'3keys' NPO founder sheds light on Japan’s poor orphanage conditions

Takae Moriyama, founder and head of 3keys, poses in front of her office in Tokyo. Photo by Alexandra Homma

TOKYO —

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

  • 9

    thepersoniamnow

    A very sad read. How sad that society doesn't value these children! Hopefully they can overcome this and lead a good life

  • 7

    Star-viking

    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.

    Such bureaucrats should find themselves unemployed.

    I can dream right?

  • 5

    sighclops

    It was exactly this drastic gap between “information we receive and the reality” that Moriyama witnessed in Japan’s orphanages

    As is the case with anything "official" in Japan - government, bureaucrats & the media come to mind. Nothing is ever as itmseems on the surface, and statements / vows / pledges et al. are to be taken with a fistful of salt in hand. These kids are the future generations of working adults, who will be burdened with Japan's myriad of social & economic problems. Yet, unsurprisingly, the government is only focused on appeasing its voter base - the elderly. A very telling state of affairs indeed.

    But what's really heartbreaking about this piece is the fact that we all know how these kids will be treated if they ever get the chance to apply for university or even attend job interview. Japan is a very harsh & unforgiving place for minorities.

  • 7

    danalawton1@yahoo.com

    Thank You Moriyama-san!

  • 4

    iamme

    Hats off to this young lady. She is seeing problems in a way that politicians never will with their closed minds.

    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.

    The only reason politicians care about seniors is purely based out of greed; it is because they vote.

    On another note, even if they are not setting aside budgets, they should at the very least change regulations to make it easier for the orphanages and children to get the help they need. I have a friend who has adopted 2 children as she can't have any of her own. She didn't care too much about the costs, but was extremely frustrated about the process and how long it took. Did you know that children cannot be adopted away from the area that they were born until the are two? I guess they need to be "raised" there to feel a sense of belonging or something. She had found this adorable little girl in her parent's prefecture and felt immediate attachment to her, but had to wait a year because of this rule.

  • 4

    Alphaape

    Did you know that children cannot be adopted away from the area that they were born until the are two?

    @ iamme: Not true. My wife provided translation services for a friend who adopted two children from a Japanese orphanage, and both were infants. The parents are white Americans and the children are full Japanese. It can be done.

    “It struck me that it had been here all my life and I never knew of its existence,”

    IMO, that is one of the root causes. How can you not know what is right across the street from you or in your immediate area? But, if they had put the wrong garbage out on the wrong day, the people in the neighborhood would be up in arms about that. But something that may not be so cut and dry and not a polite subject to talk about, basically just gets overlooked.

  • 5

    MsDelicious

    One thing that would surely help is to make high school mandatory by law and not an option. And get rid of the uniforms as these kids cannot afford them.

    Plus, school books etc. should be free and most definitely not taxed. Hear that Abe? Not Taxed.

  • 6

    IamEstelA

    I'm also a volunteer at a Tokyo-based NPO. Our organization is called JOYFUL (Japan Outreach Youth Foundation for Underpriveleged Learners). We are foreigners who give English classes to some Homes in Kanagawa and Tokyo.

    http://joyful-npo.com/summary_en.html

    http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2014/12/07/how-tos/group-offers-free-english-kids-care-japan-aid-children-philippines/#.V0UlK_TXenM

    http://taiken.co/single/volunteering-in-tokyo-with-the-joyful-group

    We're also always looking for volunteer teachers because we want to reach as many Homes and kids as we can. Some Homes are harder to reach in the sense that the officers there are suspicious about us (since we're foreigners). But most are very welcoming and appreciative of our classes. I've always felt strange walking the streets to the Home I volunteer at. This Home is in the suburbs with neighbor's left and right. The weird feeling comes from the sense that the neighbor's don't know about the Home or "refuse" to see it. Other than that, it's been a privilege and a beautiful learning experience for me to give back of myself to this country I've considered my second home. And it has taught me a lot about understanding the Japanese society and psyche.

  • 0

    Peter Qinghai

    I know of a person who worked for JICA in an orphanage in a S. American country. The kids in Japan have it much better.

    @MsDelicious, how many Japanese have I asked, "Is high school important for a child's future?" The answer is always the same, "Yes." Then I ask what you suggest; I hear crickets as a response. Japanese education is exclusive; it tries to exclude as many as possible. This drives the cram school industry. Making high school compulsory and you shut down not only this industry, but all the private high schools as well; they would have to be nationalized.

  • 0

    Star-viking

    Peter,

    Japanese education is exclusive; it tries to exclude as many as possible.

    And this despite the right to access equal education in the constitution. I guess some constitutional matters are less equal than others!

  • 1

    GW

    A million THANKS & thumbs up for Moriyama san!!!

    As for Japan, surely you can do better wrt to orphans.............and a 17% PVERTY rate for children..........just awful! Sadly it will likely get worse instead of better over time...

  • -3

    bullfighter

    Japanese education is exclusive; it tries to exclude as many as possible. This drives the cram school industry. Making high school compulsory and you shut down not only this industry, but all the private high schools as well; they would have to be nationalized.

    I don't know where you are getting your misinformation but Japanese education is not exclusionary and the existence of what you inappropriately call the "cram school" industry has little relation to high school not being compulsory in law because going to high school is virtually compulsory in social terms. International comparisons of national education systems rate Japan very high in terms of inclusion.

    Plus, school books etc. should be free and most definitely not taxed. Hear that Abe? Not Taxed.

    School books for compulsory education (elementary and middle school) are not taxed because they are given away free of charge. There is an extensive system of aid and subsidy for high school kids who come from low income families. It also applies to kids in orphanages. The current system was implemented in 2014. Details (in Japanese) are here:

    http://allabout.co.jp/gm/gc/44659/

    If you want Abe to hear your voice, naturalize and vote.

