Photo/IllutrationOpposition party lawmakers, left, question officials of the welfare ministry and Financial Services Agency on June 13 regarding a report about the funds needed to sustain retired couples. (Taro Nakazaki)

The opposition is continuing to hammer away at a report by a Financial Services Agency panel suggesting an elderly couple would need 20 million yen ($185,000) of their own funds in retirement in addition to the national pension.

With an Upper House election scheduled for this summer, the opposition parties are leveraging the issue against the pension policy of the Abe administration.

On June 13, the focus turned to the welfare ministry, which oversees the national pension program, and what role it played in the controversial FSA report.

Welfare ministry officials were adamant in insisting they had little to do with the report in an apparent attempt to dampen public concerns about the long-term sustainability of the pension program.

According to the minutes of the FSA panel that compiled the report, a welfare ministry section chief attended an April meeting and detailed the household budget of elderly couples living mainly on their pension.

A document was used to show that there was a difference of about 55,000 yen a month between actual income and actual expenditures. The official also touched upon the importance of asset creation for retirees.

The explanation made by the welfare ministry official was the focus of the June 13 session of the Upper House Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.

Mizuho Fukushima of the opposition Social Democratic Party asked a higher-ranking ministry official if the comments made at the April meeting were an admission by the ministry that the elderly would not be able to live on public pensions alone and "to have them take responsibility for those parts not covered."

However, a welfare ministry bureau director-general said that the section chief only attended the meeting as an observer. The director-general also tried to pass the blame to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, saying the 55,000 yen figure was simply a reference to household spending data compiled by that ministry.

The director-general denied any involvement by the welfare ministry in the FSA panel report that simulated what would arise if the 55,000 yen amount was extended out over a 30-year period.

"We were never consulted, and the report was compiled under (the FSA's) responsibility," the welfare ministry official said.

Takumi Nemoto, the welfare minister, added that the section chief never said elderly couples would end up with a 20-million yen deficit.

Moreover, at a joint hearing held by opposition party lawmakers prior to the Upper House committee session, welfare ministry officials explained that no ministry official would ever make the simple calculation of multiplying the 55,000 yen figure by 12 months and again by 30 years to come up with the 20 million yen figure because they know that expenditures by elderly couples decrease as they age.

The opposition parties are also targeting a slogan that came into play in 2004 when a reform of the pension system was decided on. At that time, the changes were said to allow for 100 years of security.

The opposition criticized that slogan as no longer applicable since the FSA report made clear the pension system did not guarantee a stable post-retirement life.

Welfare ministry officials countered by saying they had never said that retirees could live on pensions alone, while adding that pensions were a key component in supporting the lives of senior citizens.

Ministry officials said the current pension system was structured in a manner to allow for sustainability over the next 100 years.

The government introduced in the 2004 reforms a procedure to automatically reduce pension benefits in line with decreases in the working population and increases in average longevity. Limits were also placed on how much the working population would be asked to shoulder the pension burden through premiums taken out of their pay.

But under that framework, a steady decline in pension amounts would be unavoidable, given the falling birthrate and aging population.

One study focused on the ratio that public pensions for a retiree and his wife who had worked for 40 years as a company employee would make up in relation to the average income of the working population. In 2014, elderly couples were calculated to receive 62.7 percent in pensions of the average income of the working population.

However, one welfare ministry estimate places that figure at 50.6 percent for fiscal 2043, even with a certain degree of economic growth.

In 2009, shortly before the then Democratic Party of Japan took control of the government, a ministry estimate for fiscal 2038 calculated the ratio at 50.1 percent.

Government officials were still trying to pass off responsibility for the FSA report to the agency.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga in his June 13 news conference said the government would not formally accept the panel's final report because it differed with the government stance. Suga said the report caused undue misunderstanding and concerns among the public and added that public pensions continue to be the basis for planning a post-retirement life.