Local municipalities and support groups are offering after-school care for children who are alone at home because their parents have to work long hours or at late at night due to low income.
The supporters help them build good habits such as washing their hands and doing household tasks, as children from poor households often lack knowledge of everyday hygiene or households chores.
They believe such teaching can help break the poverty cycle.
“I’m home! Let’s go out and play!” one child said to a staff member as about 10 early-grade pupils began assembling around 3 p.m. at an after-school care center in Toda, Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo.
The children from low-income families stay at the facility, operated by a nonprofit organization called “Learning for All,” after school until 9 p.m.
Local public after-school care centers usually close at 7 p.m. or earlier and the childrenhave to stay alone at their homes for hours until their parents return.
The facility was founded in November 2016 by the Nippon Foundation, an NPO, and the Toda city government.
The center has dining and living rooms where children can eat and play. After playing outside and getting dirty, they can use showers and have their clothes cleaned in a washing machine.
“Children from impoverished families tend to have fewer opportunities to read books and experience things,” Hayato Hanaoka, an official of the Nippon Foundation, said. “We worry that these children would never feel inspired to study.”
“So we believe adults should help them build self-esteem and develop a positive attitude to living,” he said.
Child poverty is becoming serious in Japan. A 2015 survey report released by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare found 13.9 percent of children under 18, or one in every seven, were in households living on less than half the national median household disposable income.
In many of these cases, their parents also grew up in poor families and are ignorant about the importance of hygiene and health, such as taking baths regularly and having a balanced diet, or are unable to teach their children about them due to physical or mental disabilities.
The center in Toda teaches children such habits as putting their school backpacks in the racks and washing hands once they arrive at the center, as well as brushing their teeth after meals and studying at a set time each day.
At the center, children also learn to do some household chores including setting the table for dinner and clearing their plates.
The staff compliments them if they are able to do so.
As a result, children who had not been taught about these habits before started to sit at the desk and do their homework on their own initiative when study time comes, they said.
Besides the city of Toda, the foundation has launched after-school care projects with other municipalities like the Mino city government in Osaka and the Onomichi city government in Hiroshima Prefecture. It plans to increase the number to 100 across Japan by 2020.
“It’s OK that they don’t study some days, as what’s more important is that they have a place they wish to come to,” said Tadataka Yukishige, a social worker based in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture.
Yukishige launched two years ago an evening child care program at nursing care or other facilities that are unused during the night in collaboration with a local welfare association.
Children come to the program three days a week, eating and playing with volunteer teachers as well as taking a bath. The program is currently organized at 10 locations in the western Japanese prefecture.
“Children should spend some time and laugh together with adults for the sake of their healthy growth,” Yukishige said.