The Supreme Court ruled July 18 that foreigners living in Japan, even with permanent residency status, are not entitled to receive welfare benefits known as seikatsu hogo, literally livelihood protection. It is the first ruling that considers foreigners ineligible for such benefits. The ruling sends an unfortunate message to foreign workers that while their contributions to Japan’s economy might be welcome, the government, in turn, is not obliged to take care of them when they are in need.

The court case involved an 82-year-old Chinese woman with permanent residency status who had her application for welfare benefits rejected by the municipal government of the city of Oita.

Though the Fukuoka High Court had supported the woman’s claim, the Supreme Court overturned its judgment. The top court claimed that the livelihood protection law covers only Japanese, meaning foreigners are not eligible for benefits regardless of their visa status or other considerations.

Japan has long had an ambivalent attitude to non-Japanese workers, but this ruling gives the legal right to municipal authorities to withhold assistance to non-Japanese residents whenever they choose.

The ruling also means that even foreign nationals who have paid public health insurance premiums and met public pension requirements will not be guaranteed financial support should they need it. The increasing number of foreign nationals who are born in Japan, work and live their lives here have no guarantee, either.

Oddly, the ruling suggests that the government will give such benefits to anyone with Japanese nationality, even if they spent all of their life abroad, or have not contributed to taxes, public health insurance or the state pension program. Under this ruling, a Japanese national who has never worked in their life would receive benefits, while a foreign national who worked all their life in Japan but never took Japanese nationality can be denied.

The ruling will also have an impact on the large number of Koreans and Chinese whose families have lived in Japan for several generations but have not taken Japanese nationality. The non-Japanese spouses of Japanese and migrant workers from Brazil and other countries may also now be excluded.

The court’s ruling sends the message that Japanese benefits are for Japanese nationals. That codifies the outdated notion of who is supposed to benefit from Japan’s social benefits — not all those who work here, but only Japanese.

The Diet needs to act to establish a law guaranteeing benefits on a fair and equitable basis to foreigners who have contributed to public pension and health insurance plans, paid taxes and established a household or significant ties to Japan. The right to benefits that help keep people safe, healthy and out of poverty should be a guaranteed human right, not a decision made at the discretion of local officials.

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