but Takenaka’s plan would bolster job competition, thus potentially increasing economic inequality.

One of the people who reject this model is economist and Keio University professor Eisaku Ide, who thinks public policy should focus on basic services, and not just because they provide a safety net. During a recent discussion on the web program Democracy Times, Ide advocated for an increase in the consumption tax as well as higher corporate taxes and upper level income taxes, but rather than spend the resulting revenue on the national debt or measures to stimulate consumption, it should be used for basic services, which would alleviate the economic anxiety of the financially disadvantaged. Free basic services automatically reduce the number of people on public assistance, and Ide says they can be implemented by increasing the consumption tax to, say, 16%, depending on increases in other taxes. As a result, welfare budgets could be halved, welfare fraud eliminated and administrative costs reduced. Although Ide didn’t mention universal basic income, he did say he thought that the pandemic payout was a waste of money because it went to everyone. It should have targeted at-risk households.

Basic services implies bigger government, which is counter to neoliberal tenets and the current administration’s promotion of greater self-reliance. As far as what the public thinks, it’s difficult to tell. Shukan Post makes universal basic income sound scary because the magazine peddles sensationalism. Many may appreciate the English term “basic services,” since in Japanese usage the word “sābisu” (“service”) means free-of-charge (as in “sābisu zangyō” or “unpaid overtime”), and in Ide’s conception, at least, basic services should be free.

Public opinion will probably depend on whose idea — Takenaka’s or Ide’s — gets better media exposure. Just don’t mention the My Number card.

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