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Japan looking for new ways to help recluses find their place

This photo taken on July 2, 2018 shows men playing shogi, or Japanese chess during a monthly gathering held by nonprofit organization Letter Post Friend Consultation Network in Sapporo, with the aim of helping isolated people gain a foothold in everyday life. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Municipalities across Japan are reaching out to middle-aged social recluses, looking to help them find their place in society without focusing solely on getting them into the workforce.

Japan has some 540,000 people aged 15 to 39 who, aside from taking care of small chores, cut themselves off from the outside world for 6 months or longer at a time, according to a 2016 government estimate.

These reclusive citizen's prolonged withdrawals are causing concern for the future as their parents age and become increasingly unable to support them physically, financially or both.

While the national government previously attempted to help by holding vocational training programs in the early 2000s, the effort only targeted those under 40 years old, excluding middle-aged people. Some who were unable to meet the program's requirements also fell through the cracks.

Hokkaido's capital Sapporo is changing its approach by helping the city's socially withdrawn people take small steps forward, rather than forcing them into a huge leap.

"It's raining outside, but how is the weather inside your heart?" a male staff member asked a group of about a dozen people in their 30s to 50s at a gathering in central Sapporo in July.

Called "Yoridokoro," meaning bastion, the monthly group session has been held since June by nonprofit organization Letter Post Friend Consultation Network. The Sapporo city government organizes it with the aim of helping isolated people gain a foothold in everyday life.

The staff is mostly made up of people who themselves suffered from a tendency to reject the outside world and who can, therefore, better empathize with what participants say, according to the group.

A woman in her 30s who took part in the session said she joined because she wanted to be "able to talk to people, even just a little bit."

She said she has struggled to socialize since being a junior at high school and considered herself "incapable of working" when she graduated university and entered a job market that was tight at the time. Over the 16 years since, she has spent most of her days hidden in her computer and comic books.

When her father retired, it dawned on her how much she needed a change and led her to consult the city about her options.

At the gathering, she played card games and talked with others. By the time she departed, her internal "weather forecast" had improved from "rainy" to "cloudy."

Over the period of a year through March, the Sapporo government received some 1,000 inquiries from families with a member living their life cut off from society. Roughly 30 percent involved people aged 40 and older.

Junya Sugawara, a Sapporo city official in charge of providing assistance, said the rare tie-up with the NPO was necessary to draw out the city's many shut-ins.

"These people are very wary of administrative authorities, thinking they will be forced to do something if they reach out," he said.

Japan faces what the welfare community refers to as the "80/50 issue," in which these isolated people reach their 50s as their parents enter their 80s, a time when they are more likely to fall ill or need nursing care. This confluence of factors can put the whole family under financial strain.

By bringing social workers with psychiatry backgrounds to the gathering, the city hopes to link attendees with the support they need, Sugawara said.

Local efforts to tackle the issue are also underway in Hyogo and Kumamoto prefectures as well as in Hamamatsu city and elsewhere, while the welfare ministry began subsidizing from this fiscal year municipal efforts to create places for people to gather. Networks have also been established between the agencies involved.

"The government's (past) job assistance program did not necessarily meet the needs of these people, and the age limit...prolonged their reclusion," said Atsushi Tanaka, the head of Letter Post Friend Consultation Network.

"What is important is the process in which they build strength at a place they belong and try to take the first step forward on their own," he said.

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