By TARO TAMAKI/ Staff Writer
June 8, 2020 at 18:17 JST
The arrival of applications for the government’s cash handouts provided only a brief sense of relief for many foreign residents suffering financially because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
They could not read the applications, which were written only in Japanese and contained difficult-to-understand bureaucratic words and phrases.
Foreign nationals and other vulnerable populations in Japan are having difficulties receiving coronavirus-related relief benefits from the central government, such as the 100,000 yen ($913) cash payouts. In fact, some without residence status here, including Japanese, are finding it impossible to even apply for such payments.
A community hall in Osaka’s Chuo Ward in late May, when the application forms for the cash handouts started arriving at households, underscored the confusion.
About 300 foreign nationals sought help on filling the applications. For two days, staff of a local support group spoke in easy-to-understand Japanese to the applicants.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration decided to provide 100,000 yen for every resident in Japan to “support household finances in order to have people united to overcome the national difficulties” in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Citizens registered as of April 27 are eligible for the money, as are foreign nationals who have a status of residence for three months or longer.
Nine percent of the 100,000 residents of Chuo Ward are foreign nationals. Many of them work in Minami, a busy shopping district in Osaka, where a number of businesses were forced to shut down under the state of emergency.
A 40-year-old woman from the Philippines was one of the applicants who sought an explanation for the application at the community hall.
“It was really helpful,” she said. “I couldn’t do it on my own.”
The woman, a single mother, works at a lounge that has been closed since mid-March. For a while, she had less than 10,000 yen.
The mother has lived in Japan for two decades and can speak Japanese. But she struggles with reading and writing, she said.
She came to the session with her daughter, a first-year high school student.
Many of the attendees learned about the session by word of mouth.
Megumi Hara, an associate professor of immigration studies at the National Institute of Technology, Wakayama College, joined the support effort.
“Many of them have lived in Japan for long years but have yet to receive an opportunity to learn Japanese properly,” Hara explained.
As of the end of 2019, 2.93 million foreign nationals lived in Japan. Over the past three years, 550,000 foreign nationals joined the population.
Consultation windows of local governments around Japan have been inundated with inquiries from such residents regarding how to receive the stimulus money.
Homeless people have faced a different challenge in obtaining the money.
Tetsuo Ogawa, 49, who has lived in parks in Tokyo for 17 years, and other homeless people submitted a written request to the Tokyo metropolitan government and the internal affairs ministry in May, urging them to provide payments to those without residence registration.
They also asked the governments to allow them to apply for the payments using an address of a tent or social welfare office.
Ogawa said many homeless people who live in the same tent site do not have residence certificates. Those who are registered at their family’s home address are often unable to contact their kin for various reasons, he said.
The metropolitan government has helped homeless people by offering them jobs cleaning parks and performing other tasks, but the work stopped in April because of the pandemic.
Ogawa said he has seen fewer soup kitchens for the homeless since the outbreak started.
“It’s been really tough,” he said.
The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare confirmed 4,555 homeless people nationwide in 2019. Those who had work earned an average monthly income of 38,000 yen in 2016.
“If a homeless person secures a residence even after April 27, we will provide the money,” a representative of the internal affairs ministry said.
But that can prove difficult.
Tenohasi, a support organization based in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district for 17 years, has received many inquiries regarding the cash handouts from people who have lost their jobs during the health crisis.
“There are many people who are unable to secure a residence,” Kenji Seino, secretary-general of the group, said. “I understand it is to prevent a fraud, but those who really need the 100,000 yen are absent from a list.”
The internal affairs ministry has started handing out the 100,000-yen payments to about 800 people who do not have a family registration because their births were not registered. They had asked local legal affairs bureaus and government offices for support.
A Nara-based nonprofit organization that supports people without a family registration has helped two such residents receive the money.
“There are many more people who don’t have a family registration,” said Mayumi Ichikawa, 52, who heads the organization. “Their existence may remain unknown to any administration, and they won’t be able to receive the money.”
SUPPORT GROUPS TRY TO HELP
Asylum seekers and foreign nationals on provisional release status are also ineligible for the relief money. They do not have a residence status in Japan even though they have lived in the country for a while.
Abbas, a 33-year-old man who came from Iran three years ago, is one of them.
He said he fled Iran to escape persecution for joining an anti-establishment demonstration. His hearing on his application for refugee status in Japan is pending.
The central government does not grant work permits to foreign nationals without a residence status in Japan.
Abbas has depended on Sinapis Archdiocese of Osaka, a Catholic support group in Osaka, for food and a place to live.
He said he developed a high fever in April, and after 10 agonizing days, he took a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for COVID-19. The results were negative.
“I thought I was going to die. It was scary,” he said.
The group is run by a Catholic church, but the church was closed for three months until the end of May, meaning that donations to the group stopped.
Atsuko Matsuura, the 56-year-old secretary-general of the group, said it has been difficult to provide sufficient support to the 10 households that depend on it.
Tokyo-based Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan has decided to provide 30,000 yen per person to foreign nationals who are ineligible for the government’s 100,000-yen payout program.
The group has collected 10 million yen in donations and handed out the money to 330 people starting from May.
“The government’s cash relief does not reach people who are poor and needy,” said Sachi Takaya, a representative of the group and an associate professor at Osaka University. “Some of them haven’t been able to return to their countries because of the virus. Their rights of existence have been ignored.”
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