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News Navigator: What are the 'young carers' drawing attention in Japan recently?

A student's long-form response to a national survey on young carers. (Mainichi)

The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about "young carers" -- children who take on the burden of caring for relatives.

    Question: Does the term "young carer" have an official definition?

    Answer: There is no legal definition in Japan. The term "young carer" is used to mean a child who is taking care of a family member who is sick, has a disability, or is elderly. The Japan carers federation, a general incorporated association that supports family care, defines "young carers" as "children under the age of 18 who take on the responsibility of caring for their family members in a way that adults do."

    Q: There have always been children like that, haven't there?

    A: Yes. There have always been children who help their grandfathers with meals, watch over their siblings with disabilities, or do housework for their sick mothers. The term "young carers" does not imply that it is a problem for children to help their families.

    Q: Then why is it a problem now?

    A: In the past, when families were large, care could be shared among family members. In early postwar Japan, the average household comprised five people, but the number has decreased steadily since then, standing at 2.4 people today. The population is aging and nuclear families are becoming more common. The number of single-parent families and dual-earner families has also increased. In other words, the "shape of the family" has changed.

    Meanwhile, ways of work that make it difficult to balance one's job and family life, and the old values of "solving family problems at home," persist. As adults have limited time to spend on their families, the burden of care can fall on children, so there is a need to support them.

    Q: Can't they use public services?

    A: There are nursing care insurance and disability welfare systems. However, in some cases, both the person being cared for and the person providing care do not know enough about the services available. Even if the carer is a child, he or she may be regarded as a "caregiver," which may not lead to a reduction in their burden.

    Q: What's the impact on these children if the load becomes too heavy?

    A: They may not be able to study due to fatigue, or they may become emotionally unstable. They can lose time for play, school clubs, and other children's activities. Children's physical and mental health and opportunities to study must be protected while they are growing up. Perhaps the awareness of the importance of children's rights that has spread over time has finally brought the existence of young carers to light.

    Q: Who are the most common family members being cared for?

    A: Many are siblings. According to a nationwide survey conducted by the government on second-year junior high school students and second-year full-time high school students, the most common family member being cared for was a sibling. The conditions of the siblings were as follows: "young" (73.1% of junior high school students and 70.6% of senior high school students), "intellectually disabled" (14.7% and 8.1%, respectively), and "physically disabled" (5.6% and 6.6%, respectively).

    Q: What does "sibling care" entail?

    A: For example, they take their siblings to and from day care, watch them play and study, and do household chores such as cooking, laundry and cleaning. They play the role of a "little guardian." If a sibling has a disability or disease, they may help them eat their meals, or calm impulsive behavior, depending on the characteristics of the disability.

    Q: It's not just about adult care, is it?

    A: It does not matter if the person being cared for is an adult or a child; there is a risk of losing moments unique to children, forcing them to put off the things they want to do, and narrowing their choices in life. However, "sibling care" tends to involve more "daily care" than so-called "nursing care," so it is often seen as an extension of helping out.

    Q: Does it make it more difficult to see how much of a load they're carrying?

    A: Yes, it does. Sometimes even family members are unaware of the burdens being placed on them, as they are simply seen as "close siblings" or "reliable big sisters or brothers." Some local governments and researchers did not consider children who care for younger siblings without disabilities or diseases as young carers.

    Q: What is likely to happen in the future?

    A: Experts point to parental neglect and the hardships of single-parent families as background factors. Even if there is no clear disability or illness in the family, some children feel a great burden in caring for their siblings. Based on the opinions of experts, the government is set to consider children who take care of their younger siblings as young carers and come up with measures to support them.

    (Japanese original by Nao Yamada and Kentaro Mikami, Digital News Center)

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