Archive for the ‘Taxes & Welfare’ Category

Employment counselors forced to sit on the other side of the window

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

The rise of non-regular employment has received a lot of coverage because of its effect on job security in the general work force. A seldom discussed side effect is the acute anxiety experienced by non-regulars as their contracts approach their expiration dates. Will mine be picked up for another year? Will I have to go out and look for a new job next month?

Hello Work website

Hello Work website

For public non-regular employees this emotional roller coaster starts right after Jan. 1, since most contracts end with the fiscal year in March. And for those who have been working in the same position for an extended length of time, there is no solace in the new law that goes into effect this year and which says an employer must hire a contract worker as a regular full-time employee, complete with benefits, if the worker has been in the same position for five years.

Though it’s assumed that many employers will work the loophole by not renewing a contract just before the five-year period is reached and then hiring the person back after a six month “cooling off” period with an open-ended contract, non-regulars who work in the public sector aren’t covered by the new law in the first place. They can be retained as non-regulars indefinitely.

This exception was highlighted when the labor ministry announced that 2,200 non-regular members of its unemployment advisory staff had not had their contracts renewed for fiscal 2013. That represents 10 percent of all the non-regulars employed at Hello Work counseling centers nationwide, and presents an interesting scenario: Former employment counselors who themselves must seek employment advice.

In fact, a Tokyo Shimbun article described one woman in her 50s who received her notice in early March while she still had several weeks on her contract. Though she knew there was always the possibility her yearly contract would not be renewed the lateness of the notice (the media reported the announcement as being “sudden”) caught her off-guard.

In the last weeks of March she was looking for a new job at Hello Work on Saturdays while still working Monday through Friday at the same facility counseling people who themselves were looking for jobs.

One part of the new law that was already in effect before April 1 is to make the practice called yatoidome illegal. “Yatoidome” means nonrenewal of an employment contract for “no good reason,” but, of course, “good reason” constitutes a gray area that the Japanese legal system isn’t equipped to address. It is this part of the law that doesn’t apply to public workers, supposedly because non-regular government employees are only hired as stopgap workers, meaning people employed to fill certain positions on a temporary basis. They do not have to pass a test the way full-time regular civil servants do. However, in many cases, these workers become as indispensable as regular employees. In 2012, 63 percent of all Hello Work employees were non-regulars.

As for why the labor ministry decided to effectively lay off so many employment center staff at one time, a representative told the media that the ministry hired extra contract workers when the recession worsened in 2008 and again after the disaster of 2011, but now the job situation “is stabilizing” so the ministry doesn’t need as many counselors. Some laid-off employees counter this explanation by claiming that their workloads have been heavier in recent months, not lighter, especially in areas most affected by the disaster. What may have sparked the layoffs was the finance ministry, which has been auditing budgets across all government agencies and ministries and demanding cuts.

The yatoidome exception doesn’t just apply to national public workers. One-third of all local government employees, or about 700,000 people, are also non-regulars. That’s an increase of about 100,000 since 2008, according to a labor ministry survey. Of these, 60 percent work more hours than regular employees. More than half of these non-regulars make less than ¥160,000 a month or ¥2 million a year. And because they are technically part-timers, they are not up for promotions or salary increases. The most prevalent jobs in this category of public worker is day care attendant and librarian, but it also includes policemen, firemen and school teachers.

Local government attempts to make citizens rat on welfare recipients

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

A goal of the resurgent Liberal Democratic Party is to reduce public welfare expenditures over the next three years by cutting handouts to the tune of ¥67 billion, or about 10 percent. The targets of these cuts are households who receive more money in welfare than do “lower income” households who don’t, the purpose being to bring the monthly payments made to non-working poor families down to or below the monthly earnings of working poor families. Thus the public assistance payment for a family of four would drop from an average of ¥220,000 to ¥200,000.

They call it gambling: Pachinko enthusiasts waiting for their loot

They call it gambling: Pachinko enthusiasts waiting for their loot

As to what this family would have to give up, one category ripe for reduction is “recreation” (goraku), which includes everything from TV sets and PCs to books and magazines. However, according to a 2010 government survey, welfare recipients only spent 6.4 percent of their money on recreation, and due to the LDP’s prime bugbear, deflation, they are spending less in this area all the time, so the keepers of the treasury will have to find other places to cut.

One public figure, however, feels that the goraku category hasn’t been scrutinized enough. The city assembly of Ono, Hyogo Prefecture, passed a law that went into effect April 1 prohibiting people who receive public assistance from the city to use that money for gambling. The law also compels city residents to report any instance of gambling by welfare recipients to the police. Given the timing of the implementation and the nature of the law, some people may wonder if it’s a joke, but Mayor Tsutomu Horai, who wrote it, is quite passionate about the matter, which is why the media have covered it so closely.

