Municipalities and support groups are offering after-school care for children who are alone at home because their parents have to work long hours or late at night due to low income, hoping to break the poverty cycle.
The supporters help them build good habits such as washing their hands and doing household tasks, as children from poor households often lack knowledge of everyday hygiene or households chores.
“I’m home! Let’s go out and play!” one child said to a staff member as about 10 early-grade pupils at an after-school care center in Toda, Saitama Prefecture, began assembling at around 3 p.m.
The children from low-income families stay at the facility, operated by a nonprofit organization called Learning for All, after school until 9 p.m. Public after-school care centers usually close at 7 p.m. or earlier, and the children have to stay alone at their homes for hours until their parents return.
The facility was founded in November 2016 by the Nippon Foundation and the Toda Municipal Government.
The center has dining and living rooms where children can eat and play. After playing outside and getting dirty, they can take showers and have their clothes cleaned in a washing machine. “Children from impoverished families tend to have fewer opportunities to read books and experience things,” said Hayato Hanaoka, an official at the Nippon Foundation. “We worry these children will never feel inspired to study.
“So we believe adults should help them build self-esteem and develop a positive attitude toward life,” he said.
Child poverty is becoming more serious in Japan. A 2015 survey report released by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare found that 13.9 percent of children under 18 — or 1 in every 7 — were in households living on less than half the national median household’s disposable income.
In many of these cases, their parents also grew up in poor families. They are not always aware of the importance of hygiene and health, such as taking baths regularly and eating a balanced diet, or are unable to teach their children about these things due to physical or mental disabilities.
The center in Toda teaches children habits such as putting their school backpacks in racks and washing their hands once they arrive at the center, as well as brushing their teeth after meals and studying at a set time each day.
At the center children also learn to do household chores, including setting the table for dinner and clearing their plates. The staff praise them if they perform the chores.
As a result, children who had not been taught these habits before start to sit at the desk and do their homework on their own initiative when study time comes, staff said.
Besides the city of Toda, the foundation has launched after-school care projects with other municipalities including the city of Mino in Osaka Prefecture and the city of Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture. It plans to increase the number to 100 across Japan by 2020.
Two years ago, in collaboration with a local welfare association, Tadataka Yukishige, a social worker based in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, launched an evening child care program based at nursing care and other facilities that are unused during the night.
“It’s OK that they don’t study some days, as what’s more important is that they have a place they want to come to,” he said.
Children participate three days a week, eating and playing with volunteer teachers as well as bathing. The program is currently organized at 10 locations in the prefecture.
“Children should spend time and laugh together with adults for the sake of their healthy growth,” Yukishige said.