On a winter day in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, people were picking apples in an orchard that had recovered from the deadly March 2011 tsunami.
For the participants, too, the harvesting was a step toward recovery. It was part of a training camp to bring people who have failed to gain a foothold in the labor market even though they are in the prime of life.
“I have discovered the joy of moving my body,” said participant Wataru Isomoto, 30. Since finishing graduate school, Isomoto has been looking for work for 1½ years. He said he was more optimistic after meeting others in his situation.
A 32-year-old man who declined to give his name revealed that he lived an isolated life for around three years after losing his information technology job due to illness. He said that as he talked with other people at the training camp, most of whom were younger than him, he made up his mind to return to normal life.
Rikuzentakata was one of the areas hit hardest by the tsunami from the Great East Japan Earthquake. The growing ranks of young jobless who stay at home and become isolated has become a serious problem. Many are often dismissed as NEETs (not in education, employment or training) or as the shut-ins dubbed hikikomori.
The orchard outing was organized by Sodateage-Net, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization. Kei Kudo, 38, who heads the NPO, said socially isolated, jobless people who are still in the prime of life should not be dismissed as good-for-nothings.
“The problem is that once people become jobless because they have failed to find a first job or have lost their job due to illness or injury, it is very difficult to get out of that situation,” explained Kudo, whose organization targets people aged 15 to 39.
In Japan, people with resumes that include an extended period of joblessness carry a social stigma and tend to be shunned by employers. Under such circumstances, Kudo believes it is wrong to dismiss the unemployed as people who failed to maintain “self-responsibility.” Sodateage-Net helps such people claw their way back into the labor market by giving them work experience.
Mingling and talking with each other gives such people the courage to move forward, because “they realize that ‘I’m not alone,’ ” Kudo said.
Kudo was born in Fussa, a Tokyo suburb, to parents who were making a living by giving children private classes. His parents were also accepting teenagers to live with them who had served time in juvenile detention centers or had other difficulties. So, his taking up the cause of helping struggling people may have been “inevitable,” he said.
After spending two years in university, he went to the United States to study. While at an American university, he became interested in the issue of youth unemployment and traveled to Britain and Germany with other students to see with his own eyes how those countries deal with the problem. Kudo said he realized that like those the European countries, Japan should also take action to support jobless youth.
In 2001, after returning to Japan, Kudo created the predecessor to Sodateage-Net at the age of 23. In addition to providing job training, the NPO advises the unemployed and their parents, too, and helps to obtain jobs through internships. Over the years, the organization, which now has 200 employees, has assisted around 12,000 people.
Kudo acknowledged that public awareness has grown about the importance of supporting jobless people still in their prime, citing a law enacted in 2010 to that end. Meanwhile, an estimated 2.2 million people between 15 and 39 remain jobless.
Saying that “our support alone is not sufficient,” he called for further efforts to tackle the problem, which includes a lack of education and skills among people raised in poor families.
Once a month, the “graduates” — people who land a job after receiving help from Sodateage-Net — get together at its headquarters in the city of Tachikawa in Tokyo to compare notes.
At one such gathering, Junki Okamoto, who works for a firm of certified social insurance and labor consultants, expressed appreciation for the help he got when struggling to escape his rut.
“I owe what I am to the kind support I received when I didn’t know what I wanted to do and was losing confidence in myself,” he said.
The atmosphere of the meeting was lively, with Kudo, accompanied by his wife and four children, going around among former proteges to ask about their work and dispense advice. “I’m glad that I can continue to socialize with graduates. This refreshes my spirit,” he said.
Kudo said his initiative should be viewed not just as an altruistic activity, but as an “investment for society.” If jobless people join the labor force, the tab for public assistance will fall and tax revenue will grow as they come off the dole and start to pay taxes. He believes that should be reason enough for the government, companies and ordinary people to become serious about helping to put insecure young people back on their feet.
“Our society must be one that reaches out to people struggling to stand up,” Kudo said.