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The welfare ministry will support children looking after younger siblings or providing nursing care for family members, after a government survey found an alarming increase in the number of such “young carers.”

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology announced results of their joint internet survey in April last year, finding that one in every 17 or so second-year junior high school students were young carers.

While there is no legal definition of a “young carer,” the term usually means a child younger than 18 who is taking care of a family member for reasons such as sickness, disability or advanced age. Demands on student caregivers are feared to be having negative effects on education.

The survey, the first of its kind, chiefly covered second-year students at public junior and senior high schools nationwide between December 2020 and February 2021. Responses were received from 5,558 junior high school students and 7,407 senior high school students.

Of the junior high school students, 319, or 5.7%, said they were looking after a family member. About 10% of the 319 students spent more than seven hours per weekday caring for someone. The senior high school respondents included 307 caregivers, accounting for 4.1% of the total.

Alarmed by the survey findings, the welfare ministry decided to launch a program in fiscal 2022 to send helpers to families with young carers.

Under the program, which will initially start in 50 municipalities chosen from applicants, dispatched helpers will support student caregivers not only by giving them advice but also by carrying out household chores, including taking younger siblings to and from nursery school. The program will cover families with anxieties about parenting as well.

Local governments are also starting to support young carers. In March 2020, the Saitama Prefectural Government adopted the nation’s first local government ordinance to support them. Among its measures, Saitama has opened a “Young Carer Online Saloon,” where student caregivers can easily hold conversations via the Zoom videoconference platform. It is believed to be the first system of its kind in Japan, according to Saitama officials.

The saloon is open for about two hours once a month. University students who have looked after family members attend as listeners and talk about their experiences when necessary.

The Saitama government has distributed posters and cards to 193 public and private high schools in the prefecture, north of Tokyo, to publicize the online program. With many student caregivers nationwide reluctant to reveal their status, the prefectural government accepts saloon participation by students from outside the prefecture.

The saloon is managed by Carer Action Network, a Tokyo-based incorporated association, on behalf of the prefectural government. “We hope high school students in similar circumstance will talk with each other and become friends at the saloon,” said Kyoko Mochida, who is head of the association.

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