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Despite Japan govt's promise, not 'all citizens' can receive coronavirus cash handout

A 52-year-old man who has been unable to receive the government's 100,000-yen coronavirus cash handout, for which the application deadline is approaching, is seen in this photo taken in an underground pedestrian walkway near JR Shinjuku Station in Tokyo on Aug. 7, 2020. The man said, "I feel like the central and local governments are waiting for the deadline to pass." (Mainichi/Shinji Kurokawa)

Although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced at an April press conference that "all citizens" would be eligible to receive the government's one-off 100,000-yen cash handout to soften the economic blow of the coronavirus pandemic, there is a portion of the population that has been unable to receive them: the homeless. This has those living on the streets asking whether they are "citizens," too.

    "If I'd had 100,000 yen (approx. $947), I could've lived much differently," said a 68-year-old man who sleeps in front of a commercial building near Shinjuku Station's west exit in Tokyo.

    Born in Akita Prefecture in northern Japan, the man arrived in Tokyo some 20 years ago looking for work. Unable to find stable employment, he began living on the streets about 10 years ago. As openings for day laborers decrease by the day, he visits soup kitchens run by support groups. He was unable to receive the government-issue "Abenomask" cloth face masks that all households were sent two of, and uses a mask that he bought himself. With libraries -- which are a comfortable place to pass the time -- limiting their accessibility to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, he escapes the summer heat by riding the loop JR Yamanote Line for hours a day. "Everyone's given up on getting the 100,000 yen," he said.

    Meanwhile, an 85-year-old man who sleeps on the street not far from the 68-year-old was able to receive the 100,000-yen handout under the exceptional circumstance that his residency registration in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward remained on the books, and he had continuously paid his premiums for nursing-care insurance, among other factors. He does not have enough money to pay for a residence when he subtracts his medical fees from his pension, but after receiving the one-off handout, he has gone around sharing his cigarettes and food with other homeless people he knows. "It was an anomaly that I was able to receive the handout, and I feel sorry for the others. Are we not citizens if we do not have homes?" he said angrily.

    A Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications outline stipulates that the application deadline for the handout is three months from the date when municipal governments started accepting applications. Because there were differences in how soon municipalities started the process, the application deadline differs from municipality to municipality; some have already stopped accepting applications. As for cities and wards in Tokyo and Osaka where there are relatively large numbers of homeless people, most have deadlines in late August.

    To be eligible for the handout, one must have a resident registry, but even if people's registries lapse because they do not live at their addresses anymore, temporary housing facilities, including internet cafes, are said to be usable as registration addresses.

    But according to the Japan Complex Cafe Association (JCCA), of its 979 member cafes, none has been confirmed to have allowed themselves to be used for resident registries. The internal affairs ministry has said that it is also possible to establish a resident registry with a local government's self-support center, but there is no guarantee, since there is a limit to how many people can do so. For homeless people who want to receive the cash handout, resident registries are proving to be a major obstacle.

    In response, homeless support groups have repeatedly demanded that the internal affairs ministry arrange to deliver the handouts to homeless people. By Aug. 4, some 100 organizations had worked together to gather over 5,000 signatures for a petition demanding that the government use the Basic Resident Register network system that is shared among local governments to identify people from their past resident registries or registered domiciles. Even some local governments have raised questions about the ministry's manner of going about distributing the handouts. In June, Tokyo's Shibuya Ward suggested to the ministry that it was "possible to confirm the identities of people without a resident registry, by using their registered domiciles and tracing back their past addresses."

    And still, the ministry continues to require a resident registry as a form of identification. A ministry official said, "If we do not base (the provision of handouts) on current addresses, there is a risk of giving the handout twice to the same person in different municipalities. Sharing information between municipalities with the Basic Resident Register network system is not simple, either, for it requires the handling of highly private information." The official said that the ministry had no plans to extend the application period, either.

    "The coronavirus pandemic has made the economic gap that had been growing in recent years very clear. That the cash handouts do not reach the people who need it most is in one sense an abandonment of those people," Masatsugu Shimokawa, an economics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo who takes part in support activities for homeless people, said. "For people who live on the streets, 100,000 yen amounts to the living costs of about three to four months. I want the government to extend the deadline for applications or establish a special measure (for such people)."

    (Japanese original by Shinji Kurokawa, City News Department)

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