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Japan PM's 'in the end, there's welfare' comment completely off the mark as politician

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is seen at the prime minister's office on Jan. 28, 2021. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

I was shocked by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's remark during the Jan. 27 House of Councillors' Budget Committee meeting. He had just been asked about the government's assistance for people who were facing poverty as a result of the spread of the coronavirus, to which he responded, "In the end, the government has the welfare system."

    I want to ask him, what do you mean by "in the end?" Article 1 of the Public Assistance Act states that one of its purposes is "to promote self-support." In other words, the law is the first step toward self-reliance. But that is not how the law is being applied. Only 20% of people who are eligible for welfare actually receive it. Efforts at the local government level to prevent people from receiving it are ongoing. Because of administrative offices making inquiries to see if people have family members who can support them, those who do not want their families to know about their straitened circumstances or do not want to burden them are unable to even apply for welfare.

    What is happening here is that the "first step toward self-support" has been turned into "the final safety net." It is the role of politics to improve this state of affairs. And yet the prime minister himself has told us that "in the end," we should turn to welfare.

    "There should not be hierarchy or order among self-support, mutual support, or public support," said Tomoshi Okuda, president of the nonprofit organization Hoboku, which supports people who live on the streets in the Fukuoka Prefecture city of Kitakyushu in southwestern Japan. "Public support should not come last."

    If people in dire straits are able to receive mutual support and public support first, then they are able to use that as a crutch as they shift to self-support. And people who have been helped by the government and others can then go onto support someone else through mutual support or by contributing to public support. Prime Minister Suga's remark lacks this perspective.

    Also, isn't the expression "in the end," which Suga used, just a bit too insensitive? Does he realize the existence of people who live life to their utmost on welfare?

    "The prime minister's words sounded to me more like 'Die if you don't have money,' passing over 'We won't help you until the very end.' And it made me tear up," a woman in her 30s in the western Japan city of Osaka said. Both she and her husband have disabilities, and live on welfare and disability pensions. What made the woman recall with anger when she heard the prime minister's remark were not the hardships she has faced in her own life, but those faced by a classmate of hers in high school.

    "I can't forget the eyes of my friend, filling up with tears as they looked through a job-listing magazine because their family was on welfare and they had given up on college," the woman said. "I don't want there to be any more young people who have to give up their dreams because of the coronavirus pandemic. Isn't it the role of politics to make sure that doesn't happen?"

    Precisely because things are hard under the coronavirus crisis, we want our politicians' words to be sincere. We want politics to come to the rescue before people reach the "end."

    (Japanese original by Ayako Oguni, Opinion Group)

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