TOYONAKA, Osaka -- "These days the most important thing is living. If you're having a hard time, come here and eat."
Over the New Year period, Toshiko Ueno, 52, from the city of Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, will extend a helping hand to people who have fallen on hard times in 2020 due to the coronavirus crisis by opening the "Otona Shokudo," which roughly translates to "Adults' Canteen."
Since September 2019, Ueno and her mother Kimiko Uenaka, 75, have been running a restaurant called "Gohandokoro Okaeri." Based on her experience handing out hot food to homeless people and supporting single mothers, Ueno said, "People don't have to take on all of the responsibility stemming from their predicament of having lost their job or having suffered a decline in income."
Japan's employment situation has made this an especially harsh winter for many, and Ueno hopes the support she provides will help people take the first steps back into rebuilding their lives. As people enter the store, she greets each and every one of them with a "welcome home."
The memory that drove Ueno's decision to make a difference in the lives of people on the streets came five years ago, when she started giving out bento lunchboxes for free in the city of Osaka's Umeda shopping district. She got to know a homeless man in his 70s who she would wake up from his place under an overpass at JR Osaka Station. At first he would silently accept what she brought him, but then one day he murmured to her, "If I can just fill my belly, I'll feel like I can make it at least through to tomorrow."
After that, Ueno started doing soup kitchens for homeless people at an Osaka park, doling out curry she had cooked at home. The people who came would say things like, "There's no point in me going on living." She would offer them words of encouragement, saying, "I'll be back here, so keep going."
But there were times when people she'd gotten used to seeing suddenly stopped coming. When other people who had lived on the streets with them told her these people had died, she started thinking she wanted to make a place where people in trouble can come together without fuss.
Her idea turned into a resolution in June 2018, when a strong earthquake hit northern Osaka Prefecture. At that time she was involved in running a kids' canteen initiative. Supermarkets closed because of the earthquake, and she was approached by a single mother of some of the children who came to the canteen. She told Ueno, "I've been living on supermarket clearance items. I don't have things like food for emergencies, and I'm worried about what we're going to eat from tomorrow on."
Upon hearing those words, Ueno decided to start an activist group for single mothers which could discuss their issues with them. The base of operations for the group later became her business, "Gohandokoro Okaeri."
To make it a place where even people on tight household budgets can buy food, Ueno puts many of the side dishes on the shelves for 100 yen each. But with the spread of the coronavirus, she's become steadily more aware of the effect it's having on people's lives.
Now, what's occupying Ueno's attention is the year-end and New Year period. While the third wave of coronavirus infections continues to surge, consultation services at government offices will be closed. And so she devised the idea of the "Adults' Canteen" as a place for people to come for consultations about their life and have something to eat.
The canteen opened on Dec. 21, and will run every day until Jan. 5 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Attendees can pay 500 yen to receive a full meal and also be seen for consultations to help them get their lives back on track. If contacted ahead of time, staff can even offer help outside of those hours. Accompanying children get to eat for free.
People who don't have money can get a special "happiness-sharing ticket" to dine for free; the meals subsidized by normally paying customers. They also accept students in their teens who have lost part-time job income, among others.
To help people feel a little more like they can move forward with their lives, Ueno is also thinking about serving traditional zoni, a soup containing rice cake and vegetables, on New Year's Day. "We all stumble in our lives sometimes, but you don't need to blame yourself. It would be good if the canteen could become part of a foundation to help people try again one more time. People should come here casually, and first fill their stomachs," she said.
Ueno is also raising money to fund the project and is receiving donations of ingredients. Those interested can visit the Gohandokoro Okaeri Facebook page, or call Ueno on 080-5319-1368 (Japanese language only). Her shop's usual business hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and takeout only for the time being. Ordinarily the shop is closed on Tuesdays, but during the adults' canteen period until Jan. 5, the shop will be open every day.
(Japanese original by Hiroshi Muramatsu, Osaka City News Department)