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Editorial: Time for a national plan to support Japan's 'young carers'

The Japanese government has released the results of its first-ever nationwide study of "young carers," or children taking care of a relative instead of adults.

    The study found that 5.7% of second-year public junior high school students, and 4.1% of second-year students at full-time public high schools were caring for a family member. On average, they were spending four hours a day on care, and could not make time to study or just to spend on themselves. It also revealed a tendency for such young caregivers to become socially isolated.

    The young carer issue was first identified in surveys by research institutions and local governments, and the central government report backs up their conclusions.

    However, the latest survey had a response rate of just 10% or so, meaning it may not adequately reflect reality. Furthermore, young carers in primary school were not included. Another study is needed.

    Among the young carers identified, some 60% of those in the second year of junior high were looking after a sibling. The figure was a little over 40% for the high schoolers. While this item was not included in the previous surveys tallied by local governments and other bodies, the number of kids caring for siblings outnumbered those looking after a parent or grandparent.

    The junior high and high school students reported making meals for younger sisters and brothers, and dropping them off and picking them up at day care centers. If they are doing this not just to help, but seemingly because they are raising their siblings instead of their parents, the load must be enormous.

    More than 60% of the young carer students had never sought advice about their situations. Among those who had, most had talked to people close to them, such as family members or friends. Only a few children sought advice through public welfare services.

    Schools themselves can play a vital role in finding out which students are young carers. And to make sure this leads to providing proper support, schools should strengthen their ties to local government welfare sections. More school social workers are also needed.

    It is also necessary to monitor the children's overall family situation. There are cases where parents are not making proper use of welfare or nursing services. If this is due to neglect on the part of guardians, then we would call for child consultation centers to get involved.

    Saitama Prefecture just north of Tokyo was Japan's first local jurisdiction to implement a support ordinance for young carers. There, the prefectural government is inviting young people with carer experience to speak at information sessions for teachers, students, and guardians. We'd like authorities to give this approach consideration as a method to boost public awareness of the issue.

    It's important for family members to support one another. However, we cannot allow heavy burdens of care to cloud young people's futures. The government should draw up a support plan, and do so quickly.

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