Ono currently pays out ¥290 million in welfare annually to 120 households. The population of the city is 50,000. The new law states that anyone who observes a welfare recipient spending “too much money” on gambling has a responsibility to report it to the authorities. The model seems to be local versions of child abuse prevention laws, which state that anyone who believes a child is the victim of violence or neglect must report the abuse to police.

The bill first became publicly known in February, before it was approved, and the city received some 7,000 “opinions” from all over Japan, 70 percent of which were positive. As Horai told the weekly magazine Aera at the time, “Let’s say your friend asks to borrow money because of some trouble, and then later you see him playing pachinko. Naturally, you’re going to be annoyed.”

The problem, as he saw it, was that most people don’t care about public money, and so he wants to change that perception. There is no penalty if a person sees a welfare recipient gambling and does not report it, probably because that would be impossible to prove. Horai certainly understands this, but claims that 90 percent of the city’s residents, including welfare recipients themselves, support the law and so most of his job is already done.

The Hyogo Prefecture Bar Association has come out against the law, saying that its purpose of involving average citizens in the monitoring of welfare recipients’ behavior will result in greater “discrimination of and bias toward” the latter. In fact, Ono’s finances are healthier than most local government’s. Its treasury actually reports a surplus balance of ¥8.5 billion, and the mayor himself has said that the aim of the law is not to reduce the welfare budget. If anything, he hopes the law will also alert people who may qualify for assistance to apply for it.

As it stands, the central government provides three-fourths of a typical handout with the remainder handled by municipalities. About 1.7 percent of the national population receives welfare, while the portion in Ono is only 0.3 percent. However, both statistics are on the rise — the number of recipients in Ono increased by 64 percent over the last five years — and is certainly a reflection of the economic situation in general, but Horai thinks that it has to do with a more relaxed attitude toward government handouts. He told Aera that he first thought of devising the bill when he was at city hall and overheard several people who were waiting on line for their welfare packets. One asked another, “Where are you going to play pachinko later?”

Horai focuses on pachinko, which, legally speaking, isn’t gambling. Players can only earn money by trading the excess balls they win for premiums in the pachinko parlors and then “selling” those premiums at specially established booths outside the premises. Though no one is fooled that this isn’t betting in practice, it’s gambling by legal loophole. What’s more, the off-site payment booths are regulated by the National Police Agency, so why doesn’t pachinko qualify as legal recreation, which is considered acceptable for welfare recipients? And why doesn’t Horai induce citizens to narc on welfare recipients who, say, buy lottery tickets?

Actually, he has an answer to those questions. “People say pachinko is merely entertainment,” he told Aera. “But they don’t understand reality. People who spend too much on pachinko are addicts.” In truth, he wants welfare recipients who play “too much” pachinko to seek medical help, which they can do easily since, as welfare recipients, their medical insurance is free. Horai’s system may not make much sense, but he wants you to know his heart is in the right place.

Court says railway can make patrons pay through the nose

Friday, March 29th, 2013

Inzai Makinohara Station

Inzai Makinohara Station

We live on the Hokuso Line, which connects Takasago in eastern Tokyo to the Nihon University Medical Center in northern Chiba, a distance of 32.3 kilometers. The Hokuso Line has been called the most expensive train line in Japan. From one end to the other it costs ¥780, and for us to get from our station, Inzai Makinohara, to its neighbor to the west, Chiba New Town Chuo, it costs ¥290. Many people who live on the line and use it have complained to the relevant authorities and demanded that fares be reduced. In fact, five local residents sued the central government, demanding that the court rescind the state’s approval of the Hokuso Railway’s plan to lease its tracks to another railway company and claiming that the plan did not benefit users. On Mar. 26 the Tokyo District Court rejected the suit, saying that the government authorization did not damage the welfare of the railway’s users in any way.

