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2012年5月 7日 (月)


--The Asahi Shimbun, May 3
EDITORIAL: Constitution Day offers timely reminder of society's responsibilities

For whom does the Constitution of Japan exist?

The answer lies in the Preface of the Constitution. It says we, the Japanese people, “for ourselves and our posterity…do firmly establish this Constitution.”

To whom does the Constitution grant fundamental human rights?

The answer is written in Article 11 of the document. These fundamental human rights “shall be conferred upon the people of this and future generations.”

The time has come to ask important questions about the meaning and implications of these constitutional provisions.

That’s because we are now facing a raft of tough and important choices that are bound to have a strong and deep impact on the livelihoods and way of life of future generations.

The nuclear disaster in Fukushima Prefecture last year has already left scars that will not disappear for decades.

We are also at the crossroads between success and failure in our efforts to develop sustainable economic and social models to meet the challenges posed by global warming and Japan’s fiscal woes.

Thus, we should not focus our thoughts only on the interests of those living in this era. We need to exercise our sovereign rights for “all the Japanese people,” including those who will live in this country in the future.

Sixty-five years have passed since the postwar Constitution came into being. In human terms, the Constitution has reached a mellow age. The supreme law of our nation, as it reads now, leaves us feeling that we are being urged to face up to the need to pay more serious attention to the well-being of future generations.

Redistribution that only increases poverty

How about the realities of Japan?

Aren’t we unconsciously infringing on “the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living” (Article 25) of even children living now, not to speak of future generations?

The poverty rate among Japanese children is higher than the average among the industrial countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. One in every seven children in this nation is forced to endure financial hardship.

The main reason for this problem is the general poverty of single-parent families.

In the mid-2000s, nearly 60 percent of such families in Japan were living below the poverty line, the highest rate among the 30 OECD countries at that time. The days of an all-pervasive middle-class mentality among Japanese now seem to be a thing of the distant past.

What are the key factors behind this situation? Here’s the OECD’s diagnosis.

One major factor is low income. The number of extremely low-paid, nonregular workers has grown rapidly in recent years. In particular, many single mothers have no choice but to take poorly paid jobs.

A second key factor is biased redistribution of income. Social security is heavily biased in favor of benefits for the elderly, such as pensions, health care and nursing care, and much less beneficial for families with small children, especially needy ones.

As a result, the poverty rate among children has continued to rise. This has to do with the way taxes are imposed and social security benefits are provided.

The nation’s tax and social security systems were built on the notion of a “standard family.” In this context, the husband is a full-time employee of a company and is paid a salary and allowances. This allows him to support his wife and children. The wife is either a full-time homemaker or a part-time worker, and is mainly responsible for raising the children.

When such households were the norm, the majority of Japanese felt they belonged to the middle class. This sentiment prevailed as long as the government provided policy support to a wide range of industries and focused its welfare policy on the elderly.

But this Japanese-style welfare society, which depended heavily on the roles played by companies and families, is now broken. That’s because the basic assumptions on which the system was built have changed significantly over the years. These assumptions include continuous and healthy economic growth, a low rate of business failures and a low divorce rate.

Employment system also needs an overhaul

As society has changed, so has the number of people who are not covered by the protective umbrellas offered by companies and families.

Children of fatherless families are typical of those who are not properly protected by the safety net.

Young people hunting for jobs are another vulnerable group. They suffer as their peers, those with full-time jobs, curb new hires in order to protect their economic fortunes.

In essence, this means that adults who are protected by the umbrella are keeping out those who are less fortunate.

Even if individual adults are not acting out of malice, the end result is that society as a whole is mistreating its children.

We clearly need to create a new, larger protective umbrella that can shield such vulnerable members of society.

That requires changing the redistribution system and employment practices.

It is vital to prevent the poverty of parents from putting their children at a serious disadvantage. We need to ensure that needy children can also receive a decent education. It is also important to take steps to make sure that workers doing work of the same economic value receive the same level of wages. That would narrow the income gap between regular employees and nonregular workers.

There will probably be strong opposition to such measures to help the weak. This is because implementing them will inevitably cause others, such as people who have finished raising children and permanent employees, to bear a fresh burden.

A conflict of interest?

Let us ask one important question here.

Is there really a conflict of interest among different members of society?

Adults whose children slipped through the protective umbrella should think about who will keep the umbrella over their heads when they get old.

Pension payouts are financed by the premiums paid by the working population as well as revenue from the consumption tax.

If companies reduce their full-time employees, the number of subscribers to the government-managed corporate pension program falls.

Young people with low-paid, nonregular jobs are forced to scrimp on spending.

In other words, cutting back on new hires erodes the funds that will be used to pay pension benefits to current permanent employees in the future. Reducing hires of full-time employees will thus jeopardize the financial security of current permanent employees’ retirement in the future.

If it becomes financially difficult for young people to get married and have children, the number of children in Japan will dwindle further. That would cause consumer spending in this country to fall, the domestic market to shrink and Japanese companies to sink into financial trouble.

Japan is already trapped in this downward spiral.

Society prospers when it takes good care of its young generations as they bear its destiny. Society declines when it fails to do so.

May 3 is Constitution Day. It offers a good opportunity for us to think about this obvious but oft-forgotten fact. This is a crucial test of our imagination.


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