Bread & Roses: Osaka Court Overturns Welfare Cut

SNA (Tokyo) — A Japanese court overturned a welfare reduction for the first time ever on February 22, 2021. The Osaka District Court ruled against the government’s 2013 public assistance reduction of ¥67 billion (US$632 million), marking the first court win for the Inochi no Toride litigation campaign, involving more than 1,000 plaintiffs in 29 prefectures around Japan.

Attorney Tetsuro Kokubo, deputy head of the defense team, said, “This is the first time in my long career as a lawyer that I cried when I heard the verdict.” The comment poignantly conveys the challenges of fighting state power.

I discussed in last month’s Bread & Roses installment the rapidly increasing number of impoverished foreigners wandering the streets during the corona pandemic. The pandemic has directly affected the lives of both local and foreign residents, putting into question their very right to life. Nine years ago, in 2012, the then-opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) pledged to cut welfare benefits by 10%. As soon as the LDP won the election and returned to power with Shinzo Abe’s second cabinet, the LDP decided to cut welfare benefits by ¥67 billion. The LDP had begun to chip away at the last bulwark of Japan’s safety net. About 2 million welfare recipients were barely scraping by, so the cuts forced them to eat, bathe and go out less.

The damage went beyond the mundane to include public humiliation. The LDP launched a media campaign to implement the cuts. The LDP said during a Diet session that it was shameful that a woman was receiving welfare while her famous comedian son earned a huge income and refused to support her. There is no absolute legal obligation to support family members. No issue arises when parents of a high-income celebrity receive welfare benefits. But the LDP launched a negative campaign portraying it as an injustice, appealing to the majority non-recipients who work hard every day and cannot afford a comfortable life, as if to say, ‘Hey, don’t you think it’s outrageous to receive benefits without even working?’ This negative campaigning had an impact, leading to a benefit reduction, with the support of the majority. The Blue Hearts band’s Train Train included the lyric: When the sun sets, the weak attack the weaker still.

In like fashion, the powerful Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) pits the meek citizenry against each other and avoids getting their own hands dirty. Welfare recipients suffer humiliation under society’s harsh gaze, even though they have done nothing wrong. They now had to hide their welfare status and live quasi-secret lives. It was nothing less than state-sponsored collective bullying.

As a welfare researcher, I felt anger and frustration towards the government at the time. I specialize in the right of foreigners to receive welfare. Article 25 of the Constitution states: All people shall have the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living. In all spheres of life, the State shall use its endeavors for the promotion and extension of social welfare and security, and of public health.

The courts have ruled that this guarantee covers only citizens, yet the state has been merciless and cruel in its efforts to pit segments of the public against each other. State power is perhaps an agent of brutality by its very nature, but seeing it first hand horrified me. Even friends of mine who normally have good sense made casual remarks at the time, such as, “I cannot accept people enjoying their lives while on welfare.” Japanese state power did as it pleased in 2012, while citizens lacking solidarity felt helpless.

Even then, some courageously challenged conventional thinking in court. Their allies included lawyers. Against such adverse social conditions, 1,025 welfare recipients from Okinawa to Hokkaido became plaintiffs in the lawsuits and appealed the illegality of the reduction of payments. Nagoya District Court ruled first on June 25, 2020, with a blowout loss for the plaintiffs. “The Liberal Democratic Party’s policy, which includes a reduction of public assistance, is based on public sentiment and the country’s finances. The Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare (MLHW) can take these circumstances into consideration when revising livelihood assistance standards.”

The wording seemed to suggest that majority opinion, not legislators, cut welfare payments, making it a testament to the success of the LDP’s negative campaign. I never felt so ashamed of being a Japanese citizen as I did when I heard the verdict. I could not help but feel guilty about my inability to bring down the current government.

The plaintiffs, their lawyers, and their supporters must have felt they had hit rock bottom. But they didn’t give up. They painstakingly followed the facts and continued to pursue legal issues raised by the price index that had been the basis for the cuts as well as abuse of discretionary governmental authority. The second verdict, this time from Osaka District Court, marked a major reversal.

The main point of concession was the MHLW’s discretionary power and the legitimacy of how welfare was reduced. The court took issue with the government comparing prices to 2008, when consumer prices skyrocketed along with soaring crude oil and grains and with the ministry’s using its own calculations rather than the official consumer price index. Prices naturally fall after an exceptional jump, so it makes no sense to generalize that in your calculations, as grounds for cutting welfare payments.

Another argument is that the MHLW index does not reflect the reality of the situation because it is based on personal computers, televisions, and other educational/recreational goods that welfare households spend very little on in the first place. The court found that the cuts were “inconsistent with expertise and reason,” making them illegal violations of the Public Assistance Act.

On February 27, 2021, plaintiffs and supporters around the country gathered online for a “Rally to Learn from Osaka District Court Decision.” When asked why they managed to win the case, several participants noted that the pandemic has led to an expansion of poverty. Others said that a wave of poverty is bearing down even on those who once felt no connection to welfare, as more and more fall into indigence. This social change in public perception might have influenced the court’s decision.

There is a growing sense of popular empathy that poverty is not just another social issue. I too have sensed the growing poverty in Japan. We must be vigilant against letting the government use social conditions to divide us, as the LDP did in 2012. The right to a “healthy and cultured minimum standard of living” must be protected, regardless of social conditions. It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how much you can afford. Let’s embrace the Osaka plaintiff group’s slogan: If the ground sinks, we all sink.

This article was written by Hifumi Okunuki, and originally published by the Shingetsu News Agency (SNA).