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Proposal for 5,000-yen handout to seniors in Japan criticized as election ploy

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrives at a press conference at the prime minister's office on the evening of March 16, 2022. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- A proposal from Japan's ruling parties to hand out one-time 5,000-yen (approx. $40) payments to pensioners, whose pension benefits are decreasing due to the coronavirus crisis, has been met with strong criticism, even forcing the once enthusiastic prime minister to cool on the idea.

    The proposal, made by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner Komeito, has been slammed by criticism including that "it's so little money that it doesn't even count as a handout." The government is now considering adding an assistance scheme for the working population as well as pensioners into its economic measures to minimize the impression that it was favoring seniors. But as the summer House of Councillors election nears, the handout could still be seen as nothing but an election ploy.

    The LDP and Komeito had proposed to use money from coronavirus measure contingency funds to distribute the one-time handouts of about 5,000 yen to all pensioners as a special benefit. The aim was to offset the reduction in pension payments that will occur starting fiscal 2022, and is believed to have been the brainchild of the LDP. Komeito agreed, and the secretaries-general and policy chiefs of both parties visited Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at his office on March 15 to request the green light for the handouts. Kishida responded, "The government will provide a solid response."

    Pension payment amounts are linked to wage trends in the working population. In fiscal 2022, the amounts will be reduced by 0.4% starting in June, shortly before the upper house election. The ruling parties seemed to believe that setting up a handout system would soften discontent among older adults.

    It appears that the LDP and Komeito proposed the measure together to showcase their solidarity. At one point, there had been friction between the two parties over mutual endorsements of approved candidates in the upper house poll, but on March 10, the prime minister and Komeito chief Natsuo Yamaguchi met and confirmed they would strengthen their collaboration. The handout proposal made on March 15 seems staged to further impress upon the public that the two parties had mended their relationship.

    Once the contents of the proposal were reported by the media, however, criticism online and elsewhere blew up: some said that it was a blatant election ploy, while others criticized the ruling parties for giving special treatment to older adults. According to a government source, Kishida, who had been enthusiastic about the proposal, became wary after hearing about online reactions. In the early evening of March 16, the prime minister's office instructed a Cabinet Secretariat team that was preparing to build a handout system to stop work. That night, the prime minister held a press conference, where he announced measures against the coronavirus and price surges but did not mention the handout.

    Both the LDP and Komeito were perturbed by the intensity of criticisms toward the "5,000-yen proposal." One of the proponents, a senior LDP official, said, "It's no longer in my hands," and asked that the government deal with the issue. Meanwhile, a senior Komeito official said, "It was a proposal brought to us by the LDP. It's caused us trouble." A senior ruling party official explained, "It was a proposal that was decided upon by the prime minister's office and a portion of senior LDP officials." Some in the government went so far as to say that "it was a mistake for the prime minister to have such a tasteless policy debated."

    But if the prime minister's office were to reject a proposal that central officials from both the LDP and Komeito brought to it, it might cause loss of face. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno visited LDP headquarters on March 17 and 18 to meet with those in charge of the policy. The Kishida administration is scrambling to find a way to break the deadlock.

    Komeito Secretary-General Keiichi Ishii stressed at a March 18 press conference, "We are thinking of an additional economic measure that does not only deal with pensioners, but that reaches as many people as possible." Going forward, the government is planning to compile additional economic measures to tackle price surges and other issues, and to deliberate an assistance policy for pensioners within that framework. But opposition parties are grilling the government further over this issue, and a senior official at the prime minister's office lamented, "This topic garnered so much more attention than anything else."

    (Japanese original by Aoi Hanazawa and Shuhei Endo, Political News Department)

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