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Once state support ends, life is difficult to navigate

Many youths face both financial, psychological pressure on reaching 18

by Masaaki Kameda

Staff Writer

Takayuki Watai lived in a children’s institution in Tokyo for most of his school years. Originally from Shizuoka Prefecture, Watai moved to Tokyo with his mother when he was around 5.

“I didn’t have a father, but my mother dated a man called ‘father.’ Then the company he ran (in Shizuoka) went bankrupt, and mom and I came to Tokyo to earn money,” recalled Watai, now 35, who said his life with his mother in the capital was not easy.

“I was neglected, I wasn’t fed or bathed properly, and I didn’t attend school regularly,” he said.

Watai was taken into temporary custody by a child consultation office at the age of 9 after he committed a minor offense, was caught by police, and subsequently placed in a children’s institution, he said.

“I don’t know exactly what my mother did, but I guess she consulted with the office as I might have been too much for her to handle,” Watai said. “When my mother came to see me at the temporary custody facility a couple of months later, I thought I’d go back home, but it turned out I was moved to a children’s institution.”

Stories like Watai’s are not rare in Japan. It used to be that many of the children placed in institutions were orphans or those with parents who had gone missing. Nowadays, the top reason young people are sent to children’s homes is domestic abuse and parental neglect.

In 2008, the number of such children stood at 10,447, accounting for 33.1 percent of all cases, outnumbering other groups who are placed in state care for other reasons. In 1977, there were only 2,590 such children, just 8.2 percent of the total, according to Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry statistics.

Children can expect more stability in a state institution, but they must leave the facilities when they turn 18, though their stay can be extended two more years if necessary.

That’s when many end up in dire straits, both financially and psychologically.

Experts are calling for more understanding from society about the situations these children face. They are also demanding that aftercare support be beefed up, because after leaving the so-called social child care system, provided through children’s institutions and foster families, they have only themselves to rely on, even though many continue to grapple with trauma suffered in childhood.

Ami Takahashi, who runs Yuzuriha, a consultation center for former residents of children’s institutions in the city of Koganei, western Tokyo, said that in Japan the biggest safety net for most people is support from parents and family, something that’s taken for granted by most people but out of reach for those who grew up in institutions.

“Trauma from abuse doesn’t suddenly disappear just because you turn 20,” she said. “They can’t depend on their parents and family while suffering from trauma.”

Furthermore, many of those leaving the system have difficulty supporting themselves and find it hard to devote the time and money needed to obtain academic and professional training, Takahashi said.

She said more support is desperately needed for those who leave the institutions, as she has seen many people facing difficulties down the road. Some of the people she’s met have gone on to commit suicide, become homeless or end up in jail, she said.

Yuzuriha’s aftercare program is funded by subsidies from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and donations from corporations. Its staffers provide advice and help with housing, work, education and life problems.”We very often have requests to help people file for personal bankruptcy or apply for welfare benefits. We also accompany people on visits to psychiatrists,” Takahashi said.

She explained that children who have grown up in institutions have a hard enough time just trying to access public assistance.

“For example, when they apply for welfare benefits, they often get turned away at the gate as they have difficulty explaining their situation properly,” Takahashi said. “They tend to give up applying for a benefit if they have an unpleasant exchange with bureaucrats. That’s when we step in to speak up for them.”

The same goes for visits to psychiatrists, Takahashi said, as people who grew up in state care often can’t appropriately verbalize their mental conditions.

Yuzuriha also provides services such as free lessons for those wanting to obtain a high school proficiency certificate.

“Most of the individuals we support have only finished junior high or have dropped out of high school. Job options are limited if you don’t have a high school diploma at the very least,” Takahashi said.

Yuzuriha received 11,686 inquiries in the year ending March 2013 from 206 individuals, including 88 people who had left either children’s institutions or foster parents. The total also included queries from 86 officials from groups or agencies who were seeking information on behalf of children, according to the organization.

About 74 percent of the inquiries were about life matters and about 10 percent had to do with entering school and working, according to Takahashi, who added that many of the 88 people were in their late 20s and 30s.

These numbers just represent “the tip of the iceberg,” Takahashi observed, adding that many people simply give up on seeking help.

“We have to create an environment that allows people to seek advice from officials while they’re still in an institution. If they can’t get support from officials, they’ll think there’s no point speaking up or they’ll regret asking,” she said.

Meanwhile Watai, who is now a professional musician, serves as head of a self-help group called Hinatabokko, which was set up in 2006 by people who, like him, have lived in children’s institutions. Based in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward, the nonprofit organization offers a place for people to drop by and share problems.

“Hinatabokko provides consultations for those who need help,” Watai said. “We also work to inform people of the suffering and problems that beset people who have left social child care, so that children who are still in the system don’t encounter similar troubles.”

Watai stressed the importance of peer counseling, saying it’s hard for disadvantaged children to discuss their worries with the institutions they used to live in due to a number of reasons.

“Some people hate the institutions. Others, on the contrary, feel so indebted to them they don’t want to reveal their weaknesses to them,” Watai said. “But it’s easy for them to talk to us because we used to be in their shoes.”

Watai has a lot to offer those who come looking for help, because he has gone through so much. His life in an institution was physically fulfilling — he was fed well and given an allowance — but he was also bullied by the older children.

Watai stayed at the same facility for eight years until he turned 18. Looking back on his time there, the first thing that came to mind was of having to restrain himself.

“Even if I had a problem, I wouldn’t talk to anyone about it. It didn’t seem to be a big deal compared to what some of the other kids were going through,” Watai said.

He also said he didn’t talk about his home life at his school as it was too much trouble to explain.

“I couldn’t tell (people) that I was living in a children’s institution. People would ask, ‘What do your mom and dad do?’ and I had an inferiority complex, as my situation was so different from other kids,” he recalled.

Watai is still struggling to face and accept his past, but his interest in music has helped him cope by giving him a sense of affirmation and enabling him to express his thoughts.

“I first felt that people saw me for who I was in elementary school when a teacher invited me to join a wind orchestra. Playing in the orchestra gave me a sense of confidence,” Watai said.

Watai noted he started songwriting when he was in high school and gradually learned to express his thoughts and feelings through the lyrics he wrote.

“Perhaps, I had long had a desire to express my thoughts through lyrics. Creating songs lets me face my past,” he said.

After graduating from high school and leaving the institution, Watai decided to pursue his career as a musician while working part-time.

Now he’s active in a professional vocalists group that he helped found in 2003. He said the trauma of child abuse stays with victims forever, but what matters is how you view it.

“I’d like them to know you are here thanks to the trauma; you’re strong and tender and all the better for it. You need to have confidence in the fact you have gone through experiences that others can’t even imagine, even though I know it’s hard to face the trauma and sometimes you might remember things you don’t really want to,” Watai said.

Yuzuriha’s Takahashi said society as a whole should think harder about how to ensure the sound development of all children.

“The more I engage in aftercare affairs, the more I feel it’s important to create a society where children can feel secure and healthy regardless of their family background,” Takahashi said.