Konoe Kitahara thinks her 10-year-old son, Jo, has a real chance of becoming an Olympic gymnast one day.
He finished third at a national competition for elementary school students, and he practices six days a week at a private gymnastics club.
Or at least he did until the beginning of last month. When his school in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward shut down on March 2 at the request of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19, Jo’s gymnastics club suspended operations as well.
“I have to watch him training while I’m working,” Kitahara says. “He gets so tired that he wants to slack off, so I have to keep him motivated and make him do it. Then I have to make his lunch, but my company mails me as I’m doing that, so I have to respond while he’s eating.Now, he trains at home for around three hours a day. With her husband still commuting to work, Kitahara finds herself being pressed into emergency service as Jo’s coach. That’s in addition to her full-time job working for a lifestyle website aimed at women, which she’s been doing from home since the middle of March, and the various tasks she has to do around the house every day.
“He never really used to spend much time at home because he was always practicing, so the school’s closure has hit him really hard,” she says. “When the school closed, he had to sacrifice everything else he was doing.”
Families around the world have had their lives turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic, and those in Japan are no exception. Even if parents and children have managed to avoid being infected by the virus itself, the disruption caused by measures to prevent its spread has affected almost every aspect of their daily lives.
On April 7, with the number of infections rising rapidly in urban areas, Abe declared a state of emergency that covered Tokyo, Osaka and five other prefectures, lasting until at least May 6. Nine days later, the state of emergency was extended to cover the whole country. Although Japan has no legal power to enforce the kind of hard lockdown that countries such as China and Italy have experienced, prefectural governors can now request private businesses to close and citizens to stay at home.
The first profound change to people’s lives, however, came more than a month earlier. And for millions of families around the country, it came like a bolt from the blue.
Abe announced on Feb. 27 — a Thursday — that he was requesting all elementary, junior high and high schools in Japan to close until early April, starting the following week. Reports say the sudden announcement was made without consulting the Education Ministry, and left parents, teachers and students scrambling to adapt.
Midori Enomoto is a 42-year-old mother of two who lives in Saitama Prefecture. Her son, 10-year-old Sota, is in fifth grade at elementary school, and her daughter, 7-year-old Haruka, is in second grade. Enomoto and her husband both have office jobs.
When her children’s school closed, however, Enomoto suddenly found herself working from home and looking after her children at the same time. The school will now remain shut until May at the earliest.
Unused to working from home, with no teaching experience and having received no set homework program from the school, Enomoto has had to make things up as she goes along.
“I can’t concentrate on my work,” says Enomoto, whose husband is still commuting to work. “My kids ask for help with their study, and I have to get lunch ready, and so on. When you’re at home, the number of things you have to do just stacks up.
“If I could work in a different room from the kids, I think it would be much smoother,” she says. “But if I do that, the kids come in after me. We all work in the same space and I can’t really concentrate because of that. It’s not really that I can’t concentrate because the house is too small. I think you would feel that way if your kids are with you no matter how big your house is.”
Enomoto says she is trying as best she can to teach her children herself, but she is keenly aware of her limitations. She worries about the effect the school shutdown is having on her kids’ educational development, but she doesn’t want to add to their stress by pushing them too hard, either.
Stress is something that families around the country are having to deal with as they try to keep functioning in unusual and difficult conditions.
Japanese houses, especially those in big cities, are generally smaller than those in other developed countries, and many do not have yards. Being cooped up together in a confined space becomes even more stressful when families are afraid of venturing outside for fear of catching COVID-19.
Fumika Nitta is a 30-year-old mother of three boys — age 9, 6 and 4 — who lives in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward. Her part-time job as a receptionist at a fitness club has been suspended since the club temporarily shut down in early March, and her husband has been working from home since the state of emergency was declared.
With five people spending every day inside a three-bedroom apartment, the strain is beginning to show.
“The stress is building up,” Nitta says. “Usually, whenever the kids are on a long break, we try to get them outside as much as we can. But in this situation, I don’t even like taking them with me when I go out shopping. If I do take them to the park and they see their friends, they start playing and their masks fall off or they throw them away. They’re still at an age where they can’t stop touching their faces or putting their fingers in their mouths.
“We’re mentally preparing ourselves to get through this until May,” she says. “But I’m worried about what happens if it drags on for longer.”
Experts have warned of the damaging effects that being shut inside for long periods can have on mental health, and a surge in incidents of domestic violence around the world has also been reported since the start of the pandemic. Adding fuel to the fire is the concern many people have about their financial situation.
Nitta is unsure whether she will be able to go back to work when the fitness club reopens, but her husband’s income has not been affected as of yet, and she is not overly worried about their immediate future.
Not all families in Japan are so lucky.
According to a 2015 survey report released by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, 13.9 percent of children in Japan — or 1 in every 7 — live below the poverty line. The child poverty rate is defined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as the ratio of children under the age of 18 who live in households earning less than half the national median income, and the figure for Japan is higher than the average for OECD member countries.
