A 79-year-old man in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, received a post in late April with an official appearance printed in English.
The addressee was the US Treasury Department. Inside the envelope he found a check for $ 1,400 (153,000 yen).
His wife also received a check for the same amount.
They are among the Japanese recipients of US stimulus checks to boost the economy during the pandemic, which is in doubt about what to do with the surprise payments.
According to a person related to a major bank, the bank’s call center has been flooded since May 11 with inquiries about U.S. stimulus checks.
“As far as the bank is concerned, we have to ask the US side to pay,” the person said if a person wants to cash a check and the person’s identity is verified. “We do not have a way to investigate whether the person is eligible to receive the check.”
In the case of the Kamakura man, he thought the checks were related to his US social security benefits.
He used to work for a large Japanese electronics company and was seconded to its US-based subsidiary for about five years from 1978.
He paid social security taxes over the years. Based on the bilateral agreement between Japan and the United States, he and his wife receive a $ 500 monthly social security payment from the U.S. government.
But the US financial check did not come with an explanation.
The man asked a friend who used to be posted in the US who told him that the check is part of the US government’s new coronavirus aid and suggested he could probably redeem it.
The man got the idea to put the $ 2,800 in his pockets and said to himself, “The United States has so much money left over that it is giving (checks) out to foreigners like me who lived there about 40 years ago.”
He called a bank in Japan and asked how to redeem checks.
But a bank staff told him checks were likely intended for U.S. citizens.
The man later sent an e-mail written in Japanese to the US Embassy in Japan, asking, “Can a Japanese citizen redeem it as well?”
The embassy replied to him the following day in English, saying: “We are aware that this affects US citizens in Japan, especially those who do not have a US bank account.”
The email also said the case is under the jurisdiction of the Internal Revenue Services and included a phone number to call the IRS.
After all, the man decided not to do anything.
“Only because I do not want to go through all the hassle of making an international phone call,” he said.
The man instead put the two checks in a file in which he has kept pension-related documents.
He said he remained in the dark.
“I do not know what to do from now on,” said the man, staring at the checks.
Today, banks in Japan are wary of taking a check issued abroad to prevent money laundering.
But in cases like when a US citizen living in Japan has to deposit a check, some banks will meet their needs.
President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act, a trillion-dollar package to rapidly increase the U.S. economic recovery from the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, was signed into law in March.
The Economic Impact Payments are part of the package that provides up to $ 1,400 to eligible U.S. citizens and residents with some restrictions such as income amounts.
The former Trump administration twice provided similar stimulus check payments.
According to data collected by the US government, about 70,000 people living in Japan from 2019 will receive social security benefits based on the bilateral agreement between Japan and the United States adopted in October 2005, known as the Totalization Agreement.
The number is relatively high among other advanced countries.
Donna Kepley, president of Arctic International LLC, an international tax consulting firm, said she believes the IRS made a mistake “by linking stimulus payments to people who get paid for the totality agreement” and “the computer programmers who were to write the program to indicate which people who should get a check probably did not do it as restrictively as they should have done. ”
Quite a few unqualified recipients, including the deceased, received a stimulus check issued under the Trump administration, probably due to errors in application forms, as reported in the media.
Kepley said the Biden administration has prioritized the speed of providing control to those in need.
Within two months of March 12, 165 million stimulus checks totaling $ 388 billion were issued.
“From a programming standpoint, it’s probably better to get checks in the hands of hundreds of millions of people, and then maybe 5,000 will have to return them,” Kepley said. “That seems to be the logic of the IRS. Because if they waited and did it more restrictively, the people who were going to get it might not get it, and it would also take much longer.”
In response to a query from The Asahi Shimbun, the IRS said: “A non-resident alien in 2021 is not eligible for the payment.” The IRS said those who received a check should write “VOID” on the back and send it back to the IRS center in Texas.
Kepley said it is illegal for Japanese citizens who live in Japan and are not green card holders to cash checks. She warned that if they did not return the payment, they could receive a warning letter from the IRS in 2022.
“So the way it works in the US is that if you get a payment that is wrong and you keep it, then when you get caught when the IRS contacts you, you have to pay the money back plus a fine plus interest on the money, because you’ve had them to use, ”Kepley said.
She continued: “It is very important that if people are not green card holders, if they are in fact a non-resident foreigner, then they return the money as soon as possible.”
Otherwise, they may see a reduction in their future social security payments, she said.
Shunji Ichikawa, who runs a consulting center for people traveling between Japan and abroad, said many of the recipients who received a stimulus check are not eligible to redeem it.
“It seems sensational in the Japanese sense, but there is a cultural difference that makes emergency aid a top priority and deals with negative effects as they arise,” Ichikawa said.
(This article was written by Makoto Tsuchiya and Erika Toh in Tokyo and Naoatsu Aoyama in Washington.)