Hiroaki Yoshiba, SJ
Social and Pastoral Bulletin issue: No. 167 / October 15th, 2012
This year the welfare system made news. It seems that the mother of a TV personality was found to be receiving welfare assistance, despite her son’s large earnings. The case was exposed in the media and brought before the National Diet. The fact that the privacy of a particular person receiving welfare was discussed openly by politicians is something unheard of. Isn’t this a violation of human rights?
“The poor are lazy people” is not a new concept. It has always existed. In modern times England legally jailed poor people and punished them with forced labor in horribly equipped institutions. Only those unable to work were exempted. Even nowadays, private philanthropic organizations examine the poor to see if their poverty results from lack of morality and if they judge that it does, they deem them unworthy of assistance. Thus, since even historically speaking poor people have a negative image, they lose confidence in themselves. In reality there is great variety and pluralism among the poor. Nevertheless, they all meet with the same difficulties in striving for the assurance of sound social participation. Their relationships with people and institutions are weak and there is a tendency towards loneliness.
Some time ago I had the opportunity of attending a conference given by the director of the welfare office in Kushiro City. Kushiro treats persons receiving welfare assistance with special consideration and doesn’t take a disciplinary attitude toward them. The director openly said: “Kushiro has a bad reputation among residents because of its terrible fog. It is difficult to dry one’s laundry. On the other hand, tourists enjoy our foggy city. Fog is not bad and can actually be an asset. In a similar way, receivers of welfare are an asset to us.”
The national policy now is to “assist families receiving welfare to find jobs.” Nevertheless, this type of assistance is merely empty words, without any plan. Here and there we can observe useless vocational training and, precisely because of the weakness of the labor market, welfare receivers experience continual failure and, as a result, they often lose confidence. Some people believe that the job-seeking assistance system only helps the needy to find insecure jobs or to be totally ousted from society. From the beginning, Kushiro has rejected any rigid job-seeking assistance and takes volunteerism as an important middle-way approach to jobs. The approach is not to “make people without a job do patriotic service.” For instance, when 3rd-year middle-school youngsters of welfare families gather, usually to prepare for high school entrance examinations, they are invited to do volunteer work, along with which they are guided in their studies and in sharing experiences. Hopefully, this is quite a valuable experience for middle-school youth. It is also an occasion for parents who have lost their confidence to recover it. Kushiro residents, welfare receivers included, work together planning how to start new businesses. Thanks to such attempts, Kushiro was able to think about how to approach urban renewal. Official activities for welfare receivers do not stop there. For lack of space, I cannot explain here the City’s official concept, which has attracted much attention: “Let’s bring together every citizen to rebuild our society.”
I have formerly contributed two articles to this Bulletin entitled “Walking along with people in distress visiting our churches” and “The Bettle House: Learning from mental distress.” The content of these articles can be found in the booklet Kokoro no Nayami ni Yorisou tame ni, which deals with mental distress. My articles are just common sense and a bit emotional. I referred there to the Church as a place of relief and to the need of building a church community where everybody is accepted, including expert advisers in mental distress. Basically, I have not changed my mind. However, I am inclined to believe that, besides targeting people with mental trouble, there is probably something else we must discover. What is really at stake for people suffering from mental distress is not so much disease and symptoms, but the difficulties arising from their social position. Since they do not receive social recognition, they tend to experience difficult lives and become isolated from others. This phenomenon is not merely typical of the poor people I mentioned above. It also affects lonely elderly persons, the sick, and the disabled. I have come to believe that people suffering from mental distress can also understand those on the fringes of society. We need to establish places where everybody, in dire need or not, can participate together.
At St Ignatius Church, where I work, a “Wednesday Tea Salon” is held three times a month. Usually the people who come are those who have attended the early Mass. A variety of people, persons struggling in society and people leading simple normal lives, gather freely and enjoy tea and sweets. For the faithful of St Ignatius parish who are unable to come to church because of old age, a phone conversation service has already begun and home visits are also planned. Even without everyone gathering in the same place, various possibilities can be found.
I have opened a consultation room at St Ignatius Church, which has some facilities for eating and having tea parties. We continue paying visits to people at home or in institutions.