Report welfare cheats, hard-up Japanese town tells residents
Hard-up municipality passes law to curb waste of benefits on gambling, drink and hostess bars
Julian Ryall in Tokyo
A hard-up town has told residents to inform on their neighbours if they suspect them of frittering away their welfare benefits on gambling, drinking or "adult entertainment".
The local government in the town of Ono, in rural Hyogo Prefecture outside Osaka, passed a law on Wednesday that requires residents to inform the city hall if they see recipients of state aid playing pachinko - a gambling surrogate that is a form of pinball played on upright boards in vast halls and invariably accompanied by flashing lights and deafening music.
Other pastimes deemed inappropriate for their welfare cheque and child-care allowances are gambling (on horse racing, bicycle or boat races), excessive drinking, lavish dining out or spending time with hostesses in the town's entertainment district.
"Across Japan, there are a lot of people who are receiving welfare payments when they should not," said Sachie Asami, a spokeswoman for the local government. "These people are able to work and earn money, but they do not.
"Since we first suggested the new regulation in February, we have had more than 2,000 residents contact us by phone, e-mail or fax message and more than 60 per cent of them are very much in favour of the new regulations," she said.
Ono is the first municipality in Japan to pass rules on how recipients can use their welfare payments and requiring other residents to inform on them. It may catch on in other cash-strapped towns if the law proves effective.
Tsutomu Horai, the town's mayor, says he intends to stop people who do not deserve benefits from receiving them and wasting the money. Reducing the waste will help to restore trust in the welfare system, he adds.
But compared with problems in other, larger urban areas in Japan, Ono does not seem to have a serious problem of residents cheating the system.
With a population of around 50,222 in 18,724 households, a mere 149 people in 120 households are receiving aid on a monthly basis, town officials say.
On average, the welfare recipients get around 60,000 yen (HK$5,000) a month, of which the town pays a quarter and the national government covers the remaining amount.
The reporting system takes effect on Monday, the start of the new fiscal year, although anyone reported to the town for splashing out with their welfare cash will face no sanctions. The town says it will screen reports and warn offenders "as necessary".
The new ordinance has not been met with universal acclaim, with the prefectural bar association claiming that the law could promote discrimination as well as bias.
Lawyers also say there is no way to determine whether it is welfare income that is being spent and the law could foster a culture of neighbours spying on one another and people reporting others against whom they bear a grudge.
Another lawyer says welfare recipients may feel that the town is monitoring their movements instead of trying to support them.