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ISHES Newsletter #37: The 'Kodomo-Shokudo' Movement--Ever-Adapting Support for Communities in Japan

2021/08/25 12:23:13
ISHES Newsletter #37
August 25, 2021

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Copyright (c) 2021

Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society, Japan


Dear Readers,

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc in Japan. The national and local governments are appealing for people to avoid non-essential trips, restricting opportunities to meet directly and communicate with others. This issue of the ISHES Newsletter looks at Kodomo-Shokudo (Children's Cafeteria) which was well-established all over Japan prior to the pandemic, how it creates community by bringing together people of multiple generations, and how it has been able to continue functioning despite restrictions on in-person contact.

In this August 2021 issue, you will find the following article:

The 'Kodomo-Shokudo' Movement--Ever-Adapting Support for Communities in Japan

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic expanded in Japan, a movement that supports child-rearing households has gained momentum. What makes the "Kodomo-Shokudo" movement tick? Here we look at the movement and underlying issues in Japanese society.


The 'Kodomo-Shokudo' Movement
--Ever-Adapting Support for Communities in Japan


Image by Takuan to Kumori.

By Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society, Japan

Due to the spread of COVID-19 in 2020, people had to refrain from various activities. Meanwhile, throughout Japan, a movement was seen arising from quite early on to distribute box lunches to children and set up food pantries for households with children. Behind this ability to get such a quick start on these activities was the fact that "Kodomo-Shokudo" (literally, Children's Cafeteria) had already taken root in all parts of Japan by 2019. This month's ISHES Newsletter looks at the Kodomo-Shokudo movement and issues facing Japanese society.

A Scene from a Kodomo-Shokudo

"Don't just watch--join in!" These were words our ISHES reporter heard several years ago when she went to observe a Kodomo-Shokudo event in a home. When she went in, children were running around, shouting happily. Watching over them was a woman who lived in the house and volunteers of various ages, including university students. Of course, children's parents were there too. "We're going to make thick-roll sushi! Anyone who can help, come over here," called out one person, and not only the volunteers, but also the children gathered around. They were all excitedly placing the ingredients on top of the rice and rolled the sushi, chatting. "Did you wash your hands?" "I put too much on top." "That doesn't look right!" They made a hubbub as they ate what they had produced together. Not only the children, but the adults also chatted passionately. Even after they had finished eating and cleaned up, they were reluctant to part ways, but with a "See you next time!" one by one they headed home.

This Kodomo-Shokudo was a typical example. According to the NPO Japan Kodomo-Shokudo Support Center "Musubie" a Kodomo-Shokudo is "a place to eat where children can go even by themselves for free or low-cost meals." The point is that it is not so much "a cafeteria for children," but rather "a cafeteria to which children can go on their own." Even in Japan, most people hearing the name "Kodomo-Shokudo" have an image of it as a place where disadvantaged children go, but in fact, it is not limited to cash-strapped households. The typical Kodomo-Shokudo allows parents and children to participate. Many Kodomo-Shokudo programs do not operate every day, but hold gatherings at a pace of once a week or once a month. Various places may serve as venues, including private homes, community centers, shops and temples. Some charge no fee, while others ask for a nominal fee of 300 or 500 yen (about 3 to 5 dollars). Many Kodomo-Shokudo programs rely on volunteers and donations to support their operations.

Spreading Rapidly across Japan

Image by Koji1971

The number of Kodomo-Shokudo programs in Japan has been increasing rapidly for the past few years. The initiative launched in 2012, and in 2016 there were reportedly at least 319 Kodomo-Shokudo programs. Since then, their number has burgeoned, reaching 2,286 in 2018, 3,718 in 2019 and 4,960 in 2020, an increase of 2,674 programs between 2018 and 2020. The number of people participating is said to total over 1.6 million (all figures by Musubie).

There are a number of factors in this rapid expansion. One aspect of Kodomo-Shokudo is its function as a measure to alleviate poverty, but it plays many other roles such as aiding households where the parents are too busy working to prepare meals, and providing children, parents and volunteers a place to belong. One can get a sense of the reasons for Kodomo-Shokudo being in demand in Japan through the keywords "child poverty," "long working hours" and "loneliness."

