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47,000 gas bill delay requests across Japan hint at widespread pandemic-related poverty

A gas meter is seen in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, in this May 2020 file photo. (Mainichi/Toru Morinaga)

TOKYO -- More than 47,000 households across Japan applied for gas bill payment deferments last year due to income drops, being furloughed or laid off because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned from Japan's four largest gas companies.

    The ability to pay utility bills is considered one indicator of household poverty. The four firms have been accepting pandemic-related payment deferment applications since last March, when the Japanese government asked utilities to accept the requests from households and businesses having trouble covering their bills because of the coronavirus crisis.

    About 70% of gas supply contracts are held by the foursome of Tokyo Gas Co., Osaka Gas Co., Toho Gas Co., and Saibugas Co. The Mainichi asked each firm how many payment deferment applications -- including for fees they collected for other utility services -- they had received between March and December 2020. Tokyo Gas stated it had received requests from about 30,000 households, followed by Osaka Gas at some 14,000 households, and Saibugas at around 3,200 households. Toho Gas did not provide a concrete figure, but said that the applications numbered in the thousands.

    The companies have implemented deferment plans in the past, after disasters. And while it is difficult to compare the impact of disasters versus the pandemic on applications, Tokyo Gas -- which supplies eastern Japan's Kanto region -- stated that it had received deferment requests from around 1,500 households following the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake -- one-twentieth the count from last year. Osaka Gas, meanwhile, received applications from just 30 or so households following a June 2018 quake in northern Osaka Prefecture.

    In normal times, gas companies will have contracted households pay the bills within a month after a meter reading is taken. If payment is not made, the company will issue a demand, and then shut off the gas if the household still does not cover the bill. During the coronavirus crisis, the firms are granting payment deferments of one to five months.

    "In cases of seniors living alone, it's certainly possible that information (on the deferment system) isn't reaching them, and therefore there could be a lot more households having trouble paying the bills," commented Nihon Fukushi University's professor Takayuki Hirano, an expert in regional welfare.

    Hirano added, "Falling behind on utility payments is referred to as 'visible poverty' and is considered a poverty indicator, so local government administrations should move to find out which households have asked for payment deferments. The companies, too, should act, such as by sharing information on local welfare consultation desks with households that have applied to put off their bills."

    (Japanese original by Takuya Murata, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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