Child poverty in Japan: Girl 'saved' through education, kindness

Child poverty in Japan: Girl 'saved' through education, kindness
The girl reads a book. “Studying was what saved me,” she said.
PHOTO: The Yomiuri Shimbun/ANN

This is the sixth instalment in our third series on child poverty.

The hand gripping the receiver of the payphone was shaking. It was the middle of the night in February 2011, and a first-year high school student in the metropolitan area had asked one of her friends for her homeroom teacher's cell phone number.

She was almost praying as she dialed the number. When the line connected, she asked for help in a quivering voice.

"My mother kicked me out of our home and I have nowhere to go," she whispered. After a short pause, the homeroom teacher replied: "It's alright. Come to my home for now."

She'd talked with her teacher three months ago when she couldn't go to school because her mother had cut up her school uniform and textbooks after a small argument. She'd told him how her mother had repeatedly kicked her out since she was little, how she would throw things at her when she was frustrated and break her cell phone. He was the first person the girl could really open up to.

She went to her homeroom teacher's house and explained the situation again to him and his wife. "I don't want to be with my mother anymore," she said.

"You've endured this for a long time. You can depend on us more if you need to." Hearing these words, her bottled-up emotions finally poured out.

Violent, deprived childhood

Located in a public housing district in the suburbs, the room where she had lived with her mother had always been a mess. Trash and clothes were piled up, and they put mattresses on top of them at night to sleep.

Every time her mother got money, she would spend it all immediately. They wouldn't even have food toward the end of each month. They started receiving welfare aid when the girl was in the third grade, but nothing changed. Her mother would get annoyed with her for no apparent reason and dump a tub of water on her.

Unable to take the situation anymore, the girl began thinking of ways to regain control of her life. During middle school, she began reading her textbooks until she fell asleep while she was at home.

Even if her mother yelled at her, she could reply, "Don't bother me while I'm studying." When her mother backed down, she could be satisfied in knowing she was right. She began placing toward the top of her class at school, and got into a high-ranking girls school.

After she entered the high school, however, her mother started screaming things like, "Don't make fun of me just because you get good grades."

One day, her mother kicked her out of their home, so she stayed at a friend's house. "You stayed at someone else's house without my permission? You're not my daughter. Don't come back," her mother yelled. Running out of people to ask for help, she called her homeroom teacher.

She was taken into custody at a child consultation centre the day after she stayed at her teacher's house and moved to a foster home about two months later.

A devoted teacher

Her homeroom teacher told himself that day he would protect the girl and make sure she graduated. His retirement was coming up in two years, the same time as her graduation. He talked with the school and asked them to assign him as her homeroom teacher for the remaining time.

From time to time, he would call her into his classroom after school and ask if she wasn't pushing herself too hard. When she got sick and missed class, he would bring worksheets from her other classes to the facility where she was staying.

"I want her to gain confidence and become stronger through her studies," he said.

One of the girl's close friends also supported her. They ate handmade lunches together and sometimes she invited her over to stay and talk.

Determined to go to college, the girl read her textbooks and the worksheets her teacher gave her until she memorized them. In spring of 2013, she gained admission to one of Tokyo's "Big 6" universities and is now attending on a scholarship.

"It's thanks to my teacher and my friends that I got this far. I couldn't ever fully repay them, not if I devoted my entire life to it," she said.

In December last year, she had her picture taken at a studio for her coming-of-age ceremony. She wore a bright tie-dyed long-sleeved kimono, which her homeroom teacher and his wife borrowed from a relative for her. They continued to support her after she graduated.

She had never taken a family picture in her life. "I hope we look like a happy family," she said as the three settled into the frame.

Support 'still insufficient'

Academic support is essential for children growing up in poverty.

Families on social welfare receive school supplies for primary and middle school, school lunch fees and graduation trip expenses. They can also attend public high schools tuition-fee, and financial support for high school graduation trips was established last fiscal year.

However, according to Prof. Naomi Yuzawa of Rikkyo Univerisity, an expert on social welfare: "We still need free classes provided by local governments so every child can go to high school regardless of the economic status of their family. It's difficult to go to college without going to prep school, so financial support for high school students is still not sufficient.

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