Laughter and lively chatter filled a room at a modest apartment in Tokyo one recent Thursday night, as more than two dozen kids and volunteers gathered around tables laden with curry, rice, salad and fruits.
Misako Omura’s weekly dinner is one of a growing number of kodomo shokudo, or “children’s cafeterias,” that are springing up across Japan. The mostly grassroots efforts seek to address a range of child-related issues, from poverty to ensuring that those with late-working parents get a proper dinner.
A tally by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper found 319 such places serving free or low-cost meals across Japan as of May, up from 21 in 2013.
Over the past 70 years, Japan’s rising affluence has banished most of the penury of the lean years during and after World War II, when children sometimes starved and many families went hungry. However, despite its ultramodern conveniences, Japan had the 10th-highest child poverty rate among 31 relatively well-off countries in a 2013 UN Children’s Fund report.
Poverty in Japan is largely hidden, as it can lead to public shame and discrimination. Families often skimp on food and other necessities to ensure children are dressed well enough to avoid being seen as disadvantaged. Such children might have smartphones, but not the money to buy a ￥100 (US$1) box of juice or participate in a school field trip, said Setsuko Ito, who heads the child-rearing support division in Tokyo’s working-class Arakawa ward.
Omura started her weekly dinner in Arakawa in 2014 to create a space to welcome local children who might not get enough support from their families, schools and communities.
Her initiative, supported by donations and a grant from the district office, is meant to counter a void left as communities hollow out and family ties unravel, leaving many parents and children isolated and struggling to cope.
The kids and volunteers pay ￥300 for dinner.
Omura emphasized that the children who come to her weekly dinners are not necessarily living in poverty. In some cases, they just have to dine alone, because their parents are working late.
She asked reporters not to interview the children, out of concern that public exposure might lead to harassment at school and in their neighborhood, or even when applying for jobs in the future.
Slightly more than half of all Japanese single-parent households are considered to be under the poverty line. Single mothers, who make an average of ￥150,000 per month, get limited support from welfare programs.
Although a 2013 law aims to coordinate national and local government efforts to provide educational, living and economic support, many local officials are struggling with the issue, said Kaori Suetomi, a professor specializing in education administration and finance at Nihon University in Tokyo.
“Until now, Japan hasn’t really dealt with child poverty, and officials are not sure what to do,” said Suetomi, coauthor of a recent report on policies devised by local governments across Japan to address the issue.
The problem is that budgets for those programs are not guaranteed, so some local governments have had to abandon programs, she said.
Child poverty issues overlap between the education and welfare ministries, she said, adding that securing funds is difficult, as the ministries shuffle the responsibility of which should bear the cost.
The children’s cafeterias are an attempt to fill that void.
Kazuma Omoto, a former participant and aspiring teacher who volunteers at Omura’s dinners, said he attends to find himself and learn how to interact with younger children.
“It’s a wonderful place for that,” the high-school junior said. “I come here every week. Going forward, I hope I can study and learn many different things myself.”
‘SERIOUS QUESTIONS’: Three US senators sent a letter to the US commerce secretary asking whether the project ‘takes into consideration national security requirements’ US Senator Chuck Schumer and two other Democratic colleagues have written to top US administration officials asking for details of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co Ltd’s (TSMC) plan to build a US$12 billion fab in Arizona. Hsinchu-based TSMC on Thursday last week announced that it would build a plant to make 5 nanometer chips by 2024 that would have the capacity to produce 20,000 semiconductor wafers per month. The world’s biggest contract chipmaker already has one chipmaking fab in Camas, Washington, and design centers in Austin, Texas, and San Jose, California. It said it planned to start construction in Arizona next year and
VULNERABLE: Many women do not report sexual harassment by their landlord over fears they could lose the roof over their head, an expert said A growing number of landlords are asking tenants for sex in exchange for housing as COVID-19 lockdowns and job cuts have left many struggling to pay their rent, housing experts said. A survey by the National Fair Housing Alliance of more than 100 fair housing groups combating discrimination across the US found that 13 percent had seen an increase in sexual harassment complaints during the pandemic. “If I did not have sex with him, he was going to put me out,” one woman facing eviction by her property manager told the alliance in an podcast on its Web site. “As a single
MOM’S LONG CAMPAIGN: Mao Yin had been brought up in Mianyang, Sichuan Province, without any idea that he was the target of a decades-long, high-profile search A Chinese man who was stolen from his family as a toddler has been reunited with his parents after 32 years. Mao Yin (毛寅), then two-and-a-half years old, was snatched in 1988 when he was walking home from nursery with his father. His parents finally embraced him again on Monday in Xian, where he was born. After Mao vanished, his mother Li Jingzhi (李靜芝) quit her job and launched a decades-long search for her son, that included sending out more than 100,000 flyers and appearing on numerous TV shows. That long campaign helped 29 other families find their own missing children and made
HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES? An institute of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security and a company are to be sanctioned over ‘human rights violations and abuses’ The US Department of Commerce on Friday said that it would sanction a Chinese government institute and eight companies over alleged human rights abuses against Uighurs and other minorities in China’s western Xinjiang region. “These nine parties are complicit in human rights violations and abuses committed in China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, forced labor and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and other members of Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region,” the department said in a statement. The Chinese Ministry of Public Security’s Institute of Forensic Science and Aksu Huafu Textiles Co are to be sanctioned “for