Open the door to a small studio tucked away on a street near Kokubunji Station in western Tokyo on a Friday evening, and you’ll find a group of young adults making jam or Japanese ponzu citrus-based sauce as they chat quietly amongst themselves.

The scene might not strike an innocent bystander as anything out of the ordinary, but the lives of these people are anything but.

The majority of the people who gather here are those who have suffered abuse in various shapes and forms, and have struggled to find the support they need to get back on track as adults.

Sporting wavy, black hair and a bright smile, 45-year-old Ami Takahashi weaves her way through the room. She is the director of Yuzuriha — a consultation center mainly for adults who were brought up in child care institutions. The center also doubles as a studio for a number of side projects to provide “after-care services” for supporting them.

The services include social events, teaching programs to help adults finish high school, and jam-making sessions, which help the unemployed earn a little cash and ease back into the working world.

But the bulk of the work at Yuzuriha comes from its consultation center, which handles about 30,000 calls and email messages from about 400 people a year. Clients vary widely in age, with the oldest in their 60s.

“People call in saying they can’t pay their rent and don’t have a place to live, or they are pregnant and want an abortion but their partners won’t let them get one. Sometimes they want to go to a psychiatrist but don’t have the money,” Takahashi explained to The Japan Times.

“Our main job is to work on solving these issues with the client,” she added.

On a usual day, Takahashi might accompany a client to a local municipality to apply for welfare benefits, or go to the police with a caller to report a case of domestic violence.

Most people contact Yuzuriha with financial problems, such as getting in over their heads with debt or not having the money to pay for an abortion.

But scratch the surface, and there are issues that run deeper than just being out of cash.

“A lot of the issues stem from people not being able to work,” Takahashi says.

In some cases, trauma from abuse has harmed their mental well-being, making work much more difficult to resume. Takahashi recalled a case where a client was hit by a flashback triggered by an angry manager at a former workplace.

“The issue is that these people have nowhere to turn to when they reach the breaking point. They have no parents or support system to put them up while they get back on their feet, so it’s very easy for their lives to start unraveling. Before long, they might end up homeless, stuck in an unhappy relationship, or falling victim to the sex industry,” she added.

Takahashi herself had a strained relationship with her father, who sometimes lashed out at her with harsh words in hopes she would take up his dream of becoming a table tennis player. She says the experience helps her deal with difficult cases and recognize the mix of emotions her clients go through.

The experience itself, however, wasn’t what led her to create Yuzuriha. Rather, she fell into the role in 2011 after finding there was barely any support system in place for young people previously in children’s institutions who then came upon hardship, such as financial struggle or mental illness — something she witnessed during her nine years working at a facility for those 15 and above.

“I would work so hard to help these children become self-sufficient, but they would call me after leaving the institution, saying they were sleeping in the streets or already several months pregnant. I just couldn’t understand why they couldn’t reach out for help earlier,” Takahashi said.

“Eventually I realized that I had unconsciously been telling them to be independent by saying they had to work really hard and be extra strong because they won’t be able to rely on their parents. After that realization, I changed my rhetoric and started saying we would be there for them if something happens,” she said.

As more and more people — both graduates and nongraduates of the facility — started asking her for help by word of mouth, she decided to establish a separate center that would accept consultations from anyone, regardless of where they had been.

However, even after creating a consultation center where anyone can come in with any problem at any time, Takahashi still finds the calls coming in too late.

Takahashi finds that in many cases, the people seeking help delayed reaching out because they felt it was their own responsibility to sort out their own problems — something Takahashi feels society in general expects as well.

“I personally feel that many of the people who really need help can’t reach out because they think they haven’t worked hard enough, or it’s their own fault. In a society where adults are expected to sort everything out themselves, it’s really hard for people to ask for the help they need,” she said.

But that is exactly why she always makes an effort to thank those who do come to Yuzuriha to reach out.

“Unless those who are struggling speak up, the issues they face will never come to light. Those who raise their voices help us see the problems we have as a society, and make it easier for others in the same situation to come forward too, and for that I am truly grateful,” she said.

“It makes me think of the opportunities we have to create a better social system together, and to identify the support that people really need,” she continued.

“At times I really do think of those who ask for help here at Yuzuriha as almost like partners in my work,” she added with a slight smile.

Key events in Takahashi’s life

  • 1998 Graduates from Japan College of Social Work in Tokyo.
  • 2002 Starts work at Asunaroso, an institution in Tokyo that helps people around the ages of 15 to 20 become independent and self-sufficient.
  • 2011 Establishes Yuzuriha.
  • 2017 First person to receive the Champion of Change Japan Award for shedding light on female Japanese leaders who address pressing needs in their communities.

Yuzuriha, which is managed under a welfare organization called Kodomo no Ie — the same organization that manages the children’s institution Takahashi used to work at before setting up Yuzuriha — covers its expenses with funding from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, as well as donations from corporations and individuals. They also accept textbooks, stationery and computers as donations at www.acyuzuriha.com.

“Generational Change” is a series of interviews profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about changes in society.

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