Waseda University student Kazunari Takabe, 21, has devoted much of his time over the past three years to a rather unusual philanthropic activity: to make friends with teenagers fresh out of juvenile detention centers.
As a member of volunteer Big Brothers and Sisters Movement of Japan (BBS), Takabe, a Tokyo resident, said he aims to gain the trust of younger ex-offenders through a slew of activities, including barbecuing, karaoke, and studying together in hopes that the marginalized teens won’t feel alone after their release, so they can smoothly reintegrate into society.
With 50 local chapters and about 4,700 members nationwide, BBS members cooperate with the Justice Ministry, whose probation officers request a BBS member to buddy up with parolees. Based on their analysis of each case, probation officers decide what approach BBS members should take in communicating with each juvenile offender.
“Unlike probation officers, we’re not mature enough to come up with any sort of clever, insightful advice,” Takebe said. “But I do believe there are moments when our youth comes in handy and helps us better empathize with the troubled kids.”
When interacting with these young parolees, Takabe confesses to feeling constantly tested by them and careful that no sign of immorality be allowed to be seen in his own behavior.
“These are kids who have survived intense ups and downs in their lives that I can’t possibly imagine,” he said. “They know life much better than me. So if you misbehave or lie, they will see through it. Whenever I’ve made a mistake, I apologize and admit my fault right away.”
Takabe is currently in charge of a teen parolee with a history of theft, and his relationship with the boy has now lasted a year. It’s a huge accomplishment, Takabe said, given most BBS members see their missions abruptly cut short, sometimes because parolees relapse into criminal behavior and are returned to juvenile detention centers.
In what he considers an act worthy of no special gratitude, Takabe recently gave a small charm to the teen, who was preparing to take an exam for a high school diploma.
“He brimmed with delight and thanked me profusely,” Takabe recalled, adding he had never expected the teen to show such an exuberant expression of joy.
“For him, it was the very first charm he was ever given (before an exam),” he said. “It was a total eye-opener to me how acts we tend to consider normal could make these kids happy.”