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Editorial: 'Hometown tax' donation program helping out after rain disaster

The day-to-day operation of Japan's "furusato nozei," or hometown tax donation program, has seen a dramatic change in response to torrential rains that left extensive damage in western Japan.

The program was set up by the government to assist municipalities that could use financial support. Now, in the wake of the disaster, the burden of processing hometown tax donations to municipalities that have been heavily affected is being shouldered by other municipal governments. The Ibaraki prefectural city of Chikusei, for example, has assumed the task of processing hometown tax donations to the Okayama Prefecture city of Takahashi, a city with which Chikusei has maintained a friendly relationship, and where large areas were submerged underwater in the recent downpours.

Various websites that deal with the hometown tax program have set up specialized pages to accept donations for municipalities that suffered the greatest damage from the disaster. By the evening of July 11, major hometown tax website "Furusato Choice" had amassed some 15,000 offers to donate approximately 240 million yen to municipalities affected by the heavy rains.

Most of the municipalities that suffered damage are facing serious staff shortages. Offers from other municipal governments to take on donation processing at such trying times alleviate the burdens of already overloaded municipalities. It's a new form of inter-municipal assistance.

Hometown tax donation amounts, from which 2,000 yen is subtracted, are exempt from resident and income tax, but the program has received mixed reactions from the public because it effectively forces municipalities to vie for tax revenue by competing to offer the most expensive local specialties to donors. The system has also been used by the wealthy as a tax-saving technique, which deviates from the original purpose of offering support to municipal governments, thus potentially distorting the tax system.

However, hometown tax donations to disaster-stricken municipalities do not come with local specialty gifts in return. The fact that the donations are strictly being made to assist municipalities in need means the program, in this case, is being used in the way it was meant to be used. Following the 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes, over 3 billion yen in hometown tax donations were collected.

When trying to provide assistance to people and communities that have been struck by a disaster, making monetary donations is a realistic and practical way of helping out, as it is usually difficult for individuals to offer support in the form of supplies and other goods. Even sending clothes could turn out to be more of a burden than a relief for those on the receiving end.

In times of disaster, "gienkin," or relief money gathered by the Red Cross and newspaper companies are distributed directly to disaster survivors. Meanwhile, "shienkin," or donations such as those made via the hometown tax program, are used by the governments of municipalities that have been affected by disasters for recovery efforts and to assist in the day-to-day lives of residents. Both types of donations are important.

It is said that the practice of donating money to those in need has not taken root in Japan. Let's hope that as a method through which many people can take part in disaster relief, the hometown tax program becomes more widely accepted.

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