Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare

A speech to be given at the Opening Ceremony of
the 8th ASEAN & Japan High Level Officials Meeting
on Caring Societies
by Hiroyuki Nagahama, Senior Vice Minister of
Health, Labour and Welfare of Japan
from 9:30 a.m. on Monday, August 30, 2010
at the Specil Conference Room No. 4, Mita Kaigisho

Distinguished delegates from ASEAN member countries, People’s Republic of China and Republic of Korea, ladies and gentlemen.

On behalf of the Government of Japan, I would like to extend my warmest welcome all of you, in particular, two countries that are participating in this Meeting for the first time.

Last July, I attended the 4th ASEAN+3 Meetings of Health Ministers and Social Welfare Development Ministers held in Singapore. I had the opportunity to meet with the ministers of various countries and engage in friendly discussions about the reform of the healthcare system. I am therefore especially happy to welcome so many of you to Japan.

I would also like to express my gratitude to all the participants as well as to the members of the ASEAN Secretariat, the WHO Western Pacific Regional Office Secretariat, the ILO Office in Japan, JICA and all the speakers for supporting this Meeting.

The ASEAN & Japan High Level Officials Meeting for Caring Societies began in 2003. This year will be the 8th such event. The Meeting itself all began with the “World Welfare Plan” which Japan had proposed at the Lyon Summit in 1996. This Plan is based on the idea that, by sharing the wisdom and experiences in the social security sector, various countries may be able to build an even better society and mutually contribute to pass it on to the next generation. Until now, we have carried out activities with collaboration between social welfare/health services and medical systems as the central theme. I am pleased to note that we are steadily producing positive results.

This year’s meeting will be held for four days beginning today. With the main theme “Poverty alleviation with a focus on vulnerable people”, we will be sharing and exchanging information and conducting discussions among the ASEAN member countries and Japan.

The full theme of this year’s meeting is “Poverty alleviation with a focus on vulnerable people—through strengthening collaboration between the social welfare and health services.”

We have placed focus on vulnerable people so that we may discuss not only countermeasures targeting people currently placed in poor conditions - that is to say “saving the poor” - but also measures to prevent members of the middle class vulnerable to worsening of the economy, illnesses and other risks, from returning to poverty - that is to say “preventing poverty”. The sub-theme was added since strengthening the collaboration between health and social welfare services is essential to realizing these measures.

Goal 1 of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is to improve the index of “Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger”, or to reduce by one-half by 2015, the proportion of people who live on less than $1 a day. This goal has improved significantly in the Southeast Asian region, thanks to recent economic growths.

However, the global financial crisis since 2008 had the most conspicuous impact on people who are vulnerable to a variety of social risks. In view of this, the Leaders’ Statement at the Pittsburgh G20 Summit 2009 pointed out the importance of social safety nets for protecting people in developing countries who face variety of risks such as unemployment and illness. Moreover, the need for “inclusive growth” - that is, the need for spreading the benefits of growth to all the people, as emphasized at the APEC Singapore 2009 Leaders’ Declaration, is also expected to become the focus of discussion at the APEC Leaders Meeting to be held this November in Yokohama, Japan.

In line with these global trends, the Japanese government has recently incorporated, within the “Concept of an East Asian Community” (which the current administration is advocating), the fact that it will utilize Japan’s expertise and experiences for building social safety nets to address the challenges that Asia faces, including reducing disparity and alleviating poverty.

Recently, Japan is facing major challenges in growing disparities. These are as a result of stagnating economic growth, falling birthrates and aging, changing in the form of employment, and other factors. Making use of the advantage of having a single ministry oversee health, labor and social welfare sectors, the Government of Japan has made three sectors collaborate to carry out a wide range of measures and programs. One example is our program targeting homeless people which offers temporary lodging facilities at shelters, and provides comprehensive assistance including helping apply for welfare benefits, securing a place to live, providing opportunities to work, and delivering health consultations, etc.

The Japanese Government is currently discussing the direction of future policy against poverty. In this discussion, the understanding of poverty, which was traditionally identified only by economic indicators such as income and assets, is also being studied, with some members suggesting that it be viewed also by social indicators such as interpersonal relationships and social participation.

Therefore, the challenge in the policy against poverty should include building new social safety nets which can guarantee a minimum level of living, or the national minimum, through not only welfare programs but also a broad range of social security and employment programs. These should also include pensions, minimum wages, employment insurance, medical insurance, and housing allowances. In addition, recalling the fact that maintenance of good health is indispensable to social participation, and poverty invites aggravation of health status, which in turn invites poverty to form a vicious cycle; collaboration with public health policies is absolutely necessary.

In this meeting, we have invited specialists from the Health and Welfare Bureaus and Departments. We look forward to having them discuss collaborations carried out between the two sectors, based on the experiences in Japan.

In the policy against poverty, moreover, to encourage protected persons to become self-sustaining, we need to build a safety net to help them re-enter the job market through employment assistance, just like jumping on a trampoline. Collaboration with employment policies becomes necessary to realize this. So, as a new measure starting with this meeting, we have invited an expert from the ILO, which is the UN special agency taking charge of employment. Collaboration with employment policy is imperative for carrying out policies targeting vulnerable people that are not limited to the poverty issue alone. We are therefore considering inviting officials in the field of employment of ASEAN member countries to this meeting from next year,. We welcome your comments on this topic as well.

ASEAN’s member nations and Japan have maintained longstanding relationships, and have built favorable relations in a variety of fields. This applies especially strongly to the field of public health and medical services, as well as social welfare. I sincerely hope that this meeting will provide a valuable opportunity for all the participants to share mutual information and experiences.

Unfortunately your stay in Japan is so brief. However, I do urge you all to take the time, apart from this meeting, to come in contact with Japanese culture, and make your stay enjoyable and worthwhile. Thank you very much.