National / Social Issues

Released from reformatory, Japanese 'idol' launches support group for neglected children

Kyodo

Parental neglect, bullying and juvenile delinquency — these are the things the 20-year-old idol who goes by the name Kanano Senritsu says she has gone through. But she seems to be transforming the pain of her past into strength, having launched a group to support children who are struggling the same way she did.

“I want to save children who do not have anywhere to go,” said Senritsu, whose disclosure that she went to a juvenile reformatory is a rarity for a person in the entertainment business. She is a chika “idol” whose main activity is performing live concerts, despite not belonging to a major agency, and she has over 30,000 followers on Twitter.

Senritsu was born in Osaka Prefecture, but she moved to Tokyo after her parents divorced. When she was a second-grader in elementary school, her mother did not return home for a week. “I used all the money that was prepared, and in the end there was nothing to eat,” she recalled.

Being a young girl, she grew worried that her mother might have actually died. She and her younger sister waited in hunger, drinking tap water. Her mother eventually returned and Senritsu found that she had just gone for a trip abroad with a man she was seeing.

Her mother had brought back a souvenir to the children, but Senritsu said she “couldn’t even vent anger” against her mother.

Due to neglect, Senritsu did not take baths and her hair was untidy. Her classmates called her “dirty,” and the bullying, which sometimes escalated into violence, continued through the third year of junior high school. She shoplifted and even went so far as to join the “JK” business, which offers dating services by joshi kōsei, or female high school students, to adult men.

“I was obsessed with money because I had been hungry. I wanted to earn money and live independently,” she said.

Senritsu was temporarily placed in a child consultation center for her protection and then sent to a family court before entering a girl’s training school for juvenile delinquents in the city of Komae in western Tokyo in January 2014, meaning she had quit high school.

She initially took a defiant attitude toward the instructors at the facility, but eventually she engaged in self-reflection, as she was not allowed to use a smartphone and reading books was one of the few recreational activities allowed there. “When I did some soul-searching after reading a book, I was able to think ‘So that’s why I felt such and such’ and come to terms with those feelings.”

She passed a high school equivalence test and was released from the reformatory in the summer of 2016.

She then started her activities as a chika idol, drawing attention by winning one of the prizes in the Miss iD 2018 audition, an event hosted last November by major publisher Kodansha Ltd. that looks for unique girls to develop into idols.

As her Twitter account followers have grown, Senritsu believes she can now have her voice heard and so set up the support group, named Bae, in the hope that its existence will assist children who need help.

“This was what I wanted to do most,” she said. She decided to disclose her past because she thought it would build trust.

The group is in its early stages, but Senritsu has a lot of plans, such as creating a canteen for children living in poverty or starting a delivery service for such households. She is also considering starting a mental support service provided by juveniles released from training schools to children who have suffered abuse.

Senritsu said she aims to create a safety net so society will not miss signs from children that they need help. She also passed a university law exam this spring and is now busy responding to requests asking her to speak about her experiences to others.

“Things can change if you take action,” she said.