    But what's really heartbreaking about this piece is the fact that we all know how these kids will be treated if they ever get the chance to apply for university or even attend job interview. Japan is a very harsh & unforgiving place for minorities.

    The kids in these facilities are Japanese. They are not an ethnic, racial, or national minority. For those universities that have real entrance exams, if you pass you are in. The rest will take anyone they can get.

    Japan's second richest man Son Masayoshi with a net worth of $13.6 billion as of 2015 June is a naturalized Korean, in other words he belongs to a "minority."

    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

    This article must be nearly a year old. The voting age was reduced to 18 in mid-June 2015. Most societies restrict "children" from engaging in "acts commonly attributed to adults." Japanese get to drink booze legally a year before most Americans. That should count for something. You can get a drivers license at age 18 in Japan, a fairly common age for such outside of North America. You cannot, however, be tried as an adult in criminal proceedings until you are 20. Presumably most "children" would not want this privilege.

  • 1

    Tessa

    International comparisons of national education systems rate Japan very high in terms of inclusion.

    Sounds like absolute bliss! That explains why so many new schools are opening up, to accommodate all the students.

    There is an extensive system of aid and subsidy for high school kids who come from low income families.

    No wonder the birthrate's so high! I bet millions of young Japanese couples are champing at the bit to make babies here.

  • 2

    Peter Qinghai

    @bullfighter

    I don't know where you are getting your misinformation but Japanese education is not exclusionary and the existence of what you inappropriately call the "cram school" industry has little relation to high school not being compulsory in law because going to high school is virtually compulsory in social terms.

    Education is compulsory in Japan until the age of 15.

    In order to enter high school, even public ones, passing an enterance exam is required.

    The entrance exams contain material not covered in junior high.

    In order to pass this test that material needs to be learnt. How? Form where? Cram schools, unless the child is a genius, or a highly motivated self-studier.

    To get a better education, i.e. head start, attending a cram school increases the odds of getting into something other than public junior high, as the entrance exams contain material not covered in elementary school.

    Two high school and one junior high school parent, I am. The middle child went to a public junior high, and a cram school, so that they could get into a public high school.

  • -3

    bullfighter

    Sounds like absolute bliss! That explains why so many new schools are opening up, to accommodate all the students.

    I don't know where you are getting your misinformation, but the school age population has been declining since 1992. There is no need to open new schools. Many surplus to requirements have been closed. Others have unused classrooms.

    No wonder the birthrate's so high! I bet millions of young Japanese couples are champing at the bit to make babies here.

    Whether lowering the cost of education would encourage couples to have more children is an open question. Japan, Germany, and Italy have essentially the same fertility rate. Germany has largely free education but it still has a low fertility rate. Canada has low cost public education but the fertility rate is 1.59 and falling. (Japan is 1.46 and rising. Anything below 2.07 means the population will shrink without immigration.)

    Education is compulsory in Japan until the age of 15.

    No, compulsory education is defined as elementary and middle school. Because of tracking by age, most will end middle school at age 15 but the law is not written in terms of age.

    In order to enter high school, even public ones, passing an enterance exam is required.

    Not true. You can get into some by recommendation and an interview.

    http://www.kyoiku.metro.tokyo.jp/pickup/pgakko/27pamphletj/27pamphletj04.pdf

    The entrance exams contain material not covered in junior high.

    Such as?

    To get a better education, i.e. head start, attending a cram school increases the odds of getting into something other than public junior high, as the entrance exams contain material not covered in elementary school.

    Same as in large US cities and in Britain.

    Two high school and one junior high school parent, I am. The middle child went to a public junior high, and a cram school, so that they could get into a public high school.

    You're one up on me. My older son just entered a Tokyo municipal high school from a Tokyo municipal middle school. He went to juku not to get extra material but because he spent his middle school hours primarily on sports (track and field). If he had applied himself during school hours, he would not have needed to go to a juku. The exam was trivial.

    My younger son just entered a Tokyo municipal middle school. He attended juku not because he needed to but because he thinks he should get everything his older brother gets.

    I have been interviewing Japanese high school students since 1999 as part of my job. The proportion going to juku has been steadily declining because it has become quite easy to get into college unless you aim for the very elite. In 2014 Yozemi one of the big college prep chains closed twenty (75%) of its schools because of the shrinking market for "cram" schools.

    http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/08/23/national/yoyogi-seminar-to-close-75-of-its-cram-schools-across-japan/

  • -1

    badsey3

    The biggest problem is there is no step-ladder for these young minds = they are sort of stuck in their situation and are probably not happy about it. = Hard to utilize your youthful growing mind in a situation like that. Competition between "orphanages" would definitely help and high achievers should be allowed chances to move into the best orphanage. This would also help with the "stigma" attached to orphanages.

    Another solution would be NGOs or other places of learning have "orphans" come to their place to learn skills.

    To much Gov waste to help these kids it seems.

  • 0

    iamme

    Not true. My wife provided translation services for a friend who adopted two children from a Japanese orphanage, and both were infants. The parents are white Americans and the children are full Japanese. It can be done.

    @alphaape I stand corrected, my assertion was that this was a national policy. I seem to have been mistaken, it looks to depend on prefecture or region. I am glad your wife had such a great experience with this American couple being able to adopt infants, something my friend definitely would have loved to have had.

  • 1

    Star-viking

    bullfighter,

    He went to juku not to get extra material but because he spent his middle school hours primarily on sports (track and field). If he had applied himself during school hours, he would not have needed to go to a juku.

    But the problem is, middle schools push sports as being the most important things in the kids' life. Join a club, and everything focuses around practice and competitions - and there are a lot of competitions.

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