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An increasing number of local governments and civil groups in Japan are lending smartphones to destitute people to help them rebuild their lives.

Many people have lost jobs or fallen into poverty amid the coronavirus crisis. Smartphones, which are seen as something of a lifeline, are indispensable to people looking for employment and places to live.

“(Impoverished people) can gain greater access to support and rebuild their lives better if they have smartphones,” said one person involved in lending the devices.

Restart, an incorporated organization based in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward, started lending smartphones in June 2019 to people in need, such as those who are unable to conclude usage contracts with telecommunications operators because of past delinquency in the payment of service fees. Smartphones are available to people who are introduced to Restart by local governments or support organizations and can receive mail at the addresses listed in their identification certificates.

For payments of ¥4,980 upfront and as much for monthly charges, a borrower can use high-speed data communication of up of 3 gigabytes and unlimited calls.

Lending began to increase around April 2020 amid the rise in coronavirus infections, according to Restart. The total number of borrowers came to around 3,000 in mid-October this year.

Noting that men in their 50s make up the largest group of borrowers, Tsubasa Takahashi, head of Restart, said: “People of that generation probably have nobody to seek help from. Smartphones are a tool needed to keep them connected to society.”

In November last year, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare compiled a list of telecom operators that offer smartphone and cellphone service contracts even to people with the experience of falling behind on fee payments and sent it to welfare offices and other bodies including Restart.

In the same month, the Setagaya Council of Social Welfare, which operates the livelihood support service of Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward office, launched a system of shouldering Restart’s service fees to allow people in need to borrow smartphones free of charge for three months.

By the middle of October this year, nine people in their 20s to 50s had become able to own their smartphones after using the council’s aid system.

As people face difficulty finding jobs or securing homes if they do not have contact phone numbers, the support system is aimed at helping such people complete job and home searches during the three-month period of free smartphone lending, according to the council.

“Smartphone lending provides strong support as it can help users gain social credibility,” an official from the council said.

Tsukuroi Tokyo Fund, a support group in the capital’s Nakano Ward, began in July 2020 to lend smartphones to impoverished people at no charge for two years, although the fund is not on the welfare ministry’s list. As of the end of September this year, there were some 200 borrowers with ages between 10 and 69. Applications for phones can be filed personally or through 27 support organizations across Japan for homeless people, single mothers and others in need.

Smartphones lent by the group are low-speed models but internet-capable. Borrowers are allowed to call a number of designated places including their employers or support organizations.

Many of the borrowers are job or home seekers in their 20s or 30s, youths with ages between 10 and 19 who have been rescued from parental abuse, and elderly former convicts, said Daishiro Sasaki, who is involved in the phone lending program at the group. “We started the program to address a long-standing problem that people in need are unable to have mobile phones.”

With smartphones now viewed as a form of ID, Sasaki stressed that telecommunication should be treated as part of human rights.

“We will work to get telecom fees to be covered by public assistance like home rent is,” he said.

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