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Abandoned Japan teen juggling work, studies while barely surviving amid coronavirus

An 18-year-old girl is seen reading a textbook for her vocational school in Nagoya in central Japan on April 27, 2020. Although she has not used it at all in class due to temporary closures, she says that she has been skimming through bits of it. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

NAGOYA -- Students throughout Japan who cannot turn to their parents for assistance are struggling to make ends meet while their part-time workplaces are being closed amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Among such youth is Kana (not her real name), 18, who entered a vocational school in the central Japan city of Nagoya this spring after moving out of a foster care facility. Kana had planned to take on part-time work alongside her studies to cover her rent, living expenses and tuition, but is already backed into a corner and in danger of having to drop out of school.

Kana had lived in the foster home since she was in the third grade of elementary school. After Kana's mother left their home, her father admitted his four children who were left behind to the facility. Kana has lost all contact with her parents and views herself as having none. She spent most of her high school years doing part-time work to save up little by little to lead a secure life on her own after moving out.

A turning point for Kana came when she was in her third year of high school. A worker at a child welfare center listened to her kindly as she spoke of her worries about life at the foster home, and she began to aspire to work at a welfare center herself. She wished to be able to "guide the way for children with the same sort of situation." Kana also considered working for foster care facilities or orphanages for infants while drawing from her own experiences. In the end, she set a goal to enter a vocational school where licenses for nursery school teachers and certified social welfare workers can be obtained.

As there had been no other child in the foster care facility who continued their studies after graduating high school, Kana studied for the entrance exam while collecting the information that she could on her own. After passing the exam, she paid a total of over one million yen for the school's entrance fee, tuition for the spring semester, moving expenses and rent, all from her savings. Kana must also take correspondence-style university courses in order to acquire a license, with tuition costs weighing heavily on her beyond entering the school. Kana had nonetheless been bracing for a rigorous schedule balancing her studies and part-time work. She commented, "That is the first ever dream that I've had. I was intending to do whatever it takes to make it come true."

Textbooks are seen in the bag of an 18-year-old girl on April 27, 2020. Although the girl had entered vocational school after moving out of her foster home this year, she has not yet used any of her new textbooks due to classes being suspended amid coronavirus concerns. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

Unfortunately, the eatery for which she started working part-time from March became temporarily closed due to the spread of the coronavirus. If the present situation continues, Kana estimates her savings will run out in May. As a result, she has limited her meals to once a day, getting by with cheap noodles and soybean sprouts. She eats chikuwa, or baked fish paste sausages, when she craves something hearty.

Kana has consulted with the local social welfare council and city hall, asking to take out a loan, but her request was declined as she could not obtain parental permission as a minor. She was only able to apply for a student loan with interest. Her vocational school is not applicable for scholarships that do not need to be paid back, and Kana speaks of the large burden imposed by the loan.

After taking multiple interviews, Kana was finally able to secure a part-time job this month at a store of a chain that sells boxed lunches. The 100,000-yen handout to be given by the central government is also a valuable source of income. However, Kana has no prospects for saving up enough to pay tuition for the autumn semester. "Do I have to give up my dream like this? I can't help but be worried sick about this situation."

A questionnaire was carried out by "Bridge for Smile," a non-profit organization based in Tokyo, in mid-April targeting 69 people with experiences living in foster homes. Over 30% of the respondents and 70% of those with part-time jobs answered that their monthly earnings were estimated to decrease compared to that of March. The group points out, "As their current situation may have gotten worse, the distribution of cash is the top priority before anything else. There are also many people who have become more isolated as they cannot lean on their parents, among other issues, resulting in the deterioration of their mental wellbeing."

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry's support window for the impoverished commented, "Although legally speaking, minors need permission from legal guardians when taking out loans, we ask that local bodies respond with flexibility under these circumstances. We'd like those in need of support to consult centers like the social welfare council to see what kind of support can be given for individual cases."

(Japanese original by Shinnosuke Kyan, Photo Group)

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