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Hokkaido organization envisions future of social welfare for elderly, disabled

Yusuke Ohara, right, talks with workers on the farm that he established as a community gathering place, in the town of Tobetsu, Hokkaido, on Aug. 10, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOBETSU, Hokkaido -- There is a scene that often comes to the mind of 39-year-old Yusuke Ohara, the director of social welfare corporation "Yuyu" here, a roughly one hour drive northeast of the prefectural capital of Sapporo.

It happened some 10 years earlier. A man in his 80s with dementia was playing the traditional board game Go against an autistic boy who was somewhere around 10 years old. The boy had trouble communicating with others, but he played a strong game of Go. But that day, he lost. While those around him worried that the loss would trigger panic in the boy, he simply lowered his head.

"Master, please take me on as your student," he said to the man. He had been able to communicate with the old man who had honestly battled him on the board, and the man had felt relief in being able to interact with the boy.

"Rather than having a provider and a receiver of welfare services, people who are struggling can become help for others in need," Ohara explained.

In 2005, Ohara and three friends established the nonprofit organization that would become the predecessor of Yuyu, and offered temporary day care services for children with disabilities. One day, a request came for the organization to take an infant into its care. After being put in a jam with their lack of knowledge, they consulted a woman who was using their service for her own child, and she happily agreed to take care of the baby for them.

Troubled people offering a helping hand to others in trouble; should that not be how welfare works? Ohara felt like he had glimpsed the solution to a problem. In 2008, he established a place in the center of the town where residents could gather and mingle to build bonds between people in the area.

One such meeting place was the "peko peko no hatake," meaning the "hungry field." In the fields there, local residents could also come to volunteer to grow crops. At the attached restaurant, people could come to get a taste of the freshly picked vegetables like corn, eggplant and green peppers. One restaurant employee, 27-year-old Noriyuki Koba, who has developmental disorder, uses his exceptional computer skills to enter orders and information about products. "I used to not even imagine that I could work or anything like that," he said. "Now I'm enjoying myself."

Takamasa Sugano, 63, who moved to Tobestu from Tokyo after retirement, started out as a volunteer at the farm, but now is a part-time worker there. "Actually working alongside people with disabilities has changed the way that I view them," he commented.

Simply making the restaurant was meaningless if they could not manage to keep the work going, so Ohara and the others aimed to make the farm a place where all the people of Tobetsu could gather together. In order to do that, the facility had to ascend beyond being for social welfare, but also think about community building as a whole.

What the group ended up settling on was a "mixed social welfare" model, where the elderly, those with disabilities and all the other residents of Tobetsu could come to deepen community bonds. Now, the idea has attracted attention from around Japan.

"Now is not the time for social welfare to depend on government systems or subsidies. We have to make projects that would be unaffected even if government funding stopped," emphasized Ohara, alluding to new possibilities. As for the shape that social welfare should take, he said, "Currently, we are trying to do something in local communities for those who have fallen through the cracks of the government system. On the contrary, (social welfare) should begin on the community level, and whatever resources we lack should instead be covered by the government."

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What lies ahead for a shrinking Japan is a society with limited human and monetary resources. Maintaining the current government social security system will be no easy task. If Japan is able to enact ideas such as Ohara's, then government funds would only be used as a last resort after focusing on mutual assistance among residents in local communities.

Hiroyuki Morita, a doctor in the city of Kagoshima covered in Part 1 of this series, saw the elderly of Yubari, Hokkaido, who no longer had a hospital to go to but were living their lives the way that they wished, and realized that it is not the quantity of social security services that are important, but the quality.

What can Japan do for the peace of mind of its citizens as its society continues to shrink? The stories introduced in this series are just a few examples of possible solutions. What is truly needed to put society at ease is perhaps not relying on the government or on already-established systems, but instead looking around one's own community and thinking about what we can do for one another.

This is the final part in a series.

(Japanese original by Kotaro Adachi, Hokkaido News Department, and Sunao Suzuki, Medical Welfare News Department)

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