The plaintiffs said they didn’t understand the judge’s reasoning. One, a 19-year-old man, told an Asahi Shimbun reporter that when he was a high school student he spent ¥90,000 on a six-month pass, which, on average, is about four times what it costs for a comparable student pass on any other line. Now that he’s graduated and going to a prep school he no longer qualifies for the student discount, and has to pay ¥170,000 for half-a-year. Single-station fares on the Hokuso are about twice as much as they are on other lines. The Hokuso Line is part of the Keisei Dentetsu Group, whose average fare for 32 kilometers is about ¥470, so the Hokuso fares are 70 percent higher than fares on other lines even within the same railway group. The reason for the high fares has been explained in this blog before, but in a nutshell, the line was designed to serve the Chiba New Town development project, which began in 1969. Planners envisioned 340,000 people eventually moving into the New Town area, which encompasses portions of three cities, but in the end only about 93,000 actually did. The main problem for the Hokuso Railway Co. was the cost of construction, in particular the cost of land. Purchases were made at the height of the bubble era, when land prices were sky high and so were interest rates. The debt currently stands at ¥90 billion, and the railway pays ¥5 billion on the note every year. But the Chiba New Town authority, which the railway belongs to, also has to pay shareholders, many of whom are farmers who sold it the land in the first place. You can see their huge houses, built with the money they made and are still making, all over the region that lies alongside the Hokuso Line. Since opening for business in 1991, the railway has raised its fares nine times, though it also cut a few, but only by ¥10.

The kernel of the court case is a leasing deal that the Hokuso Line made with Keisei Dentetsu, which wanted to use the Hokuso tracks for its Skyliner and Sky Access express trains to Narita Airport. Regular users of the Hokuso Line were under the impression that (more…)

Proposed inheritance tax exemption isn’t really about inheritance taxes

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Indirect beneficiary: High school in Gunma Prefecture

Indirect beneficiary: High school in Gunma Prefecture

The whole point of a consumption tax is that everyone, rich and poor alike, bears it equally according to ability, though in truth the poor bear more since a greater portion of their spending is for necessities. The government understands this even if it isn’t admitting as much. News reports are saying that the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and the Komeito have decided to discuss whether or not certain items, such as food, will be subject to either smaller or no increases in the consumption tax by the time it is set to be raised to 10 percent in 2015, though they aren’t guaranteeing any exceptions. In any case, the initial increase to 8 percent that takes effect next year will proceed without any exceptions.

Nevertheless, the LDP thinks it has to throw taxpayers a bone of some sort, which is one of the explanations being given for the inheritance tax exemption that goes into effect in April for three years. It’s generally believed that Japan’s tax on legacies is punishingly high, though in fact only 4 percent of heirs ever pay it. If it seems high it’s probably because people who live in Tokyo, where the media is concentrated, tend to pay the lion’s share of inheritance taxes owing to much higher property values, but even in the capital only 9 percent of heirs ever pay inheritance tax.

However, families of means or those with property are worried since the government has announced that its goal is to raise the national portion of inheritance tax payers to 6 percent. In addition, the income tax burden for the highest tax bracket may be increased from 40 to 45 percent. Older people with money are said to be rushing to public lectures by investment experts to find out how they can pass on more of their assets to their children and grandchildren.

So the government came up with this exemption, which is exclusively used for education. Grandparents can give up to ¥15 million to each grandchild to pay for education-related expenses without the recipient having to pay a gift tax. In order to claim the exemption, the grandparent must deposit the money in an account that has been opened expressly for this purpose in a trust bank. The grandchild or parent/guardian can then withdraw the funds whenever they are needed for educational purposes, but in order to do so they must submit a receipt before withdrawal showing how the money is being used.

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Government says all single parents not created equal

Saturday, February 2nd, 2013

Edit!: Guideline for widow exemption from English language Income Tax Guide for 2009

Last fall a single mother living in Osaka started a petition to get the city government to reduce the fees she paid for daycare. Her argument is based on the widow’s exemption (kafu kojo), which is granted to certain people on their income tax returns. Though many single parents qualify for the exemption, this woman does not. The exemption only applies to women whose husbands are dead (or missing) or who are divorced, regardless of whether or not they have children.

According to an article in Tokyo Shimbun, the petitioner was engaged to get married, but during her fifth month of pregnancy her fiancee got cold feet and left her. It was too late to get an abortion, so she quit her job in Tokyo and moved back to her parents’ home in Osaka. Three months after giving birth she started working part-time, and later secured full-time regular employment. Consequently, her income increased, and thus she had to pay more for daycare since the center where her child was enrolled determines fees based on income.

In Japan “income” (shotoku) is considered to be the amount of money on one’s tax return after all exemptions and deductible expenses are subtracted. Because this woman is not a widow or a divorcee, but rather a single mother who has never been married, she doesn’t qualify for the exemption, which is either ¥350,000 or ¥270,000, depending on circumstances. And since she can’t take the exemption, her income is higher, and thus she pays more for daycare.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations agrees with the woman, but actually goes further by saying that the law itself is unfair since it discriminates against certain types of single parents. As the name of the exemption attests, it was not originally enacted for the benefit of single mothers but rather for widows. The law went into effect in 1951 to help thousands of women whose husbands were killed in the war. Since then the law has been revised several times. It was expanded to include divorced women with children, and then divorced women without children (but who weren’t getting alimony).

