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Bread & Roses: Welfare in the Age of Climate Change

SNA (Tokyo) — We spent this summer with the coronavirus. As I tend to refrain from going out, I had fewer opportunities to feel the seasons, but when I did, I felt the scorching mid-summer sunshine on my skin and realized that summer had arrived. Past summers in Japan were hot, but there was enough time to enjoy the heat — eating watermelon outside, sprinkling water on the ground, and hearing wind chimes make us feel somehow cooler. But for the past decade or so, the heat has become too much. On August 12, it was reported that the temperature in Gunma and Saitama prefectures exceeded 40 degrees Celsius.

Mosho (extreme heat) no longer suffices as a description. We no longer see children playing their hearts out under the sun now due to kokusho (cruel heat). When I was a child, parents told their children to go out outside and play instead of lazing around at home. But heatstroke can be deadly. More than 40,000 cases were reported around Japan in August, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency. We’ve become so preoccupied with the virus this year that we hardly noticed that Japan’s summer heat has reached extremely dangerous levels.

Let me ask you: How would you feel if you didn’t have air conditioning in Japan’s current heat? The reason I ask this is that air conditioners sometimes come up when discussing the welfare system, which is Japan’s last safety net of its social security system.

In the past, welfare recipients were not permitted to have air conditioners in their homes. The 1994 air conditioner incident in Okegawa city, Saitama Prefecture, involved a 79-year-old welfare recipient. The welfare office removed her air conditioner, deeming it an unacceptable extravagance. She became dehydrated and ended up being taken away in an ambulance and hospitalized for more than a month.

The incident naturally drew widespread criticism. Okegawa city explained that a government directive stipulated that the belongings of welfare households “must not be out of balance with ordinary households not receiving welfare in the community.” A welfare recipient household owning something not owned by ordinary households constitutes a loss of balance (i.e. a luxury).

The standard for whether or not a balance has been struck is 70% penetration. Since slightly less than 70% of Okegawa households at the time had air conditioners, the city ordered its removal. Did the city consider the risks to a 79-year-old woman living alone? They decided mechanically, without looking at the human being in front of them, determining that if the overall AC prevalence was 70%, then logically there is no need to permit a welfare recipient to have one. The woman collapsed with heatstroke and was rushed to the emergency room, where she could have died. The city’s public assistance staffers should have kept in mind that making a mechanical determination can lead to the death of a real human being.

Now, 26 years after that air conditioner incident, Japan’s summer is even hotter. The 70% penetration rate remains the threshold for determining whether a good is a luxury, even for elderly and sick welfare recipients to have air conditioners in the summer.

Belatedly, in 2018, the government added cooling equipment as an item in welfare budgets, but allowing air conditioners to be installed only for “those with particular need for heatstroke prevention.” A household can spend up to 51,000 yen on cooling equipment.

Incidentally, the recipient gets no cash payment; rather, the government procures and installs the air conditioners. The government is likely worried that recipients might spend cash on something else.

The welfare system continues to shame recipients in various ways, not only about air conditioning. Humiliation at the welfare office helps to discourage further reliance on the system.

Article 25 of the Constitution guarantees the “right to live a minimum standard of healthy and cultured life” (i.e. the right to life). The welfare system embodies this right, but can people truly use the system without anxiety? A system designed to keep people alive should not end up killing them.

This summer we must confront both the coronavirus and the extreme heat. It’s time for us to find a way to survive both.

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