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Japan city to require My Number card acquisition to receive free day care, school lunch

A notice issued by the Bizen Municipal Government in Okayama Prefecture, about making day care fees free on condition that children and their family members have all acquired My Number cards, is seen. (Mainichi/Takehiko Onishi)

BIZEN, Okayama -- The government of this west Japan city is set to require families to obtain "My Number" individual identification cards for all household members as a precondition for benefiting from fee exemption programs for child care facilities and free lunches at elementary and junior high schools in the city.

    The move, to be effective from fiscal 2023, or this coming April, is aimed at promoting the widespread use of My Number ID cards issued to residents in Japan. While there are cases where local bodies give incentives such as gift coupons to residents obtaining My Number cards, it is quite unusual for administrative services to be provided on condition that beneficiaries acquire the controversial ID cards.

    The Bizen government's move has triggered a backlash from parents and guardians, who complain that it is discriminatory and runs counter to equal opportunity in education, when the acquisition of My Number cards is supposed to be on a voluntary basis. One expert has also raised issues with the city's plan, saying, "The city has been overeager" about promoting My Number cards.

    The city made day care fees for 1- and 2-year-olds free in fiscal 2016, and extended the initiative to those under 1 in fiscal 2017. In FY 2022, the city further expanded the free program to cover lunch fees at elementary and junior high schools, as well as part of school supplies to be used in science and craft making classes. The initiative was a signature policy in the city's attempt to attract new residents amid the declining birth rate.

    The Bizen Municipal Board of Education, however, issued a notice dated Dec. 16, 2022, through day care centers and elementary and junior high schools, that from fiscal 2023 on, the free fee programs at day cares and elementary and junior high schools will be applied on condition that all members of households benefitting from the programs have acquired their My Number cards, arguing that "My Number cards are tools necessary for creating a digital society" and that the city "seeks to have all residents acquire the cards." Households defying the directive would have to pay fees for day care and school meal services.

    -- Signature drive opposing the city's move

    The Bizen Municipal Government building is seen in the city of Bizen, Okayama Prefecture, on Jan. 10, 2023. (Mainichi/Koichiro Tsutsumi)

    When the city reported the plan to the Bizen Municipal Assembly's welfare and education panel on Dec. 16 last year, several members of the panel raised objections to the policy, with one saying that promoting My Number cards and the free fee programs for children "are different in their objectives," and another stating, "The move ruins the excellent system of making those fees free," according to a panel member present at the meeting.

    In response, a local citizens group, "Bizen Kosodate Hotto Space," sent a petition to Mayor Takeshi Yoshimura and Superintendent of Education Kiichi Matsuhata on Dec. 22, demanding that the controversial policy be retracted.

    Kaori Matsushita, 69, a former elementary school teacher and co-head of the group, said, "The principals of elementary and junior high schools have also raised their voices, claiming that it is strange to make acquisition of My Number cards the objective (of the free fee programs)." Matsushita and others have been staging a signature-collecting campaign to oppose the city's policy.

    While day care fees in the city vary depending on the income of guardians and the service time they use, they are capped at 40,000 yen (approx. $310) a month per child. As of January this year, the school lunch fees are set at 295 yen ($2.30) per meal at elementary schools and 335 yen ($2.60) per meal at junior highs.

    Yoko Yoshimoto, 46, whose son and daughter attend a municipal elementary school and child care center, fumed about the city's plan, saying, "It's like a threatening letter. Some people may have no choice but to opt to obtain My Number cards considering their household budget."

    She and her family left Tokyo in 2013, two years after the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. They relocated to Bizen, which they thought was "not too urban, but not too rustic."

    -- Expert raps the city for its overeager stance

    Naoki Ogi, a critic on education issues, slammed the city's move, saying, "It is obviously going too far to make residents unable to receive administrative services unless they have acquired My Number cards." He added, "The city should acknowledge its overeager stance and withdraw the policy."

    Meanwhile, an official of the Bizen education board's education promotion department explained, "It is part of the city's measures to seek a 100% acquisition rate (for My Number cards among citizens). It is necessary to build a digital society." The city's public relations official said, "It's not that the policy is specifically applied to day care fees, but it will be extended to other administrative services as well."

    (Japanese original by Koichiro Tsutsumi and Yasuaki Hiramoto, Okayama Bureau)

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