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Japanese juvenile detention center's group work helps boy open up, embrace Filipino roots

Foreign youths at Seto Juvenile Detention Center in Aichi Prefecture, are seen answering questions raised by Instructor Koji Numata, center, on March 3, 2020. (Mainichi/Hitomi Takai)

SETO, Aichi -- A juvenile detention center in the central Japan prefecture of Aichi established a full-fledged group work program in April where adolescent boys who have gone through a rough childhood can share past experiences with one another. "I was able to feel good about having been born a foreigner for the very first time," said one youth. Such voices show that the program is helping to boost the emotional growth of these young boys.

In a room at Seto Juvenile Detention Center, five youths aged between 15 and 20 in navy blue uniforms and three instructors sat in a circle at a table.

"What is your talent?" asked one instructor, Koji Numata, 36. An 18-year-old boy of Filipino nationality responded, "I can speak three languages," and continued to showcase his fluent Japanese and English in front of fellow group work participants. His face, however, clouded over when it was time for Tagalog. He remained silent without letting out a word in his native tongue.

When he was in fourth grade, the boy came to Japan from the Philippines with his three siblings after being summoned by their mother who had arrived earlier to work. Bullying started as soon as he entered an elementary school within the prefecture. As a result of hurtful comments like "Get out of Japan," and "You shouldn't be living here," as well as experiences of being teased for not being able to speak Japanese well, the boy became unable to speak Tagalog in front of others.

He studied the Japanese language intensely to adapt to his new home. He started making more friends as his Japanese improved and his behavior became more like that of a Japanese. When friends asked him to speak his mother tongue, he would lie and tell them he had forgotten it because he came to Japan at a young age. The boy wanted to avoid being viewed as a foreigner.

Later, his relationship with the Japanese man his mother married turned sour, which led to the boy running away from home repeatedly. When he was 18, he ran out of cash while staying away from home, and was arrested for stealing money from a friend. He was subsequently placed in Seto Juvenile Detention Center, where he met instructor Numata who encouraged him to participate in group work.

After a number of sessions, the teen opened up about his experiences of being bullied in elementary school, which was something he had not been able to do up until that point. Then, his peers who had gone through and felt the same things responded with their own stories. Coming to the realization that it was not just him who was going through pain, a bit of weight was lifted off the boy's chest.

His feelings toward his home country had also undergone a change. Although the boy, throughout his life in Japan, had viewed his Filipino background as a drawback, everyone in his group work sessions showed interest when he talked about the country. Some even said they wanted to visit. With a friendly, good-natured smile on his face, the boy remarked, "Up until now, I had suppressed my Filipino self in order to adapt to life in Japan. But now, I am able to think that having both identities as a Filipino and a Japanese person is a good thing."

On the last day of group work sessions, the boy spoke his thoughts in his native tongue of Tagalog for the first time in eight years. "We want to always be humble." These words contained the boy's wish to connect with others, not based on nationality, but as people no different from one another.

At Seto Juvenile Detention Center, adolescent boys of a foreign nationality or those with parents of a foreign nationality make up about 20% of total detainees. Instructor Numata decided to launch the group work program as he sensed that the struggles unique to such adolescents attempting to fit into Japanese society may be one reason for their misconduct. This approach is the first of its kind to be held at a juvenile detention center in Japan.

Instructor Numata commented, "There needs to be rehabilitation programs that unravel and sort out the problems faced by adolescent boys who have foreign roots. My wish is that the boys will feel more at ease or use this as an opportunity to move forward by sharing their thoughts."

(Japanese original by Hitomi Takai, Nagoya News Center)

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