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Overdue bills, no job: People in need of welfare get help from assembly members in Japan

Shuhei Ogura, left, a member of the Adachi Ward Assembly, discusses livelihood reconstruction with a woman in Nakano Ward, Tokyo, on April 19, 2021. (Mainichi/Satoshi Tokairin)

TOKYO -- Facing calls for the government to expand its economic support measures in the wake of the spread of the coronavirus, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga stated in the Diet, "Ultimately, we have welfare." However, the truth of the matter is that people can't always immediately receive public assistance at their local government office.

    Aware of the difficulties some people face, Shuhei Ogura, 47, an assemblyman of Tokyo's Adachi Ward, has been helping those in need apply for welfare and rebuild their lives for more than a decade. His view is that "poverty is never your own fault."

    Since last spring, the number of times he accompanied people to the ward office to apply for public assistance has increased. Ogura has formed a group of like-minded local assembly members and is expanding his circle of support.

    One of the people Ogura accompanied to the Adachi Ward Office who was able to receive public assistance was a woman in her early 30s. The woman is from the Shinetsu region and was living in a rented apartment in Chiba Prefecture, but lost her home when she became absorbed in her hobby and failed to pay her rent.

    She was also unable to make calls on her smartphone due to overdue bills, but she didn't give up her phone because she could use the free communication application LINE to contact her acquaintances in places where free Wi-Fi was available, such as around convenience stores.

    For more than three years, she had worked at a "girls' bar," where staff are mainly women, in Tokyo, while sleeping at an internet cafe. However, due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the bar's business hours were shortened and her income was reduced to less than half. In August 2020, she "voluntarily resigned" because it became difficult for her to work there since the bar had to thoroughly check not only her age but her residence in case of infection.

    Her savings quickly ran out, and she had to repeatedly borrow from moneylending firms and others. At the end of March this year, when she had only 1,000 yen (about $9) in her pocket and could no longer stay at an internet cafe, she sent an email to an organization that supports the needy, asking for help. She recalls, "I contacted them thinking, 'If this doesn't work, I might as well die." It was Ogura who came to her rescue.

    This screenshot shows an online study session held on April 5, 2021, with lecturers who support people in need. The second person from the left in the top row is Shuhei Ogura, a member of the Adachi Ward Assembly in Tokyo. (Photo courtesy of Shuhei Ogura)

    Ogura gave her the necessary cash that the support group had prepared as an emergency loan, and secured a place for her to stay. Later, she successfully received public assistance in Adachi Ward, obtained a new residence certificate, and found an apartment to live in.

    The Mainichi Shimbun asked the woman what she would like to do when she is able to live in the apartment. The answer was, "I would like to cook, because internet cafes don't have kitchens. I've been eating nothing but cup noodles and rice balls." She had never been able to cook due to her circumstances, though she was good at it.

    The woman, who can now stand in a kitchen again, expressed her gratitude to Ogura. "I couldn't understand half of the explanations given at the ward office, and I think I would have given up on applying for public assistance on my own," she said. "I want to rebuild my life from now on."

    When people apply for public assistance, the response of the welfare office, which is the contact point for the local government, is often a problem. In some cases, the welfare offices do not respond to the applications of the needy, forcing them to go to the local government office where their residence is registered or to look for a job. Among those working to support the needy, this tactic of welfare offices of turning applicants away at the door is known as a "shoreline operation."

    Accompanying people when they apply for public assistance is not only a way to prevent such "shoreline operations," but can help them receive additional support to rebuild their lives afterwards, such as preparing a certificate of residence, finding an apartment, and receiving necessary public support.

    The assemblyman pointed out that "essentially, anyone should be able to apply for public assistance smoothly on their own, without the need for someone to accompany them." He added, "There are some cases where it is difficult to go through the procedures, which include reacquiring a certificate of residence. There is a need for someone to work with them and advise them on the procedures."

    Ogura began providing full-fledged support for people applying for public assistance around 2007, when he was in his first term as a member of the Adachi Ward Assembly. He says that he started this activity as a result of his night patrol activities to support people who were living in the streets when he was a student.

    Ogura graduated from university in the 1990s, during Japan's "employment ice age," when young people had a hard time finding jobs due to the collapse of the "bubble" economy. Unable to find a full-time job, one time, Ogura became a temp worker, and another time, took a day job in Kamagasaki, Osaka, an area known for its day laborers. Seeing "old men," who had no choice but to sleep in the open, working hard to make a living, he began to aspire to start a career in politics.

    "I think the role of politics is to look at the reality of those who cannot speak up and act accordingly. We have to change the social system while solving the real problems," Ogura said.

    Local assembly members are the politicians with whom citizens are most familiar. However, there are various ways of thinking among them. Some go as far as considering welfare "a disgrace," while others focus on supporting the needy. Ogura called on Kaoru Katayama, 54, a city assembly member of Koganei, Tokyo, and others to form the "association of local assembly members for coronavirus disaster countermeasures" in April last year.

    Currently, the association has about 200 members, mainly in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Ogura said, "I think that assembly members who thought that their supporters had no connection with public assistance could no longer remain unconcerned as the coronavirus spread."

    Some members of the association apparently have little or no experience in accompanying people applying for public assistance. Ogura explained, "Applying for public assistance is a life-and-death issue for people in need," and he has held two online study sessions for members to learn about the practical work and putting it in practice from local government caseworkers. He says he plans to continue learning about court cases and social conditions related to public assistance.

    Sachiyo Ikeda, a city assembly member of Komagane, Nagano Prefecture, is seen this photo taken by Chieko Yusa. (Photo courtesy of Sachiyo Ikeda)

    The Tokyo metropolitan area is not the only area with such a network of local assembly members. In April last year, Sachiyo Ikeda, 49, a member of the city assembly of Komagane, Nagano Prefecture, established a network of local government assembly members to help people in regional areas receive public assistance, naming the group "Local Safety Network."

    "In rural areas, people in need are isolated and neglected, and there are far fewer places where women, in particular, can go for advice or ask for support if they are in need of help with their livelihood or because of work problems," Ikeda said.

    The network currently has about 60 members, and its Facebook page plays a role in their activities. On the page Ikeda created under the name of the network, she posts the names and contact information of assembly members who have offered to lend a hand, so that those in need can consult them.

    When one welfare recipient consulted with Ikeda about being forced to move out of her apartment and having no money, the lawyer and caseworker, who were old acquaintances of hers, researched past precedents and notices in detail, and eventually the recipient was able to move out safely after obtaining relocation expenses.

    Ikeda also formed the "Nagano general labor union Kamiina branch," a labor union that individuals can join, together with local assembly members who are active in the same area. The reason for this was that she learned that quite a few workers were left with no way to resolve problems such as non-payment of wages, layoffs, and not being allowed to claim worker's compensation insurance.

    Some people have questioned her activities, saying, "Is that the job of a municipal assembly member?" But Ikeda does not flinch, responding, "This is the job of a local assembly member. It is better for assembly members to get involved in local labor, daily life and legal consultations with the help of experts. From there, we can gain a real understanding of how local people live and work, and what issues need to be addressed."

    (Japanese original by Satoshi Tokairin, Tokyo City News Department)

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