The Act on National Holidays stipulates that Children's Day on May 5 is aimed at respecting children's dignity, ensuring their happiness and expressing gratitude to their mothers. However, many children's cries go unheard.
There are children who are abused by their parents and there are people who have enormous difficulty raising their children because of poverty, alcoholism or disability. Children tend not to notice their own difficulties and can hardly ask for help. The situation surrounding these children is serious.
There was a junior high school student who tended to be absent from school. His mother, who had become a single parent about a year earlier, had financial problems, and the family's water and gas was cut off. The boy was unable to take a bath at home and used restrooms at railway stations and parks. Nobody noticed his problems because he had not stayed away from school entirely. However, his school nurse finally discovered his troubles while listening to a casual conversation among students.
"Children having trouble hardly ever ask for help. Relief can't be extended to such children even though adults around them notice their problems. It takes a month to begin receiving welfare benefits after filing an application," says Masayoshi Kawaguchi, a certified social worker living in Shizuoka. Kawaguchi has extended support to abused and impoverished junior high school children for over 30 years.
There are such children anywhere. However, few people notice that these children face problems because their problems are invisible.
Nearly 500 children regularly visit an afterschool care facility run by Sapporo-based social welfare corporation "Muginoko-kai." Of the children, 77 are from single-parent families. Many children who need help from society have multiple problems -- parents' alcohol dependency and mental problems, abuse by their parents, close relatives' suicides and criminal offenses among them.
Children who are abused by their mothers' common-law husbands and those who live in houses filled with garbage because their mothers suffer from mental problems "tend to think their families are ordinary," according to Satoko Kitagawa, head of the facility. "Even though these children are abused by their parents, they love their parents and they blame themselves for their families' poverty."
Elementary and junior high schools, which are part of Japan's compulsory education system, are supposed to play a role in discovering students' hardships and helping extend relief. However, as children grow older, they become entitled to less public education and welfare assistance. Youths become ineligible for protection under the Child Welfare Act when they turn 18. They are no longer allowed to stay at care homes for children who have no parents or who cannot live with their parents, or at care facilities for handicapped children, and are required to be independent and self-reliant.
Currently, over 70 percent of high school graduates advance to universities or vocational schools, but children from impoverished families have fewer opportunities to received higher education, and many of them even drop out of high school. Such children face difficulties getting jobs or finding the guarantors necessary to rent an apartment in Japan. It's no wonder, then, that these children ask how they can be self-reliant.
There are girls who look for men willing to give them "assistance" on the Internet because they have no place to sleep and cannot get enough food.
There are 1,652 minors across the country who fell victim to child prostitution or pornography on matchmaking websites in 2015, according to the National Police Agency. There are many girls who cannot find any place to stay except for the sex entertainment industry.
These children need places to sleep, food and money, but they cannot rely on governmental organizations responsible for child welfare.
The government has failed to implement adequate measures to support these children because of the deep-rooted idea that priority should be placed on parents' responsibility for bringing up their children. Many people say children themselves should be more independent and self-reliant.
However, local communities and relatives are now playing a much smaller role than in the past helping parents protect and educate their children.
Children who are abused or neglected tend to become unable to take an interest in society or themselves, and are less enthusiastic about acquiring healthy living habits or studying. Research shows that there are cases in which children's brains shrank after being subjected to particularly violent abuse. The public should be aware that it is unreasonable to require needy children, who have no foundation for making any kind of concerted effort, to try hard to be independent and self-reliant.
Some 80 percent of single mothers work, a remarkably high ratio among developed countries. Half of these women have non-regular jobs and earn less than those with regular jobs, and many of them have multiple temporary jobs.
There is a widening income gap in Japan, and it is impossible to address the problem if even those at the bottom of the social pyramid are simply told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
A gardener who has extended a helping hand to children from impoverished households and delinquent minors for many years pointed to difficulties in rehabilitating those who were abused as children.
"These children tell lies. Even if you secure rooms and jobs for them to help them be self-reliant, they run away after failing to pay the rent. Children who were abused when they were small can't easily rehabilitate themselves," he says.
Still, though they betrayed him repeatedly, he says he saw many of the children whom he patiently supported begin to change several years on. The gardener himself was also violently abused by his father and became delinquent when he was young.
There are people like this gardener who have tried hard to save children in poverty or subjected to abuse by their parents but cannot receive public assistance. The government should extend assistance to such people's activities.
The government should regard child poverty countermeasures as a priority policy issue. It is essential to secure financial and human resources and extend sufficient assistance to such needy children in the fields of social welfare and education. The public and private sectors are required to work closely to extend relief to needy children.