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Editorial: It's time to review Japan's 'adult-centric' policies for children

The coronavirus crisis has put a greater burden on children than adults had imagined. In a National Center for Child Health and Development survey, children opened up about their struggles during the pandemic. One second grader said, "I don't like that we have to wear masks. I want to see my friends' faces," while a second-year junior high school student revealed, "We've only had a few school events. Since our elementary school graduation ceremony there have been so many restrictions and I'm tired of it."

    One fourth grader was critical of adults, saying, "While we're here being patient, not even talking while we eat lunch at school, why do adults want to drink in groups? Can't they control themselves?" A first grader wrote about their hesitation over going to school while assistant teachers are not assigned, saying, "I can't keep up in my classes."

    According to a study by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, a record of over 190,000 students were reported for truancy in elementary and junior high schools across Japan in the 2020 academic year. This is believed to be a result of the spread of infections.

    The pandemic has also brought into sharp relief the reality that not all households can take care of children forced to endure school life with many restrictions.

    When the Japanese government asked all schools to temporarily close two years ago, many double-income households were faced with the serious issue of having no one to care for their children. Behind this is a shift in social structure: fewer and fewer households have three generations living together or stay-at-home moms.

    A user survey by the nonprofit Kosodate Hiroba, which provides safe spaces for families, found that some 70% of parents live away from the municipalities where they grew up. Parents who can't easily rely on their own parents for child-rearing tend to become isolated.

    One study shows that parents have become harder on their kids due to stress. There seems to be no sign of child abuse cases going down.

    Efforts in regional communities have functioned as a safety net. The nonprofit Setagaya Kosodate network operates four of the some 40 parent-child care facilities in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward. At them, parents can relax while letting their children play.

    The group has made efforts to find locations including a temple they can use to continue parent-child care activities amid the pandemic while observing COVID-19 countermeasures. Setagaya Kosodate network representative director Taeko Matsuda speaks of the significance of its activities, "For families raising children, using public institutions presents high hurdles. It's easier for them to make connections at places where they feel at ease about bringing their kids, and they can open up about their troubles." She says the group has seen a positive cycle where those who received support from it have taken up support provider roles.

    The Setagaya citizens' child-rearing committee which Matsuda is on serves as a network for child care supporters. Members discuss issues including the expansion of places for children to play, as well as measures to tackle poverty. Administrative personnel can stop by to talk with the committee, and it has provided an environment in which the group and the municipal government can work together to address problems.

    Meanwhile, providing aid that can directly benefit children is also crucial. Some children are isolated, without receiving sufficient care from their own parents, and others have no choice but to give up on playing and taking culture lessons because their family is struggling financially.

    But "children's diner" soup kitchens and learning support groups had to curtail their activities under the COVID-19 crisis. The central and local governments must offer support for these groups to continue their activities.

    The Japanese government decided in December 2021 to establish the "children and families agency" with the purported objective of putting children's interests first and creating a society with "children at its center." However, bureaucratic sectionalism hasn't been eliminated, and the education ministry continues to oversee preschools, meaning the convenience of adults is prioritized.

    Further efforts are needed to expand policy measures. The government should enact a basic law on children at an early date to protect children's rights in all areas from education to welfare, and secure stable financial resources.

    It's also crucial that a system reflecting children's voices in policies is introduced. Many individuals associated with nonprofit child care groups say they have learned what is important from children.

    In the United States and some countries in Europe, there have been growing efforts to introduce "children's commissioners" and other specialized officials in charge of advising administrative bodies as advocates for children. Japan should consider incorporating a similar system.

    Kiyomi Akita, a professor at Tokyo's Gakushuin University, emphasizes that investing in children, who will go on to lead society, is itself a form of investment in the future.

    Japan needs to review its existing adult-centric policies that tend to focus on addressing the low birthrate. What is required is the creation of a society where children can have hope for the future.

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