Anger erupts over court denial of welfare to foreign permanent residents of Japan
Japanese Supreme Court rules that a Chinese permanent resident is not entitled to payouts even though she has paid taxes all her life
Julian Ryall in Tokyo
Activists, analysts and foreign residents of Japan have reacted with dismay to a decision by the Supreme Court that foreigners with permanent residency are not entitled to welfare benefits.
Friday's ruling by the highest court means that even foreign nationals born in Japan, who have spent all their lives in the country and paid their taxes, national insurance premiums and state pension requirements are still not guaranteed to receive financial support when they need it.
The Supreme Court's decision overturned an earlier ruling by the Fukuoka high court that granted welfare to an 82-year-old Chinese woman who was born and raised in Japan.
The woman had applied for assistance to the municipal office in Oita prefecture in December 2008, but her request was refused because she had savings. The woman launched a legal case demanding that the decision be reversed on the grounds that she had paid taxes to the national and prefectural governments throughout her life.
In the first ruling of its kind, the Supreme Court stated that, from a legal standpoint, permanent foreign residents do not qualify for public assistance because they are not Japanese.
The ruling apparently gives local authorities across Japan the legal right to halt financial assistance to non-Japanese residents. The fact that many municipalities across the country are facing economic hardship may increase the risk of city governments seeking to exercise that right.
"It's shameful," said Eric Fior, a French national who owns a language school in Yokohama and who has lived in Japan for more than a decade.
"It's bad enough that foreign residents do not have the right to vote at any level in Japan, but when you pay your taxes and contribute to the pension scheme, it's something of an insult to be told that you have no right to get some of that money back when you need it," he said.
"I imagine that many foreign residents will be asking themselves why they have to pay their taxes."
The Oita case has been followed closely by Debito Arudou, a naturalised Japanese who was born in the United States and has become a leading rights activist after being refused access to a public bath in Hokkaido because he is "foreign".
"The implications of this are pretty obvious," Arudou wrote in his most recent blog posting. "Non-Japanese can be taxed and exploited at will, but if there's ever a question of the local government thinking that nonJapanese deserve social welfare benefits, too bad because they're not guaranteed," he wrote.
"We'll just take your money and deprive you of any guarantee that you'll ever get any equal benefit from it."
The post has generated heated comment. One person wrote: "The sheer pettiness and nastiness of the court's decision just disgusts me."
Other posters said the decision would have an impact on the government's campaign to attract skilled foreign nationals to work in Japan in an effort to combat the dramatically shrinking population.
Conservatives have applauded the court's decision.
"The state cannot provide benefits to all the poor people who come to Japan," said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University.
"The problem in this particular case is that the woman chose not to take Japanese nationality and chose to remain Chinese," he said. "If Japan allowed all foreign residents unlimited access to welfare, then the country would go bust."