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Working the system: Beware of doctors with private rooms

Friday, December 14th, 2012

Sleeping alone in a place like this could cost you.

Japan’s national health insurance system isn’t perfect, but it’s fairly airtight. Unless you have a condition that might benefit from some sort of experimental treatment which has yet to be approved by the government, everything is covered, meaning you won’t pay more than 30 percent of the cost of that treatment. And if the amount you do pay exceeds a certain amount, the government will pay for most of that as well, so there is very little danger of, say, a patient having to mortgage his house to pay for care, even for a so-called catastrophic illness, which is something that occasionally happens in the United States.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t medical situations where people end up paying a lot of money; it’s just that they probably don’t have to. This is why we’ve always been mystified by the supplemental health insurance business in Japan. Why buy extra insurance when the national system takes care of everything? One of the main reasons is private rooms, which the government doesn’t pay for. National insurance covers overnight stays, but only for non-private rooms, and only a very limited amount. If a patient wants a private or semi-private room, or even a special type of bed in a non-private room, he or she has to pay for it out of pocket.

Some doctors use this exception to make money. An acquaintance of ours, whom we’ll call A-san, recently told us a story about a visit she made to a private gynecology/obstetrics clinic in Saitama Prefecture. A-san was worried about her 77-year-old mother, who lives separately from her and has been suffering from a gynecological disorder for almost a year. Though she had been to her local hospital, the doctor there said he could not treat the condition properly, and while it wasn’t life threatening, it made everyday life difficult. A-san’s mother is on a fixed income and not tech-savvy, so A-san Googled the name of her condition and the first clinic that came up in the search said it had experience treating elderly women for that particular condition and happened to be not far from her mother’s home. She made an appointment.

The clinic’s owner and only doctor was quite chatty, and, after examining her mother, he told A-san that she needed an operation, and that because she had special insurance for elderly people she would only pay 10 percent of the surgery cost. In addition, since the surgery was expensive, she could apply for the kogaku iryo (high cost medicine) system, which would refund most of the 10 percent she would normally have ended up paying. In the end, she would only have to pay ¥44,400 for the actual operation.

But there was a catch. The clinic, which mostly catered to expecting mothers, only offered private rooms for ¥16,900 a night. The doctor said that following the operation, A-san’s mother would need to remain in the clinic for 10 nights, so altogether the operation would cost more than ¥200,000, not counting transportation to and from the hospital and whatever medication she would have to take. An interesting justification for extra charges...

You can’t take it with you: Horse gambler’s system stymied by tax law

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

People in Japan who win prizes through the lottery (takarakuji) do not have to pay taxes on their gains, even if they win hundreds of millions of yen. However, people who win money betting on horses or other racing sports are required to report those earnings on their income tax returns. Why the distinction? Is it a difference in approach? Though both are forms of gambling, which is strictly circumscribed, lotteries are purely matters of chance, while betting on the ponies can involve calculation and experience. Only the tiniest fraction of the population could make a “living” from the former, by essentially winning a jackpot once, while there is a small but dogged subculture whose members at least like to think they can profit continually at the track.

Poster commemorating Japan Racing Association’s 150th anniversary

One person recently found out just how limited such a livelihood can be. A 39-year-old salaryman, whom the media hasn’t named, was recently indicted in Osaka for tax evasion. The man’s lawyer has told the press that he makes ¥8 million a year at an unspecified job. He is married and has one child with another on the way.

In 2006 he started spending enormous amounts of money on horse racing based on the belief that he could make a profit over time. Using software that “predicts winners,” he would analyze the statistics for individual horses and then bet on multiple contestants in individual races through the internet. He would not bet on races with horses making their debut since there wasn’t enough data available, but almost anything else was acceptable.

The point was to bet as much as possible on as many “favorable” horses as he could, including combination tickets. He lost most races, but he made enough on winning bets to pool that money and then use it for the next series of races. This sort of continuous overkill methodology meant that in the long run his winnings grew exponentially. During the three-year period from 2007 to 2009, he bought ¥2.87 billion worth of tickets and received winnings of ¥3 billion, thus making a net profit of ¥140 million.

However, he didn’t report these earnings on his tax return and eventually was audited by the Osaka branch of the National Tax Bureau. The amount they cited him for was not the ¥140 million he netted, but rather ¥2.9 billion — the ¥3 billion he grossed minus an expenditure of ¥100 million. Thus his tax bill for the three years is a whopping ¥570 million, and with the added penalty it comes to a total of ¥690 million.

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