Monday 4 June 2012

Japan's ailing welfare model faces scrutiny

Critics say handouts are too generous, system is poorly managed and offices are understaffed
By Kwan Weng Kin, The Straits Times, 3 Jun 2012

For popular comedian Junichi Komoto, it was no laughing matter when he was accused of letting his mother remain on welfare while he is making 50 million yen (S$827,000) a year.

As it turned out, the 37-year-old was not trying to defraud the state, but was only slow to realise that his conduct was not socially acceptable.

The episode, however, did more than make him rectify the situation. It turned the spotlight on the flaws in Japan's welfare system, which appears to be poorly managed and a tad too generous in the size of its handouts.

Welfare payments to 2.1 million recipients are expected to top 3.7 trillion yen this fiscal year.

This is one million people more than the number in 2000, an increase brought about by the country's long recession and the mammoth quake and tsunami disaster in north-eastern Japan last year.

The source of Mr Komoto's woes was an article in a gossip weekly published over a month ago. Although the article did not finger him, his name popped up in Internet forums, drawing media attention to the case.

Said the Mainichi Shimbun daily in an editorial: 'Komoto has 10 regular shows a week. His book about his mother is a bestseller. He often makes her the butt of his jokes on TV. It's ridiculous that he cannot support her.'

The comedian's mother went on welfare about 15 years ago after she stopped working due to ill health. Mr Komoto, then a rookie comedian, was earning about 1 million yen a year, a sum barely enough to support even one person in Japan.

About six years ago, when he started to appear on television regularly and his income rose, he began sending cash to his mother every month with the consent of the local welfare office, which reduced welfare payments to her by the amount he provided.

After the magazine article appeared, his mother immediately asked her local welfare office to stop her payments.

Meanwhile, Mr Komoto apologised in public, bowing long and low before TV cameras, and promised to return the 6 million yen or so in benefits that his mother had received after his career took off.

'I didn't want anyone to know that my mother received welfare benefits. I was ashamed of that. All the while, I thought I had to help her get out of welfare as soon as possible,' he told reporters.

At the same time, it also raised questions about the welfare system itself.

Under Japanese civil law, close relatives such as parents, children and siblings have a duty to support each other. But welfare offices are not legally empowered to force family members to do so.

With welfare offices severely understaffed, there are also not enough case workers to check whether welfare applicants have truly exhausted all avenues of support from family members.

In 2010, the amount of welfare benefits known to have been fraudulently claimed rose to 12.9 billion yen, up four times compared to 10 years ago. There have also been cases of women deliberately getting a divorce, but continuing to live with their former husbands, just to claim welfare.

The government may also need to fine-tune the size of welfare payments, because the handouts could discourage people from working.

A person who is unable to work can collect as much as 137,400 yen a month. This sum is slightly more than what someone would earn from a part-time job. People on welfare also do not have to pay taxes, medical charges or television reception fees.

However, Professor Ryu Michinaka of Kansai University of International Studies said the government should not rush into revising the law but should boost the number of case workers on the ground.

'With more case workers, they will be able to visit welfare recipients regularly and advise them on ways to find a job to support themselves,' said the professor, a former case worker himself.

- 2.1 million Japanese are on welfare this fiscal year 
- 3.7 trillion yen (S$61.2 million) in welfare payouts this fiscal year; monthly payouts can be as much as 137,400 yen, more than what a part-time job pays 
12.9 billion yen in fraudulent claims in 2010

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