The Japanese Supreme Court’s July decision to uphold a 1950 ruling that the country’s long-term foreign population has no guaranteed access to the nation’s wide-ranging social safety net is beginning to have effect. While for now only one small party with a minimal national presence is attempting to make drastic use of the ruling, the ideology that it represents shows which direction this issue could potentially take.
The ruling LDP has taken a more moderate approach to welfare reform for foreign residents, which appears intended to reflect the reality of Japan’s growing fiscal constraints, while bringing its policy closer to what many European countries provide. A team of LDP lawmakers in August was tasked with this reform, and taskforce leader Taro Kono has proposed access reform for mid to long-term visa holders. The plan would restrict welfare access to these groups for a set amount of time after their arrival or visa renewal, in what the lawmaker says is an attempt to prevent abuse of the system by recent arrivals who may only intend to make use of the benefits without seeking employment, or who have not substantially contributed to the system.
The Jisedai no To Party (Party for Future Generations) led by the nationalist firebrand Shintaro Ishihara, who is probably most notable for restarting the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute with China by attempting to purchase them while governor of Tokyo, is also attempting to introduce legislation on the issue. However, the party’s interpretation of the Supreme Court’s ruling is much more drastic. Its policy chief Fumiki Sakurauchi told The Japan Times that “Now that the top court has confirmed that only Japanese citizens are eligible for welfare benefits I think it’s time to create a separate legal system that will work in lieu of the current public assistance law.”
That separate legal system would mean that permanent and long-term foreign residents would at most have access to a food stamp system similar to what is found in the U.S., with only partially subsidized health care and audited bank accounts to prevent a stockpiling of savings. This would be in lieu of the comprehensive health care, unemployment benefits, and housing allowances currently offered. These curtailed benefits would be offered for one year, after which time Sakurauchi says they “will have a choice — either they leave Japan or become naturalized citizens of Japan. If you want to continue to subsist on our money, I’d say be naturalized.”
A larger problem around this issue may stem from the fact that those like Jisedai no To, who claim the legislation is intended to cut “waste” and legitimize the current welfare system, are also some of Japan’s most nationalistic parties, which regularly stir up conflict with neighbors China and South Korea. The fact that neither their parties nor their policy on social welfare reform enjoy widespread popular support further underlines their isolation on this issue, at least for the present.
The targeting of permanent and long-term foreign residents with what amounts to an ultimatum is the key difference in approach, as opposed to what the LDP is currently considering. This group of foreigners has clearly paid into the system they seek access to, yet Jisedai no To would seek to provide them with only a very short and thin life-line in case of emergency, after which they would have to make another life-altering decision. A 2011 welfare ministry survey found that of those foreign households on welfare, over 85 percent were from either Korea, the Philippines or China. Targeting these groups will do little to improve Japan’s nationalistic image in the region.