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“All people shall have the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living.”

That is what Article 25 of Japan’s Constitution says.

But as the coronavirus scourge continues to wreak havoc on the economy, the burden is unduly falling on so-called nonregular workers whose employment is unstable. The government has emphasized the role of “self-reliance,” but voices are rising that those who can barely make ends meet are being left behind.

As more and more people lose their jobs and fall into poverty, how should we deal with the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution?

At noon on April 27, 106 people came to a soup kitchen run by the nonprofit organization Minoshima Megumi no Ie at a church in the city of Fukuoka. Among them, 57 were homeless, mostly older people, but there was a young man as well.

The 30-year-old man became homeless in late March after being cut off from his temporary job. He had only ¥42 in his pocket that day. He smiled as he ate another bowl of curry and rice.

“I’m really grateful,” he said. “I feel that it is not the country but the warmth of people that supports me.”

For two and a half years, he had worked as a temporary worker sorting foodstuffs at a warehouse in Fukuoka Prefecture. The job was busy, helped by demand from people who were holed up in their homes amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I didn’t think the coronavirus would affect me,” he said.

However, at the beginning of March, he was forced to take leave, as one of the workers at the warehouse got infected with the coronavirus. He was subsequently laid off, without ever having returned to work. Unable to pay his rent for April, he had to leave his home.

After falling behind on the payment of bills, he could not use his smartphone to make calls, and he was unable to get a day job, as this required him to have a contact number. He slept in the park and bought discounted bread to keep his hunger at bay. Feeling desperate, he searched online using free Wi-Fi for a way to get by without money — public welfare.

At the ward office, he was told to look for a place to live, and a real estate agent told him about the soup kitchen. It took him about three weeks to rent a new house, and on April 30 he received his welfare payment. Excluding the rent, the amount was about ¥74,000. He was barely able to afford utilities and daily necessities, but he said he was relieved to “finally be able to rest comfortably on a futon.”

But he still can’t shake the nagging feeling he harbored over the ordeal.

“Although I was working so hard, because of the coronavirus I lost my job,” he said. “Unless I find a home, I can’t even get public assistance. I cannot imagine that we are guaranteed a minimum standard of living at all.”

Last October in his first policy speech since taking office, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga stressed the need for citizens to take care of themselves rather than relying on the government.

“Self-help, mutual help and public help, as well as kizuna (emotional bonds) are the vision of society I aspire to,” Suga said. “Things we can do for ourselves, we should first try to do ourselves. Then we should assist each other within our families and communities. Beyond that, the government will provide protection with a safety net. I aim to create such a government that the public can trust.”

But the speech was criticized by opposition parties and those who support the needy, who said Suga was asking for self-help first and foremost, rather than public help, and forcing people to take responsibility for themselves.

According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, there were 3,824 homeless people in Japan as of January, the lowest number since the survey began in 2003. In Fukuoka Prefecture, the number was 268, compared with 260 the same period a year earlier.

Meanwhile, the number of participants who show up at the soup kitchen events hosted by Minoshima Megumi no Ie has been on the rise, with more than 100 people attending on some days this year, including some in their 30s and 40s who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus.

“What is it exactly that the homeless who are already in trouble can do in terms of self-help?” asked Noriko Seto, 77, chairperson of the board of directors of Minoshima Megumi no Ie. “Emphasizing only self-help for people who are especially vulnerable to isolation amid the coronavirus pandemic sounded like a very condescending statement.”

The Constitution, meanwhile, requires the government to ensure the people’s right to life.

Nobuharu Obinata, a professor of constitutional law at Kumamoto University, said the government would need to intervene in times of emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic.

Asked in January in the Diet about measures for the needy, Suga replied, “Ultimately, there is a system of public assistance.”

According to the welfare ministry, however, it takes about two weeks to a month from the time of application to receiving public assistance. Professor Obinata says it is the “responsibility of the government” to simplify the process and create an environment in which it is easy to use the system.

With the arrival of the fourth wave of the virus, there is no end in sight to the pandemic, leaving many people to continue relying on themselves.

“As a homeless person, I was seen as ‘different and annoying’ by those around me, and it was difficult to get help,” said the 30-year-old man. “If the coronavirus pandemic drags on and the number of people who find themselves in the same situation as I did increases, will the government lend them a hand?”

This section features topics and issues from the Kyushu region covered by the Nishinippon Shimbun, the largest daily newspaper in Kyushu. The original article was published May 3.

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