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Yoroku: 'Children's cafeterias' evolving into community hubs for all those in need

Often the people most in need are the ones who do not ask for help. That's because they do not know what to do, where to look for assistance and what to ask for. However, their silence doesn't stop them from becoming hungry.

In the Taisho era (1912-1926), when the price of rice sharply rose, eventually triggering rice riots, public cafeterias offering cheap food spread across the nation. These facilities were operated by local governments to support people in poverty. Because such establishments provided a lot of food for little money, workers and students also apparently lined up to eat.

Now we have "children's cafeterias" providing free or low-priced meals to local kids. There are children who have smartphones, but whose only decent meals are school lunches. Some of them barely have the chance to bathe. Today's children's cafeterias are privately run volunteer operations to help these kids, who may consider their circumstances ordinary despite their hardships.

Nonprofit organization Musubie announced in June 2019 that the number of children's cafeterias had increased to at least 3,718 -- 1.6 times more than the figure recorded a year ago. They are being started by a range of people and organizations, from those looking for ways to repurpose Japan's many vacant homes to companies seeking to make a social contribution.

However, the regional distribution of the cafeterias remains uneven. In Japan's southernmost prefecture Okinawa, 60.5% of primary school districts have a children's cafeteria, while the ratio was just 5.5% in Akita Prefecture in northern Japan. Meanwhile, Shiga Prefecture in western Japan has set out to make sure there is at least one of the facilities within walking distance of every child.

Recently, the cafeterias are being visited by people on their way home from work as well as elderly people who live alone. The facilities have thus evolved from establishments solely for the use of children from impoverished families into local social hubs.

It is hoped that these cafeterias become places where "hikikomori" shut-ins as well as people suffering from abuse, addiction and various difficulties can come together.

("Yoroku," a front-page column in the Mainichi Shimbun)

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