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Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Pensioners place little premium on pledges to mend record fiasco
By JUN HONGO
Lawyer Tadahiko Tanizawa has spent his 40-year career upholding the principles of law and order, both of which he found lacking during a visit last year to a social insurance office.
The Osaka-based lawyer, who was preparing to start receiving his pension within a year, discovered in May 2006 that his premium payment records between 1964 and 1975 had been lost and 220,000 yen was deducted from his expected annual pension income.
The timing of the lost records coincided with when he began paying into the national pension program in 1964 and his change of address from Hyogo Prefecture to Osaka in 1975.
"I am certain that I made my payments properly. I feel I was swindled by the government," Tanizawa, 65, said.
"My records are being re-examined by the Social Insurance Agency, but I'm prepared to sue the government if they reject my claim."
Following the revelation by the Democratic Party of Japan last month that the Social Insurance Agency mishandled data and now cannot identify more than 50 million pension premium payment records, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party pledged to remedy the snafu and cross-check all unidentified records within a year.
But Tanizawa has serious doubts that the LDP will be able to live up to its promise.
Tanizawa, who was summoned to the Diet by the DPJ last month to testify about his experience, has received more than 440 requests from clients for help on "lost pension" issues. He blames the scandal on government nonchalance regarding social insurance.
One of his clients, a 78-year-old pensioner from Hyogo Prefecture, learned the SIA had mishandled his employment records and he was receiving only a portion of what he was entitled to.
The agency, however, refused to rectify the shortfall and instead said the five-year limit had ran out for the pensioner to file a claim. A bill to scrap the limit is currently being debated in the Upper House after the ruling bloc rammed it through the Lower House.
In another case, Tanizawa found that a social insurance office in Osaka entered the wrong birth date on a 67-year-old client's pension payment records, resulting in the recipient being short-changed because the record indicated the premiums had been paid by someone else.
Before 1997, when the government introduced a single pension identification number for each individual, some people had multiple ID numbers due to changes in jobs or marital status.
Errors occurred when pension records were computerized in the 1980s and when records were unified under single ID numbers in 1997. As a result, millions of records have remained unidentified since 1997 and the public was kept in the dark about it until the DPJ's May revelation.
Tanizawa's clients were asked to provide proof that could link them to the missing records.
"I realize the LDP has announced that computer software will be developed for the party to examine the unidentified records, but I can't see how a program can match two completely unrelated pension records stemming from the mistakes made by the SIA," Tanizawa said. "Its promise to fix everything in a year is empty and valueless. This is merely a (face-saving ploy) ahead of the July Upper House election."
While the LDP and DPJ blame each other for mishandling the pension records, seniors lining up at their local social insurance offices bear the burden of waiting hours to have their pension accounts verified.
A 64-year-old catering worker who visited the social insurance office in Koto Ward, Tokyo, last week slammed the government's mismanagement of his pension records.
"All the news reports about 'lost pensions' made me anxious, especially because I've had various jobs in the past," said the man, who asked that his name not be used.
After waiting 2 1/2 hours, the office matched him with an unidentified record that entitled him to receive an additional 10,000 yen per month, bringing his annual pension income to approximately 1.2 million yen.
"I had forgotten some of the jobs I had in the past, but it scares me to think that if I hadn't come here today, this money would have evaporated," he said.
A 68-year-old housewife, waiting her turn to have her records examined at the social insurance office in Minato Ward, Tokyo, suggested that privately run pension entities would be more considerate and not force recipients to bring in old receipts and wait in line to receive payments.
The housewife, who asked to remain anonymous, denounced the government's lack of accountability in the fiasco.
"Coming from his wealthy background, I doubt that Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe has any understanding of how much difference even 10,000 yen a month can make in my life," she said.
Despite the scandal, however, some experts such as Koji Kaneko claim the pension system remains intact and the lost-record snafu should not trigger panic.
"The issue is being presented as a huge scandal, but there is no need for dread. The pension system will not fail," said Kaneko, a social insurance labor consultant based in Hyogo Prefecture.
Kaneko, author of "Nenkin Mondai: Yoten-wo Oshiete" ("Pension Problem: the Crucial Facts"), argues that approximately 40 trillion yen in pension premiums is paid in to the government system every year, guaranteeing a more stable source of benefits than can be provided by private pension premium services.
The scandal does not involve 50 million people, just 50 million cases, with many probably amounting to payment deductions of only a few thousand yen per month, he said.
Kaneko said one of his clients had more than 10 pension ID numbers before 1997 because of frequent job changes, thus it would be misleading to suspect "50 million" equals the number of people being short-changed.
Kaneko also said that before the pension ID unification in 1997, there were 300 million premium payment records because one person could have multiple ID numbers.
The SIA "did a fairly good job" to match various records and bring down the number of unidentified accounts to 50 million, he argued.
"Amid the debate on which political party should be held accountable for this fiasco, I feel individuals as well as their employers who did not keep track should also bear some blame," Kaneko said.
Lawyer Tanizawa disagreed.
"The root of the problem is the government's irresponsibility in managing the records," he said, suggesting the "lost pensions" could doom the pension system in the near future.
"If the same fiasco occurred in the U.S., there would be riots and government officials would be sent to prison for mismanagement," Tanizawa said. "I hope thousands of Japanese people rise up and demonstrate their anger against the SIA, to make sure those who are responsible are clearly identified."