Photo:タンジェント on Wikimedia Commons

Making Sense of "My Number"

One common lament that I frequently hear highlighted amongst many foreign residents in Japan, whether they are English teachers, financial sector workers, or even homemakers, is the often opaque, convoluted and, at times, downright confusing way in which Japan’s various pension and insurance systems are administrated.

MIKI Yoshihito on Flickr

I’ve had first-hand experience of this down the years. In the English teaching industry there is often quite a gulf between those who are “in the know” and signed onto the various national health care, pension and social insurance schemes in Japan, and those who are not. It’s a common debate, particularly amongst my American friends who seem especially passionate about the role government plays in their daily lives. Some of my friends from across the Atlantic favour the Japanese system, and the social safety net it provides. Other, more conservative leaning individuals decry this perceived interference of “big government”, and the admittedly sizeable chunk these monies take out of their pay cheque. As someone from Scotland, I am proud to be a product of both universal healthcare and free higher education, so as a preamble I should perhaps make it clear that I am a passionate supporter of a welfare state, without which, I would never have had the opportunity to go to university and I wouldn’t be here today.

Anyway, personal politics aside, where the inequality lies with most English teachers is the lacklustre way in which a number of companies approach the issue of signing employees up to social insurance, healthcare and pension.

In principle, all workers of this type should be signed up to these schemes, but there is the often peddled myth, which has no actual legal basis, that employees who work less than 30 contract hours a week don’t qualify for these considerations. Thankfully, the government finally seemed to have pulled their heads out of their collective backside (there’s an unpleasant visualisation for you!) and brought forward new rules and regulations to clear up this perceived misunderstanding.

Alongside this new legislation was also the introduction of the main thrust of today’s article, the “My Number” system.

My Number is designed to streamline the workload of the pensions, social insurance and health care departments at both local city offices and the national level.

Amy Jane Gustafson on Flickr

Currently, long term residents like me, by whom I mean people staying in Japan for longer than 3 months and engaged in work here, are required to carry a number of different forms of ID. Currently, I carry a pension book, a health insurance card, an alien registration card and of course my social insurance card too. With the exception of the alien registration card, which is basically a de-facto ID card for anyone who lives in Japan and is not a Japanese national, the My Number system hopes to roll the administration of these various schemes into one, simple point of reference.

It certainly seems like a good idea in principle. With communication between local and national tax offices and their accompanying pension bureaus often scattershot, tax-dodging, particularly at the local level is often rife. The My Number system will undoubtedly have an impact on this. And as I have mentioned in my previous commentaries on Japan’s ongoing demographic issues if there’s one thing Japan could definitely benefit from over the next few years, it is an increase in tax revenue to make at least some kind of dent in that ever climbing public pension deficit.

Of course there is also the pessimistic argument levelled against the My Number system that it is just another way for bureaucrats within the pension and tax systems, as well as the local and national government to “pass the buck” as it were, and actually further clog up the bureaucratic process, which is ultimately the exact opposite of My Number’s stated intention.

I personally however do feel that this is a rather negative perception and one which, I am inclined to disagree with. Any means by which the convoluted process of administering the various tax and pension schemes Japan offers to its citizens has to be a good thing. As I said earlier, I also feel that finally clamping down on those who dodge their municipal tax payments will have very positive impact in a relatively short space of time, particularly in smaller towns and cities, many of whom currently verge on bankruptcy.

15406553603_5f3c3489b9_k on Flickr

As an English teacher in Japan, who pays all his taxes and contributions in full every month, I am also hopeful that this new system will mean a final and decision crackdown on those rogue companies in the English Teaching industry who currently seem hell bent on employing every dirty trick in the financial playbook to avoid properly enrolling their staff in national health insurance and pension.

The only potential downside I can see may be the way in which the My Number system affects people in Japan who are of indeterminate or re-assigned gender. The name on your My Number document must be the name given on your birth certificate, and cannot be altered. As a result, someone who has had gender reassignment surgery in the past would be forced to disclose this to any potential new employer, or anyone else whom may require the information.

Lauren Anderson on Flickr

This creates an obvious source of potential anguish for a group of people who have already, in many cases probably had to endure a great deal of personal anguish in their lives.

As Japan moves forward with recognition of same-sex relationships, I hope this trend continues over into transgender people, and that this particular loophole is closed soon.

Overall, I have to say I believe My Number to be a step forward for Japan. However, whilst I am certainly not one of those tinfoil hat wearing, reptile-fearing, David Icke types, I have always retained a healthy distrust of authority, government especially, and for all the convenience this new system may bring to Japan, I am to some extent, quite uncomfortable at the thought of so much of my personal information being so easily accessible to any government agency. Is My Number merely a useful tool to cut back on bureaucratic waste, or is it a pathway to something more sinister? Only time will tell.

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