Foreign volunteers in Tokyo and Tottori bring cheer to Fukushima children's homes

Some 40,000 children in Japan do not live with their families and 90 percent of such youngsters live in children’s homes. While these institutions are sometimes called “orphanages,” the majority of the children have been removed from the family home for reasons that include parental neglect, abuse or financial issues. In some cases, parents relinquish care of their children voluntarily.

Fostering and adoption are still the exception rather than the norm in Japan, and upon entering a children’s home, a child typically stays there until they finish high school at 18. After leaving, they frequently struggle in society, marginalized for having grown up without the opportunities that other people take for granted. This week Lifelines introduces two groups working to make life better for these young people.

Living Dreams

Living Dreams works with children’s homes in both Tokyo and Fukushima, enabling and empowering youngsters with experiential learning and information technology. The NPO was started in 2001 by American Patrick Newell and a small group of friends. Newell is also the founder of Tokyo International School, and at a recent benefit for Living Dreams he spoke about his firm belief in giving children tools to help them realize their full potential.

“The challenge for many of these kids is that don’t have a dream for their future, or even if they do, they are not sure how to reach it,” he says.

Living Dreams has been running summer arts camps for children in Tokyo for the past seven years. After the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, the group realized there was a need to help children in Tohoku, and reached out to several homes in Fukushima Prefecture. Since the logistics made bringing the children to Tokyo for the summer camps too difficult, the current director, Michael Clemons, and his team explored other avenues.

The result was the Digital Natives program, which aims to put a computer in the hands of every child in the homes. In a society where most youngsters are media savvy, only 5 percent of those in children’s homes have access to computers and the Internet. This holds them back in many ways.

“These children don’t have ready access to information and that can have a major impact on their future. For example, they can’t do research on education opportunities,” says Satoshi Hayakawa, director of the Kodomo no Ie, one of the children’s homes in Tokyo working with Living Dreams. “They tend to think they have to get a job when they leave the home, not realizing there are other options.”

While around half of Japanese high school graduates go on to university, a mere 9 percent of those coming from children’s homes do.

Since 2013 Living Dreams has been partnering with corporate sponsors to not only bring computers to children in Tokyo and Fukushima, but also to provide detailed instruction on how to get the most out of the devices.

Getting the computers into the hands of the children has not been without challenges. Already very busy caring for the children and not always technologically savvy themselves, staff at the homes are sometimes reluctant to expose their charges to computers, fearing difficulties with monitoring their use.

Lois Kawashima, one of the NPO’s core members, liaises with some of the homes in Tokyo. She notes that helping the staff to feel comfortable with bringing in the computers is crucial to the success of the Digital Natives program.

“We are helping to bring them into the digital age,” she says. “We want every child to be all that they can be.”

Cheer for Fukushima

At the other end of country in Tottori, a group of young people is working to raise funds for the Iwaki Ikueisha children’s home in Fukushima. Having sustained damage in the 2011 earthquake, the home is being rebuilt and is in need of funds. The Cheer for Fukushima campaign is bringing together the international community of Tottori in a spirit of caring and sharing.

The main movers and shakers are foreign nationals working in local schools as assistant language teachers on the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) program. At a gathering for JETs last January, anyone interested in participating in a fund-raising event was invited to share their skills.

Cheer for Fukushima was founded by Matt Rogers, a Briton, and fellow ALT Rena Yamasaki from Canada.

“More than 30 people from different countries put their names down. We stayed in regular contact with them and upon finalizing our plans, we allocated each person to their roles. We also had extra help from members of an English club at a local high school,” says Rogers.

At the end of last month, Cheer for Fukushima held a day of international culture, which included food and craft booths from various countries and a wide range of performers of all ages. Rogers reports that the many volunteers, sponsors and performers worked tirelessly to make the event a resounding success.

Every group in Japan needs a mascot, and Cheer for Fukushima has Mirai-chan, a smiling paper fan.

Rogers says that one of the best things about organizing the event was being able to inspire a provincial city like Tottori to do something for Fukushima through international culture, and he encourages other foreign nationals to follow suit.

“It’s important to have an idea about what you want to do and why. Contacting your local international organization for their advice on your plans would be a good first move,” he suggests. “There is no better feeling than seeing an idea come to life which brings together your local community to raise money for a great cause, in the country you have adopted as home.”

Living Dreams:; Cheer For Fukushima: Online donations for Iwaki Ikueisha children’s home can be made at Louise George Kittaka has been based in Japan since she was 20. In the ensuing years she has survived PTA duty for three kids in the Japanese education system and singing live on the NHK “Nodo Jiman” show, among other things. Your questions and comments:

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