The Western, or, at least, American, idea of communal living has never caught on in Japan. It’s common for college students in the U.S. to rent a house together and share living expenses, and many continue this sort of living arrangement until they get married or make enough money to live alone. In Japan, it’s more common for college students who live away from home to rent small rooms if they don’t live in dormitories, but in any case, out of school they tend to live with their parents until they marry or may continue renting small apartments by themselves. The concept of small-scale shared abodes is rare, not so much because it’s not popular but because the housing market has never been accepting of such a situation. Landlords tend to be uncomfortable with multiple renters.
But for at least a decade now, something called “share houses” have become more prominent in Tokyo and other major cities. In most cases, they are commercial enterprises, houses built and maintained by companies for the express purpose of making money, and in that regard there’s very little difference between them and traditional Japanese apartments where individual units share toilet and kitchen facilities. What you usually get is a number of bedrooms, a communal living space that includes a kitchen, a communal shower, and a toilet or two. The tenants are coed and may or may not interact with one another. Of course, there has also been an increase in the number of conventional houses renovated so as to accommodate multiple individuals and which are closer to the American “roommate” style living situation, but share houses are more common.
But not common enough. A story that Tokyo Shimbun has been following since last fall shows that the authorities still don’t know what to do about share houses in terms of legal administration. An article that appeared in the paper in January described an anonymous, 41-year-old single woman and her daughter who started living in a share house in Kunitachi, Tokyo, in the spring of 2013. The woman makes a living as a freelance illustrator, but her income is not stable, so she applied for child allowances from the Kunitachi city office and received two payments, the jido fuyo teate, which is provided by the central government, and the jido ikusei teate, which is provided by Tokyo Prefecture. Combined, these two allowances, which in principle go to the children of single parents, amounted to about ¥40,000 a month. The money was approved by Kunitachi, which administers both allowances.
But last November the city stopped payments. Moreover, the local welfare office asked her to repay the money she had received so far, since it had determined that her living circumstances violated one of the conditions for receiving the allowances. As a representative of Tokyo Prefecture told the newspaper, if a single parent lives in an abode with shared toilet and kitchen facilities, that abode is deemed to be “one household,” and if any other resident of this household is of a sex opposite to that of the welfare recipient, then the payments are disallowed. In other words, the fact that two people of the opposite sex are living under the same roof implies that those two people could be having an intimate relationship that qualifies as jijitsukon, a term commonly translated as “common law marriage,” which implies that the two people in question are having sex. By extension, if a single woman is having sex with a man, she is probably receiving financial aid from that man, and thus does not qualify for state assistance.
In this woman’s case, the share house where she lived contained ten units. Other than her, they were being rented by five single men and one single father. As far as which of these men might be getting it on with the woman, Kunitachi City didn’t say because they didn’t actually interview the woman or otherwise carry out a firsthand investigation. They simply learned that she was living in a share house and concluded that such an arrangement violates the conditions of the allowance.
After Tokyo Shimbun covered the woman’s story, she received a lot of sympathy from readers, especially other single mothers, many of whom have had similar experiences. Japan’s welfare system has always operated from a base of mistrust, the idea being that the state is easily cheated. We’ve heard dozens of stories of single mothers being refused benefits due to outward signs of “extravagance,” such as owning a television. And forget about having a car. By this same token, welfare offices look askance at boyfriends, even when they don’t live with the applicant, since they believe that anyone who maintains a sexual relationship with the applicant is likely providing them with funds or other material assistance.
The uproar over the woman’s case became loud enough that even the governor of Tokyo, Yoichi Masuzoe, commented on it. During one of his regular press conferences he said that the prefecture would study the matter more, since “lifestyles have changed” over the years, not to mention “housing styles.” It has been more than 30 years since the welfare ministry issued a directive stating that a “single parent” in a “jijitsukon relationship” is disqualified to receive state assistance, but the directive does not specify how jijitsukon in determined. Does there need to be eyewitness testimony? Does a welfare officer have to have proof that the couple in question is having sex? Talk about the government forcing its way into people’s bedrooms.
What has gotten lost in the controversy is that the woman cannot afford to raise her daughter, who starts elementary school this April, on her income alone. Single mothers are probably the lowest paid demographic in Japan. Seventy percent receive the child allowance, while 50 percent of single fathers also receive it. Together they represent 1.07 million people.
Last week, the welfare ministry waded into the argument by meeting with various welfare section heads of local governments. The ministry asked them to “revise” their notifications about how to process applications for the child allowance by removing any mention in their online or printed notices about “disqualifications for living with a member of the opposite sex at the same address.” Meanwhile, other media have uncovered more cases–one in Setagaya Ward, another in Itabashi Ward–of single mothers having their allowances cancelled for similar reasons. But simply changing the “notification” isn’t going to stop individual local governments from making snap judgments based on old prejudices. Laws need to be changed, and bureaucrats need to be schooled.