The situation is even worse for single-parent households. Figures from 2015 reveal that 50.8 percent of single-parent families in Japan are living in poverty — the highest rate of all OECD countries.
The disruption to everyday life amid the pandemic has hit families below the poverty line especially hard. Some children depend on school meals for a nutritious diet, while kids whose parents can’t afford to send them to cram schools are likely to fall even further behind with their studies.
The temporary closure of many kindergartens, nurseries and after-school care facilities since the state of emergency was declared has piled extra pressure on parents already struggling to make ends meet. Many have jobs that they can’t do from home, and many feel they have no option but to leave their children home alone while they go off to work.
“For parents living in poverty, particularly single parents, not working is really the last resort,” says Shinzo Nakazato, head of Living in Peace, a nonprofit organization that helps disadvantaged children.
“Basically, they have no choice but to leave their kids at home on their own. That leads to neglect, even though it’s not something that the parent wants to happen,” Nakazato says. “Usually, a child will spend half the day at school, and they will get a meal there and they’ll be watched by a teacher. Then, when they suddenly lose that, it means they’re not guaranteed a meal and they’re spending the day on their own. They lose the rhythm of their daily life.”
Satomi, who spoke on condition that her surname is not published due to privacy concerns, is a single mother who lives in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture. She works in the engineering division of a chemical manufacturer.
The nursery that Satomi’s 3-year-old daughter attends has asked parents to look after their own children as much as possible over the coming weeks. Satomi has come to an understanding where she will take her daughter to the nursery for part of the day, and then work from home for the rest.
Satomi considers herself to be in a far more fortunate position than most single parents, but she knows how precarious her situation is.
“It was very stressful until I got things sorted out,” Satomi says. “Even now, I don’t really know what’s going to happen from now on. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep taking my daughter to nursery.
“The most important thing is my child’s health, and whether I can continue to do my job. If the economy goes bad and I lose my job, I’ll be in real trouble.”
On April 7, the government approved a ¥108 trillion relief package to support businesses and households struggling to deal with the economic fallout from the pandemic.
Initially, the government was set to distribute ¥300,000 to some low-income households, while households that receive a monthly child allowance would receive a further one-off payment of ¥10,000 per child.
Opposition lawmakers criticized the plan, arguing that it did not provide enough support for needy families or act quickly enough. On Friday, Abe announced that the government had decided to change tack, and will now hand a ¥100,000 payment to everyone in Japan, regardless of income.
Yumiko Watanabe, head of Kids’ Door, a nonprofit organization that supports children from low-income families, says parents living in poverty need to be assured they will have financial assistance if they stay at home and don’t work.
“People feel there is nothing they can do, and they need support from somewhere,” she says. “If the government can at least give them enough money to eat, they can stay home and look after their children until this period is over.”
Although families with higher incomes may not be so concerned about their immediate financial survival, that doesn’t mean they aren’t worried about their futures as well.
Junko Sugiyama is 45 years old and lives with her husband and their 11-year-old daughter, Miyu, in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture. She works for a company that organizes overseas weddings.
Sugiyama says that by the time the state of emergency had been declared, her firm was only able to organize weddings in Okinawa. Now, she doubts even that is viable, given that Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki last week called on residents of the prefectures under the state of emergency to refrain from visiting the archipelago.
Sugiyama is anxious about the future of her company and also worried that her husband, who can’t work from home and is still commuting to his workplace, will become infected with COVID-19.
Not all the changes to her life brought on by the pandemic have been negative, though.
“I’ve realized I can actually work from home,” Sugiyama says. “I’ve also been able to spend more time with my daughter. I’ve always been working, so I used to only be able to spend a lot of time with her on Saturdays and Sundays.
“I put my daughter into a nursery before she was a year old,” she says. “I haven’t spent this much time with her since I was on maternity leave. It sounds strange to say I’m happy about the situation, but I’m enjoying spending time with her.”
Watanabe, whose Kids’ Door organization provides free study classes for children from low-income families, believes it’s important to maintain such a sense of perspective in the current situation.
She cautions against pushing kids too hard with their studies, and says attempts to re-create the classroom environment at home are unlikely to work. She encourages parents to let their children study subjects they enjoy rather than forcing them to do the ones they struggle with, and preaches the benefits of periodic exercise for the physical and mental health of both parents and children.
Patience and understanding, Watanabe says, are the key to getting through such an unprecedented situation.
“One month is a long time,” Watanabe says. “Kids cry every day. You might think your child has studied and exercised well, but then today they don’t want to do anything at all. You take the days when your child has done well as the standard, and then you criticize them when they fall short of that. You have to understand that kids have good days and bad days, just like everyone else.
“In Japan, there’s a lot of pressure on children to conform to what’s expected of them,” she continues. “If a child does something they’re not supposed to, they’ll be told that and they’ll feel stress. It’s best to take a step back from that. If the parents are happy and smiling, the children will feel safe and secure. It’s very important that parents are aware of their own stress and try not let it build up.”
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