Aug 31, 2017
Children's cafeterias booming in Japan, but neglected kids still big issue
TOKYO - Growing concern about children eating alone has spurred a drive in Japan to offer free or low-cost meals for them at makeshift cafeterias, as the world's third-largest economy faces a relatively high child poverty rate.
Since the launch of the first such facility in Tokyo in 2012, the number of children's diners has sharply increased to about 500, with their activities expanding to dietary education, learning assistance, reduction of food waste and rekindling lost ties in local communities.
Although a step in the right direction, the children's cafeterias, however, are not a panacea for a more entrenched problem of children suffering from neglect or other social difficulties who might require professional care, welfare experts say.
The temporary cafeterias open regularly at such venues as community centers, grocery stores, restaurants, Japanese-style pubs and private homes. Local volunteers and governments help run them and cooking ingredients are often donated by farmers and companies.
On a summer evening, about 80 children and adults gathered at a kids' cafeteria in Tokyo's Kita Ward, which opens twice a month, cooking and eating dishes together, including pork and soup. Ice cream was also served on the menu.
At a local community center kitchen, some children helped prepare meals, while others played in an adjacent room as they waited for the dishes that were provided free for kids and cost 300 yen (about $2.70) for adults.
"I came here for the third time because my son wants to play with older children," a female participant said. She brought her preschooler to the cafeteria called "Kita Kuma."
Miwa Tsuboi, 39, who founded the diner with her friends in May last year, said she created it to support children who are compelled to eat alone as their parents are busy working.
"I was on a long leave to take care of my third child and thought it would be my last chance to do something while away from work," Tsuboi said. "It's fun to eat together and I try to talk to children who may have problems," she said, referring to kids from single-parent households or those on welfare.
To put the children at ease, Tsuboi said she invites children to come to the cafeteria with their friends. Kita Kuma also provides children with secondhand school uniforms and other student supplies.
"Ideally speaking, we'd like to increase the number of dishes featuring seasonal food and start a learning assistance program," Tsuboi said. "I hope children's cafeterias will further spread so that kids can walk to a nearby diner alone."
Chieko Kuribayashi, 50, who leads a campaign to promote children's cafeterias across Japan, said the recent sharp increase of such diners reflects the goodwill of many people worried about children in dire situations.
"Hearing the news about child poverty, I believe many people wondered what they can do and found out they could be of help by just cooking meals," said Kuribayashi, head of a nonprofit group managing children's diners in Tokyo's Toshima Ward.
Through the three-year promotional campaign started last year, Kuribayashi and other organizers aim to convey their know-how and share good practices with those interested in setting up children's cafeterias in each region.
Japan's 2015 child poverty rate stood at 13.9 percent, meaning one in every seven children below 18 were in households living on less than half the national median household disposable income.
The figure slightly improved from 2012 amid the country's economic recovery, but was still higher than the average among 36 industrialized and emerging economies. In Japan's single-parent households, the rate was as high as 50.8 percent.
Kuribayashi pointed out poverty-stricken children are all over Japan, regardless of the size of the cities.
"Whether in urban areas or the countryside, local communities are losing the capability to support each other," she said. "Kids' diners could help shed light on the disadvantaged, who often remain invisible in Japanese society (due to a stigma), and give them much needed connections with others to address problems they are facing.
When her group Toshima Kodomo Wakuwaku Network opened a children's cafeteria in 2012, it drew criticisms from people who said parents "would become lazy" if they didn't have to prepare meals for their kids. Starting a diner, they argued, might be an "intrusion into each family's private affairs."
"I'd like to promote understanding (about the diners), so that community residents can unite for the sake of children based on an idea that they will watch over local kids together," Kuribayashi said.
However, Masumi Kanazawa, associate professor of social welfare at Momoyama Gakuin University, said there are limits to the influence children's cafeterias can have in extending a helping hand to troubled kids who require specialists' care.
"Now that children's diners are booming in Japan, they can raise awareness on the poverty issue and kids whose conditions are not so serious or are in the stage of recovery may be able to come," Kanazawa said.
"But troubled children who refuse to go to school, are neglected by their parents or the disabled tend to stay at home and require long-term care before they can rebuild relationship with other people," she said.
The associate professor said volunteers at children's cafeterias need to alert welfare experts whenever they find kids with problems because they have not been trained to handle such situations.
Kanazawa also said local governments should not jump on the bandwagon to boost subsidies for kids' diners, but instead try to allocate budgets to help those in desperate straits.
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