For children who have grown up in an orphanage, turning 18 means having to leave in order to find a new place to live. As this is not always an easy undertaking, however, a Shiga Prefecture-based nonprofit organization began a share house in 2013 -- a trial-and-error initiative that has generated a widening arc of support for these youth.
The share house, which is named "Yume (Dream) Court," was started by the Four-Leaf Clover nonprofit organization based in the city of Moriyama, Shiga Prefecture. Located on the third and fourth floors of a building near the local city hall, it accommodates up to five residents regardless of gender, and plans to expand to a total of six this spring.
A gyoza (dumpling) restaurant located on the first floor of the building is utilized to provide work experience for the youth, as well as financial support for operating the share house.
Monthly rent payments are 20,000 yen, including utilities. In order to encourage independence, residents must leave after four years in the case of university students, and three years for those who are working.
"When I graduated from high school and started job hunting, I didn't have any money or guarantor -- so finding somewhere cheap to live when I was having such a hard time really made me feel relieved," recounts Yusuke Hirota, 19, a resident of the share house who now works for a company.
Tenants spend their free time at home doing whatever they like, such as chatting among themselves in the third-floor shared living area, or relaxing in their own individual rooms. The only rule for living in the share house? "Don't start a fire."
For these residents, who grew up in a group environment, such a lifestyle is familiar. "Living with people whose circumstances are similar to yours means that you can ask each other for different kinds of advice, which feels very comforting," comments Hirota. "And share houses are great, because you have freedom."
Machiko Sugiyama, 56, director of the Four-Leaf Clover nonprofit organization that launched the share house, recounts an intense memory of hers that occurred in conjunction with the project. While volunteering with a children's orphanage, the youngsters would come visit her home on the weekends -- and several of them said to her on such occasions, "Why couldn't I have been born here? Will you take me in as your own child?"
Because Sugiyama was unable to choose only one of them, however, she says that she could only tell them, "I'm sorry."
Wondering what would happen to the youth when they turned 18 years old and had to leave the childcare institution, she went on to make the decision to start a home that they could come and live in.
Because some of the youth who moved into the share house had deep emotional wounds due to having been abused by their parents, Sugiyama occasionally took them to see a medical specialist due to fears that they would become mentally unstable and commit suicide. On one such occasion, however, a doctor said to her, "These youth are much better off with you at Yume Court."
This comment, Sugiyama says, caused her to engage in some soul-searching. She then realized, "If people like me do not look out for these kids, who will?"
Because she continued to experience difficulties with the youth, however, Sugiyama decided to re-think her relationship to them.
"Looking down (upon these young people) with the patronizing attitude that I was 'helping them' was not working," she recalls. "Instead, I realized that what was important is to provide support to one another from the standpoint of being equal."
Sugiyama also notes that when she started speaking to the youngsters with a positive attitude, they reacted in kind. The more she showered them with love, she says, the more they became empowered to go out and do things on their own. Seeing young people whom she had helped go out and in turn care for others, she says, "was the happiest thing I have ever experienced."
Shigenori Morishige, 42, a local municipal assembly member who supports Sugiyama's initiative, was himself raised in an orphanage. The share house residents sometimes come and speak to him because of his background, and he also acts as a liaison between the youth and the local government.
"The longer you work (on these kinds of issues), the more people will trust you," notes Morishige, who started a salon-style meeting on the first floor of the government building in order to help support communication between the Yume Court tenants and other local residents.
"Meeting different kinds of people from the community is an important experience for the youth from the share house," he observes.
Morishige organized a mini concert on Jan. 30 at a nearby citizen exchange center where performances were given by people involved with his community initiative. Prior to the concert -- which was attended by some 270 individuals -- Yusuke Hirota gave a speech as a representative of the share house residents, saying that he wanted to express some of his feelings.
"I would like to see the number of children whose lives are broken by abuse be reduced -- even if it's by just one single individual," he said.
The share house residents, who have begun living their own lives after receiving support, are now in a position of wanting to help others with similar struggles -- and Yume Court is the place that has provided them with the inspiration to do so.
For more information about this initiative, contact the Four-Leaf Clover nonprofit organization at 077-584-5688.