OSAKA -- For young carers, the care that they give isn't just a physical form of support. Osaka Prefecture resident Sachi Kitagawa (not her real name) looked after her mother, who has schizophrenia, from her elementary school days.
At the time she knew nothing about her mother's condition, which is often subject to prejudice, and Sachi spent a long part of her youth worried about the communication between her and her mother and the life that they led. Looking back on that time, she said, "When I think about it now, I think perhaps my mother tried as much as she could to fulfill the role of a parent."
Late one night in January 2011 in Osaka's Umeda district, western Japan's busiest area, Sachi and her mother Miyuki (not her real name) were wandering aimlessly under the influence of Miyuki's schizophrenia. Sachi was in the first grade of junior high school at the time.
The pair went back and forth between department stores, restaurants and bathhouses, while Miyuki took them up and down the same street murmuring to herself. Usually when this happened they would return home once midnight had passed, often when Sachi had school the next day. There was a time when they suddenly got in a taxi and traveled approximately 130 kilometers away to the town of Kushimoto, in neighboring Wakayama Prefecture. There, her mother continued their walk just as before. Luckily they found a place to stay there that time, but there was nothing fun about their spontaneous excursion.
Sachi would wonder when these aimless trips would end, thinking with despair, "I can't take it anymore." It took some time before she came to think that perhaps it was just the only way her mother could communicate with her.
Sachi was born in the city of Osaka. Her parents began to live separately when she was a kindergartener, and she and her mother started living together. Miyuki had many hobbies and was often out of the house, including being busy playing in a volleyball team for moms of elementary school kids. At the time, Sachi was quietly proud of her mother and the close relationship they had.
But once Sachi entered her upper years of elementary school, Miyuki started to stay home in bed a lot. Sachi said that she first realized she felt uneasy about her mother's behavior when she was in the sixth grade. At that time, Sachi started to notice Miyuki talking to herself often in a low voice, and looking off into space and then laughing. Sometimes she wouldn't respond when Sachi called for her.
Sometimes she'd ask her mom if she was ignoring her. At that young age, Sachi didn't know anything about schizophrenia, and there was no one at home she could turn to and talk about it with. To try and drown out the sounds of her mother's murmuring, she would listen to music on headphones while she was home.
When Sachi started at junior high school, her mother's actions became even harder to predict. She stopped cleaning or washing clothes, and the cooking she used to be so good at ceased as well. Once Sachi got home from school, Miyuki would take her out to supermarkets, bathhouses and restaurants, among other places.
Out at eateries, Sachi's mother would order a great quantity of food and then order her to eat regardless of whether she had an appetite. They would come home late at night. Once they finally did get back inside, Sachi would do her homework and the washing, only getting into her futon to sleep at around 4 a.m. Her successive days with insufficient sleep caused her to start dropping off at her desk at school, and soon she was unable to keep up with the work required.
At the supermarket register, she would accompany her mother and speak to the person behind the till for her. Over time, the corridors of their home became filled with knickknacks, stocked-up food products, and large plastic bags full of trash. On days when Miyuki wouldn't cook, Sachi would take some ready-to-eat food out of one of the bags, or some sweets, and ease her hunger. Her mother would make her wear the same sweatshirts and sweatpants for days.
Sachi was often praised for being diligent, but during her teenage years she found it hard to bear the sense that she was dirty, and she struggled to understand her mother's behavior. Now when she thinks about it, Sachi says, "She couldn't do housework, so perhaps by going to restaurants and bathhouses she was trying to fulfill her role as my mother. She had a very strong sense that she still had to get those things done properly."
For Sachi, school was the one place where she could rest, and where she could forget about her home life by chatting with friends. There, she almost never spoke about Miyuki. "I thought if I talked about it, it would worry my friends," she said.
But Miyuki became more controlling. In the morning, when Sachi was getting ready for school, her mother would look at her with a frightening expression and say, "You don't have to go today." Her mother disliked seeing her leave the house alone, and Sachi couldn't push back against her request. Sachi said later that at the time she had almost no memories of playing outside, and was jealous of her peers leading freer lives.
Eventually Sachi sent a message for help to her relatives, it read, "This is too much now. Help me." Her grandmother approached a child consultation center about the issue, but it didn't lead to improvements to their situation. Sachi felt guilty for having told her mother, "You make me feel sick," because she also thought she was the only person her mother felt able to trust. She felt torn between rejecting Miyuki and trying to accept her.
But just before Sachi graduated from junior high school her family came together and, despite her protestations about going, institutionalized Miyuki. It pained her to have to see her mother being taken away by force, so Sachi was out of the house when it happened.
It was then that Miyuki was diagnosed with schizophrenia. It was the first time Sachi had heard of the condition, and she became able to understand what it meant to have it.
With the start of her high school education, Sachi moved to her grandmother's home, and finally found more time for herself. Although Miyuki was later in and out of hospital multiple times, her condition improved enough for her to be able to live with her daughter again. Sachi's friends told her that it would be better for her to live her life as she wanted to, but she could never shake the sense that she and her mother are a set meant to be together.
This spring, Sachi has taken her advancement to postgraduate study as an opportunity to start living alone. She intends to do research on young carers there. She thinks that there are people out there who, even though they are now separated from the family they used to care for, still feel the influence of it in their hearts. She wants to put those isolated people into focus, and be a help to them, too.
(Japanese original by the Young Carers Reporting Group)