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'Hellish pain': People on welfare in Japan barely get by amid rising food, energy prices

A 72-year-old woman who uses the public assistance system received peaches, bread, and other food from a support group in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on Aug. 6, 2022. (Mainichi/Shinji Kurokawa)

TOKYO -- Rising energy and food prices are jeopardizing the lives of welfare recipients in Japan, with many barely scraping by even as they keep air conditioning to a minimum despite this summer's sweltering heatwaves.

    Factors including the Russian invasion of Ukraine have sent utility bills and prices of daily necessities soaring, while welfare payments remain unchanged, squeezing low-income household budgets and endangering the "wholesome and cultured" lives guaranteed by Japan's Constitution. And desperate welfare recipients have been crying for help.

    On the evening of Aug. 6 in the capital's Shinjuku Ward, a line of over 500 people formed under an overpass in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building. Under clammy, cloudy skies, a support group was handing out bags filled with bread, rice, fruit, and other food -- a scene observed every week since the coronavirus pandemic came to Japan in 2020.

    One of the people in line was a 72-year-old ward resident originally from Fukuoka. About 10 years ago, she was laid off from a machinery plant in Shizuoka, and moved to Tokyo in search of a job. She gradually lost the physical strength to work due to a chronic illness, and now lives alone in an apartment on public assistance. After rent and the bill for her mobile phone, which she uses to contact the ward office and hospital, she's left with about 65,000 yen, or roughly $490, from her monthly welfare payment.

    With utility costs on the rise, she sometimes avoids the summer heat by riding on Tokyo government-run buses with the free tickets distributed through the welfare program. She wants to avoid being out for long because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but if she stays at home, she has to use the air conditioner.

    "I'm horrified to look at the bill and see how much electricity cost me this month," she said. At the time of her interview, her wallet contained four 1,000-yen bills and some coins. On the verge of tears, she said, "How am I supposed to live with just this? Every day I suffer hellish pain."

    Senior citizens are not the only people lining up for support by the metro government building. One 46-year-old man there who lives alone in Suginami Ward quit his job as a taxi driver after his physical and mental health deteriorated, and began to use the public assistance system. These days, he has been buying more half-price boxed meals right before the supermarket closes. He said, "It's tough enough to live only on welfare benefits, but I can't get by as prices rise." He apparently spends his time in cool convenience stores and libraries, and turns on the air conditioner at home only when he gets dizzy from the heat.

    A 60-year-old welfare recipient with a mental illness in Arakawa Ward said she has not been able to pay for electricity and gas. "I think that I need to somehow make do with the money given to me, but I also wish I could get a bit more care," she said, looking down.

    There were 229,878 welfare applications in Japan in fiscal 2021, according to preliminary figures -- the second year in a row the figure has gone up. Meanwhile, the general consumer price index for June, excluding perishable foods, rose 2.2% from the same month in 2021. Energy prices have soared, as electricity costs rose 18.0% from the same month the previous year, and city gas prices rose by 21.9%.

    Although the lives of welfare recipients have been hit hard by rising prices, central and local governments have been slow to respond. There were no support measures designated for welfare recipients, such as increasing payment amounts or one-time cash handouts, in the Japanese government's package of "comprehensive emergency measures" against rising prices, released in April. A welfare ministry official explained, "To calculate subsistence-level expenses, on which welfare payments are based, it is also necessary to analyze consumer activity. We cannot decide to raise public assistance payment levels based only on price rises."

    The central government's emergency measure guidelines also say that local governments can use COVID-19 subsidies to "implement necessary support for the poor," but there have been few moves among local governments to offer their own support.

    A Shinjuku Ward Office welfare section representative commented, "Public assistance is a national government's system and should put fairness first. It's difficult for local governments to add on their own payments."

    A representative of Suginami Ward's welfare office told the Mainichi Shimbun, "It's not like there were no forms of support," cited the national government's coronavirus relief handout of 100,000 yen per person, as well as another 100,000-yen handout for low-income households exempt from paying residential tax. The representative said the ward does not plan to take additional measures.

    Tokyo-based certified nonprofit Moyai Support Centre for Independent Living, which supports those in poverty, submitted a letter to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry on July 20, demanding increased standard welfare payments, additional forms of assistance, and other measures. The group insisted, "Welfare recipients' increased expenditures have become more serious, and we are concerned that there will be many people exposed to heatstroke risks because they cut back on electricity costs by avoiding using their air conditioners."

    (Japanese original by Shinji Kurokawa, Tokyo City News Department)

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