Japan's Welfare Policies on Trial: Cracks in the System?


by Stephen J. Anderson


On Wednesday morning, January 24, 1996, a total of 400 police officers and 400 security guards were mobilized to evict by force about 200 homeless people from an underground passage west of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, the area full of skyscrapers that define Tokyo's skyline. During the mid 1980s, when I worked in this area and passed through the passage almost daily, the occasional homeless man was a very rare sight. But in the 1990s, especially after the new city hall was built in Shinjuku, the numbers of homeless increased dramatically. Reports of the evictions of these 200 homeless appeared on television and in newspapers. The newspapers carried graphic photographs of the makeshift cardboard shelters these men (no women were reported among these homeless) called home, and highlighted the rough conditions of the unheated passageway.

Why the Sudden Increase?

The reasons for the January 24 eviction were reported somewhat differently in the press. The papers emphasized government plans to build a moving walkway from the station to the metropolitan government buildings for the estimated two to three hundred thousand people that use the passageway each day. The Yomiuri mentioned that company employees commuting through the passageway complained about the smells (urine and garbage) that resulted from by-now quite unsanitary conditions. The Asahi reported that Tokyo Governor Aoshima and local merchants in stores lining the passageway claimed a loss of business and even possible bankruptcies or closings as a result of the homeless problem. Over the years the scene steadily worsened, yet no major government action to improve the conditions of the homeless came forth despite the obvious need for something to be done. To the surprise of many observers, an abrupt confrontation arose in a situation that called for action long before. The government plan was now to evict them en masse and replace the shanties with a movable walkway.

The police action mobilized 800 officers against 200 hundred squatters and their supporters. The English-language Daily Yomiuri reported that, early on Wednesday, an official using a bullhorn announced that "We are going to start construction now! The passageway is a public facility. Please move out immediately. We have a shelter that will provide hot meals for you." Protestors responded by throwing eggs, setting off fireworks, dumping cooking oil, blasting fire extinguishers, and setting up barricades. "Kaere! Kaere!" (Go home!) shouted the men, and "Aoshima stop it!" At 6:30 a.m., the officers made an unsuccessful bid to remove the barricades. At 7:20 a.m., police in riot gear stormed in and took the protestors to Chuo Shinjuku Park, near City Hall. By 9 AM, construction machinery started to move in and most of the cardboard shanties were soon gone.

The metropolitan government later claimed that only twenty to thirty people resisted; four were arrested for violent actions against the police. The Japan Times exaggerated the number of outside supporters, but several newspapers reported two officers and one protestor were hospitalized from the clash. On Wednesday, the Asahi evening edition published a table with descriptions of ten specific men, including a 64 year-old who had lived there the longest. He had lived in the passage for more than six years because, he said, there were fewer problems in Shinjuku than in Ueno (another Tokyo district with a distinct homeless problem), and because the institution to which he had been assigned was too close to his home and parents, whom he wished to avoid. A subsequent report in the Daily Yomiuri stated that "temporary shelter will be available to the homeless people evicted" through March 1996. The shelter "offers living quarters, a kitchen, a counseling room and a bathroom, as well as three meals a day and a pack of cigarettes for smokers."

Social Services On Trial?

Actions like the Shinjuku eviction are particularly abusive and sudden in the face of a problem that has grown over many years in Tokyo. The new governor, Yukio Aoshima, may not be responsible for the lack of previous action, but this show of force has had a chilling affect on many people's impression of the Tokyo local government. I have lived in Tokyo for several years of my adult life, but as a minority foreign resident in this vast metropolitan area, there are now reasons to feel more unsettled than I have felt at any previous time. In the year after the Kansai earthquake, sarin-gas subway attack, and now police action against the homeless, I know that the settled and safe feelings of public security are much reduced. Japanese media--to their credit--are likely to continue debates about this recent police action that challenges the fundamental views of many on human rights and on dealing with the homeless.

Tokyo and other large Japanese cities still remain safe and secure in overall comparisons. Even with the remarkable improvement of public safety in New York over the past year, the extent of policing and social services is quite remarkable in Japan. Under the Six Laws of Social Services established in the postwar period, Japanese came to enjoy a safety net of welfare which was supplemented by a national health insurance program by 1961 and by a national "basic pension" by 1986. In theory, the six laws provide protection for livelihood, children, the physically and mentally handicapped, the aged, and maternal welfare as special categories deserving of benefits from the state. Still, some people fall outside of these categories and are otherwise deserving, including homeless people who fail to receive such welfare benefits.

"A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization," Boswell wrote of Samuel Johnson's famous moral standard more than two centuries ago. The poor and especially the homeless require our compassion and test our humanity. At the end of the twentieth century, Tokyo and Japan as a whole must deal with these problems in ways that are both humane and universally accepted. Fortunately, and in spite of this recent unfortunate incident, there has not been a clear connection to any overall repeal of existing laws or budgets that assist the poor and homeless.