Child Poverty: In Japan, one child in seven lives under conditions of relative poverty.* Single-mother families in particular face severe poverty. About half of single-parent households (single mothers in most cases) face conditions of relative poverty. This is because in Japan, the proportion of women working in non-regular jobs is high, and it is hard for single mothers to obtain regular employment. In the Global Gender Gap Index, announced annually by the World Economic Forum, Japan ranked the lowest among the G7 countries, and at 120th out of 156 nations.
* "Relative poverty" is a term indicating the proportion of people whose income is less than half the national median income (i.e., the centermost value when all incomes in a country are lined up from lowest to highest). This is the parameter in general use to indicate poverty in developed nations.

Long Working Hours: In Japan, 19% of employed persons have long working hours--49 or more hours a week--and people work longer hours here than in other developed nations. Long working hours are particularly notable among men (27.3% of whom have long working hours). Meanwhile, many women face hardship, forced to handle child-rearing and housekeeping alone, regardless of whether they work full-time themselves or stay at home. The increased number of nuclear families (without grandparents and other relatives living together) leads to parents raising their children on their own and weakens social bonds, as detailed below. This is making the situation worse.

Loneliness: "Loneliness" is becoming such a societal issue in Japan that even the government has been taking actions such as establishing a Minister of Loneliness in 2021. OECD data show Japan ranking second behind Mexico among surveyed countries in terms of how many people replied to surveys saying, "I spend almost no time at all with my friends and colleagues." Some mothers feel so isolated today that the term "ko-sodate (bringing up a child alone) is sometimes used instead of "ko-sodate (the regular term for child-raising, written with a different character). To mothers like these, Kodomo-Shokudo programs play a valuable role, giving them a place to talk with others while their children are watched over.

Issues like these account for the growth of Kodomo-Shokudo.

Grassroots Structure Makes It More Responsive

Image by Koji1971

A Kodomo-Shokudo is a place where people facing various difficulties in life such as not knowing how to cook or having no one to talk to can gather regardless of age group. Precisely because Kodomo-Shokudo is not only for impoverished households, it has become a place where different people can gather, including households "one step from poverty" that government measures don't reach and households facing difficulties. Makoto Yuasa, a social activist who supports the Kodomo-Shokudo initiative, describes it as a place that reaches what he refers to as "yellow alert" children." A "red alert" would indicate conditions of hunger from economic impoverishment. Government aid is needed for children who are that severely impoverished. By contrast, a yellow alert would mean not having enough money to go on school excursions or being unable to continue education, that is, poverty that is not life-threatening. Yellow-alert cases could be on their way to becoming red alerts, but the fact is that government programs do not reach them. By taking care of these yellow-alert children, the number of potential red-alert children can be reduced.

Also, access to a place where one can belong through involvement in Kodomo-Shokudo is a benefit not limited to these children or their parents. For retired citizens as well, involvement as a volunteer provides a place for them to belong or be needed.

In Kodomo-Shokudo White Paper, Kodomo-Shokudo is described as "a place that does not classify people based on age or social status, etc." Government programs offer services such as kids' centers, short-stay programs for seniors, and financial aid programs for impoverished households, that pinpoint specific age groups and circumstances. In contrast, Kodomo-Shokudo is a voluntary grassroots organization. It does not discriminate, but allows children, adults, and people with a variety of circumstances and perspectives to come together. This flexibility has been a shining light even in the midst of the pandemic.

Due to COVID-19, about 90 percent of Kodomo-Shokudo programs had to pause temporarily in 2020 because they involved close contact. About half of the programs were able to continue in various forms, such as distributing box lunches or operating food pantries. Such flexibility is a key feature of grassroots movements.

As a place for everyone, able to adapt flexibly in response to social circumstances, Kodomo-Shokudo can be expected to continue spreading its roots in communities as a space where diverse people can connect with each other.
(1 USD = 109.7 JPY)

Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society

*The Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society (ISHES) is an organization based in Japan that is working to build a happy and sustainable society. To this end, we need to think about happiness, the economy and society together by learning from, analyzing, and thinking about theories and cases in Japan and around the world on what happiness is and what kind of economy and society will create and support happiness.

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