It wasn’t until her last years in university when Takae Moriyama — founder of the Tokyo-based NPO "3keys" supporting underprivileged children in Japan — first learned of the appalling state of the country’s orphanages, and it only was a matter of coincidence. In a period of self-reflection, she recalls, she found herself browsing online for answers to a question that had been haunting her for a while: How is Japan protecting its people and what could she do to contribute to the society? What she found, however, were even more questions when she stumbled across a call for volunteers at a local foster home — right across from the corner of her home.
“It struck me that it had been here all my life and I never knew of its existence,” Moriyama says in a recent interview with Japan Today. “I instantly felt the need to offer my assistance.” At past 20, this was her first encounter with a state-run orphanage, known in Japanese as jido yogo shisetsu.
The initial shock, however, was subordinate to what she experienced when she began volunteering at the institution. “The staff were swamped with work and the children were not even close to the academic level for their age,” Moriyama says. "The gap (with the world outside) was enormous," she adds, recalling that at the time she was simultaneously working as a tutor at a private school “where junior high school students were studying university math and other had experienced studying abroad.” At the orphanage, however, she would feel as if the time had stopped years ago.
A well-hidden social stigma, yet a subject to a very dark reality, orphanages abound in Japan. There were 602 foster homes across the country as of September 2015, according to the latest data provided by Japan’s Orphanage Association. There are 59 in Tokyo alone. A total of 29,979 children aged between 0 to 18 lived in those facilities, according to government estimates from February 2013 — the last time the conditions in these institutions were surveyed on a national level. The number of orphanage staff, on the other hand, stood at 15,575 in the same year — including a vast majority of volunteers and temporary staff the facilities are almost completely reliant on.
“The state budget allocated for orphanages is highly insufficient, making the work conditions unfavorable and the employees overworked,” Moriyama says. “In between managing everything on site, the staff simply don’t have the capacity to fully meet the children's needs nor prepare them for a life on their own after they leave the facility. Usually there are 30 to 100 children per orphanage, whereas one employee would on the average care for five children. The conditions aren't even close to favorable neither for the staff nor the children."
The majority of children living in Japan’s orphanages have living parents, who have had to — due to various reasons, including financial and mental instability — ask the facilities to take over their parental duties. The children spend an average of five years in an orphanage, though many end up being raised there. Only a few of them are adopted, Moriyama explains. Furthermore, whereas in post-war Japan the majority of such facilities served as homes for poverty-stricken war orphans, most of the children living there today are victims of domestic violence or neglect. According to the latest government statistics, with 38% of all jido yogo shisetsu children being there as a result of persistent domestic violence, and 59.3% having experienced parental neglect at least once, today's orphanages stand on the verge of being close to shelters. With a complex family history, persistent insecurity and little support resources, these orphaned children are put in a very precarious emotional state of mind, which many of them find it difficult to emerge from.
“At present, the government’s budget is mostly allocated to seniors, because Japan's bureaucrats generally believe that children are cared after by their parents. However, if you see last year's statistics only, there were 90,000 domestically abused children throughout Japan. That means that these 90,000 children a year cannot rely on their family’s support and with limited assistance from the government, their welfare becomes a major concern, ” Moriyama says.
It was exactly this drastic gap between "information we receive and the reality" that Moriyama witnessed in Japan’s orphanages that prompted her to establish 3keys seven years ago at the age of 22. “We wanted to provide all children with the opportunity to grow up without giving up or losing faith in the society,” she recalls.
Based on three founding principles — (creating an) “occasion,” (building) "bonds” and (promoting) “hope” — 3keys, a still-relatively small, though persistently growing NPO, was founded in 2009 as a private body to fill in the gaps in the current system — assist the children with educational support, raise awareness of Japan's orphanage conditions and establish a support network for children to report on potential abuse and seek help.
Currently operating in approximately 20 orphanages in Tokyo and Yokohama, 3keys annually dispatches 70 volunteer tutors to foster homes for an average of six to 12 months. During this time, the volunteers invest time in gaining children's trust while helping them improve their knowledge of basic school subjects — as well as offer them someone to talk to whenever they need it.
“It takes a long time for the kids to open up. They’ve been through a lot and they’ve become used to seeing people come and go all the time,” Moriyama says, adding that it is also an arduous task to make the children believe that education is important.
“They are attending public schools until the end of junior high, because it’s compulsory. But the word ‘attending’ is tricky, because in most cases they sit on their desks without understanding the lecture, as a result of which some spend a considerable amount of time at the nurse's room or end up not attending school altogether. They don’t see much meaning in education, because they are under the impression that their lives will not be affected by it. They know that they have to leave the facility and start working. Many of these kids also haven’t experienced the benefits of education. They somewhat understand the need for education, but they can't grasp why they can't be on par with their classmates."
The data supports Moriyama's words. While 83.2% of the children expressed motivation to enrol in high school, less than 25% wished to attend university or a specialized school, according to the above-mentioned 2013 national survey. On the contrary, a combined 71.6% of them answered that they are either "not considering continuing education" or they "don't want to."
Under the current regulations, despite the legal age in Japan being 20, children living in orphanages must leave the system as soon as they reach 18. "The facilities just can't keep up," Moriyama says, not hiding her frustration. In a society where children are not (as of present) allowed to vote or conduct any acts commonly attributed to adults before they reach 20, the system releases the orphanage minors on their own at 18, but without properly preparing them for being independent — simply because the orphanages can't afford it.
"Even if they end up attending school, many of them quit, become homeless, or in the case of girls, they may turn to night work to make ends meet," Moriyama says. "Japan at a glance is an affluent society, but behind the scenes, one in six children lives in poverty. But we rarely hear of this."
Though the contribution that Moriyama and her team are achieving in supporting Japan's unprivileged children may still be small in her perspective, the NPO is persistently making steps toward raising awareness of the problem. "We have a growing network of volunteers who support our activities in various ways," she says. "We also see a considerable increase in private and corporate investors expressing interest in our activities. Our seminars for recruiting volunteer tutors are always full," she smiles for the first time in our conversation, sharing that she feels inspired that more and more people are beginning to realize that things need to change.
But while the base is paved, where is Moriyama heading next?
Helping another group of children who are suffering without being able to rely on anyone, she says. “Currently we can only help children who are already living in an orphanage, but we can’t locate those who are secretly abused. The public only discovers alarming cases after a child has committed a crime, a suicide, or has fallen a victim to domestic violence. "Prevention," is what we want to emphasize on as our next step," she explains.
In April this year, the NPO launched an online SOS portal for children, called "MeX," ("Me" plus "X" for connection) which links children seeking help with related organizations and professionals who can provide them with timely help and continuous support.
"The ultimate goal, however, for which the whole society should work on, is to provide a system that helps all children feel secure, loved and protected. It is also crucial to increase orphanage staff and support for providing the children with new foster families," Moriyama concludes. "It is simply impossible to provide full care for them at the facilities only. The children need real homes and safe environment. Being raised at a place which they know they have to eventually leave makes their life vision very temporal."
For more information on 3keys, please visit http://3keys.jp. You can support the organization's activities through donations (currently most needed means of support) or by taking part in its Book For Kids project by donating books for sale, part of the profit of which will be allocated for 3keys' child support activities.© Japan Today