Welfare Policies And Programs

In its welfare policies, Japan presents a paradox. How can a country that leads in so many measures of socioeconomic life still cause many of its citizens to develop a strong sense of insecurity? This paradox is partially resolved by explaining welfare policies that cover many organized groups that demand social security, but still leave many others in danger of falling through the cracks of governmentmandated programs. An answer to the paradox then is that organized interests do well in creating policy coalitions for welfare, but leave the unorganized adrift. A corollary is stark: many unorganized fall between the cracks, and many practices screen people before they qualify for benefits.

A prominent difference in Japan is the unique institution of welfare commissioners. Bureaucrats engineered a prewar borrowing from Germany's experiments with something called an "Elberfeld system" of local commissioners. This type of volunteer commission is recognized by authorities to act as both gate-keepers and supporters of welfare spending. Despite limited overall spending, groups like this arose in Japan under the institutional mandates of the postwar Six Laws of Welfare to support increases in welfare budgets. Experts among bureaucrats and academics also initiated many changes in postwar policies toward social services, though many postwar initiatives were not adopted. For example, the officials pursued early proposals for nationwide child allowances that met stiff opposition from the business world and other places.

In the late 1960s, organized interests in social services turned to opposition parties and the media to advance their demands. Partly as a reflection of the divisions among working-class parties, political initiatives for social services began with the support of the moderate, religious-based Komeito party and then spread to other political parties as a joint movement of the opposition. Japanese voters offered support to candidates taking initiatives in local governments controlled by the kakushin (progressive) coalitions, and citizen support posed a threat to the dominance of the party that ruled Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party. To address this new policy coalition, LDP politicians increased nationwide spending in social services. The prototype for welfare spending increases was the 1971 legislation introducing child allowances. This was also a case in which the ruling party strengthened itself on the initiatives of the bureaucracy and localities. In similar ways, the 1970 "Pollution Diet" also saw the ruling Liberal Democrats adopt local initiatives as their own measures. Compared to spending on the 1970-71 pollution legislation, however, the 1972-73 social spending to increase child allowances and introduce programs for the aging meant far larger budgetary commitments to social programs.

Since the "First Year of Welfare" in 1973, a policy coalition normally negotiates with bureaucrats and politicians to decide social services and their budgets in Japan. Bureaucrats themselves also occasionally initiated changes: the 1985 budget process went uncharacteristically smoothly when various ministries reached a consensus with minimal involvement of politicians. Without politician involvement, the bureaucrats shifted costs from the national budget to that of local authorities.

The LDP leadership, too, coordinated major initiatives that tended to dampen bureaucratic initiative. Without the support of ruling-party leadership from around 1975, bureaucrats who advanced proposals to "reconsider welfare" met with little success. Party leaders coordinated among organized interests led by business groups. In the 1980s, corporate interests shifted from support of retirees to opposition against the costs of social spending. Still, the pattern remains: a broad policy coalition with public support continues to negotiate with officials on getting higher priority for social services.

Demographics of Aging

Some of the biggest problems Japan now faces stem from demographics. The impact of health care and of lifestyles leading to ever-longer life expectancy and smaller families are two of the multiple reasons for the aging of Japanese society. In just fifteen years, the part of the population over age 65 will almost double: from 9.1% in 1985 to an estimated 17% at the end of the century.

The numbers are crucial to Japanese society. The Institute of Population Problems of the Ministry of Health and Welfare estimates that more than a quarter of the population will be age 65 or older within the next twenty-five years.

Program changes have already begun, with local and national governments making new initiatives. Election campaigns, even in the wake of political upheavals in July 1993, found voters less interested in the end of one-party dominance than in the need for more home helpers.

Countless women must cope with a lack of good services to deal with bed-ridden family members or inadequate support for aging relatives. Though there are calls to increase or expand program coverage, the difficulties remain acute in a recessionary period while other pressing political issues crowd the parliamentary agenda.

Two trends bear mention: long-term care insurance and the so-called "silver industry." On the one hand, national bureaucrats have recognized that a comprehensive approach can respond to the demographics, and they thus seek major legislative reform. On the other hand, business prefers a non-governmental response that relies on the market to generate companies that specialize in services to the elderly. These two developments are likely to spur more public spending and encourage innovative vendors offering useful products and services for the elderly.

Many people still fear that the poorest of those who helped build Japan's economic recovery may not be able to avoid their slide through the cracks in the system. A society must deal with its citizens as individuals, not simply as categories within public programs. Japan's dilemmas concerning its homeless and its increasing numbers of elderly people are serious, but are not radically different from those of other industrial democracies. Japan's solutions and trials will deserve wide attention, both for their failures and for their successes.


Stephen J. Anderson is the author of Welfare Policy and Politics in Japan: Beyond the Developmental State (Paragon House Press). He is currently a director and research professor at the Center for Global Communications (GLOCOM) of the International University of Japan.