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Japan to survey 'young carer' elementary school students, aims to provide support earlier

Elementary school students walk to school in Tokyo on Feb. 28, 2018. (Mainichi/Aya Shiota)

TOKYO -- To understand the actual situations of "young carers" -- children who look after their families while also attending school or working -- the Japanese government will survey elementary school students across the country this academic year.

    The government first surveyed junior and senior high school students between December 2020 and January 2021, with results released in April, but elementary school students were excluded from the survey.

    By expanding the scope of its survey, the government aims to get a more accurate understanding of the reality for children responsible for caring for relatives, and provide them with support.

    The junior and senior high school students' survey revealed that the average age young carers start looking after family members was 9.9 years among second-year junior high schoolers and 12.2 years among second-year full-time high schoolers.

    Excessive burden of care has been found to interfere with schoolwork and future life choices, or lead to isolation. As a result, the government hopes to detect from an early stage who is a young carer via the survey of elementary school students.

    As with the survey for junior and senior high school students, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology are working together and considering a style of direct questioning for children.

    However, it is difficult for younger children to look objectively at their family circumstances and understand the questions' content. Consequently, the ministries will listen to expert opinions and adjust their methods.

    Progress in understanding the actual situations of elementary school children who are carers, even in surveys by researchers and local governments, has been minimal. Carers Japan, a general incorporated association, surveyed teachers in the central Japan city of Minamiuonuma, Niigata Prefecture, in 2015 and in the city of Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, in 2016, to indirectly investigate the reality of elementary school carers.

    Among cases of elementary school children primarily responsible for family care at a young age who were found in Minamiuonuma were a fourth-grader who took care of her younger siblings while her parents worked, a third-grader who provided emotional support to her mother who has a mental illness, and a fourth-grader who was busy interpreting for his mother, whose first language is not Japanese.

    The government will also survey university students for the first time. Although no legal definition of young carer exists, Carers Japan defines it as someone "under 18 years old." Japan's first carer support ordinance, enacted by Saitama Prefecture, also defines it as "under 18 years old," in line with the Child Welfare Act.

    As such, the common perception is of people under 18. But because former young carers and experts pointed out that the burden of care affects university life and job-hunting activities, too, university students were included in the survey.

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

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