What comes to mind when you hear the word “child poverty”? It might be children suffering from malnutrition in conflict areas, or children who cannot go to school spending too much time taking care of their siblings. When we hear “poverty”, we tend to think about faraway countries because there is absolute poverty, which is easy to recognize. However, there is a different kind of poverty in Japan. That is relative poverty, which is when households receive 50% less than average household incomes, so they do have some money but still not enough money to afford anything above the basics.
According to a report released by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, in 2020, one in seven children in Japan lives in relative poverty. Those children have many problems in their lives and cannot live an average life due to financial difficulties. They are also strongly affected by relative poverty in terms of education, such as not being able to afford the equipment necessary at school or having no time to study because of housework on behalf of their working parents. Children raised in poverty-stricken families are likely to be deprived of learning opportunities and get poor grades. As a result, they cannot go on to higher education and have no choice but to settle for unstable employment due to their poor educational background. That means that if you are in poverty in your childhood, the disadvantages and difficulties caused by poverty get expanded, and eventually, poverty gets fixed over generations.
COCOA, the total support for children and youth provided by Chofu City, Tokyo, is one of those helping children in poverty. COCOA is for junior high school students who are unable to bring their potential to fruition due to the financial difficulties of their families. It provides them with learning opportunities and warm places where they can be themselves. Although intergenerational reproduction of poverty tends to be treated as unavoidable with the word “the chain of poverty,” all the staff of COCOA work hard every day to overcome the unreasonableness of the cycle of poverty, which is not unavoidable in fact.
COCOA started as one of the projects of the Chofu City Council of Social Welfare (CCSW) five years ago. Its name is derived from the motto “COCO kara Ashita e Aruiteiku,” which means “walk from here toward tomorrow.” There is a lot of support for children and youth carried out by local governments, but COCOA is different from all the other ones. It undertakes different kinds of support comprehensively such as consultation, creation of warm places, and learning support.
Of these three, we interviewed especially about learning support. It is for junior high school students from families receiving a child-rearing allowance or financial assistance for school expenses. It helps such students study for entering high school and acquire a practice of learning through one-on-one teaching by volunteers.
Volunteers are mainly students of nearby colleges, and basically, one or more volunteers are assigned to each junior high school student. The reason COCOA is being particular about one-on-one teaching is to give students a sense of security that they are listened to carefully and to prevent them from suffering from comparison with other students in their learning progress. Volunteers mean a lot to students who have no adults around who can be their role models, and some seem to have a wish to become like them in the future. This often becomes an opportunity to get engaged in study.
Mr. Atsushi Tamura of CCSW said that the aim of learning support provided by COCOA is not just to teach students. Its goal is to make them acquire not only academic ability but also life skills.
Students using learning support often have difficulties not only financially but also mentally. For example, some always want others to listen to themselves because their parents are too busy working to earn a living to talk with them. For such students, learning support of COCOA is not just a place for studying, but also a place where someone listens to them carefully. Therefore, COCOA never forces students to study every time, instead allows them to just talk with volunteers during lessons. Finding someone to whom you can open your heart to through conversations, is essential to building a place where you can be yourself.
Students who gradually become engaged in learning thanks to warm-hearted relationships between volunteers, get a successful experience of getting to be able to do what they could not before. This is important for students to acquire self-affirmation, which leads to life skills. Learning support of COCOA encourages not only academic ability improvement but also internal growth.
We interviewed three college students who volunteered at COCOA.
Interviewee A, the first interviewee, was a senior in college and started volunteering at COCOA when she was a freshman. She first knew COCOA in a lecture held at college by CCSW. As she got to know it, she became more interested in volunteering there and thought it could be helpful to her dream to be a teacher. After she started volunteering, she saw the hard realities of child poverty with her own eyes. She gradually knew that the ordinary life for her was hard for some to get.
Since the day of the interview was her last day at COCOA due to her graduation from college, she made a farewell speech and said “Knowledge can be kindness.” The knowledge here means “knowing fragility in the heart of various humans”. For example, your words for students can hurt them unintentionally. If you ask a student who does not go to school “How about your homework?”, how do you think they feel? Imagine one’s feelings when you ask a student who is in financial difficulties “Where did you travel during vacation?” You can find all of these communications are common among teachers or friends at school. Those who live without financial or environmental difficulties may never feel uncomfortable with these words, but many of the students gathering at COCOA do. She said that her volunteer experience at COCOA taught her the importance of consideration in words for students, and she was fortunate to learn it before becoming a teacher.
Interviewee B, the second interviewee, was motivated to volunteer when she saw a recruitment poster of COCOA at college. Originally, she had a part-time job at a major Japanese corporation that handles correspondence courses but could not agree with the high expenses charged to its student users. As she had struggled with financial problems in education, she wanted to help children with financial difficulties. She always keeps it in her mind to communicate actively with students in COCOA, which is uncommon in cram school. She said she becomes happy when her former students come to see her.
Interviewee C, the third interviewee, was eager to do volunteer work and then found a recruitment poster for COCOA when he was a sophomore. Since his college is located in Chofu City as well, he decided to be a volunteer at COCOA, which is accessible to him. He told us about many attempts to make lessons in COCOA into better ones. For example, regular English exams were characteristic. Students who memorize English words by saying them out aloud are tested using word cards, while those who memorize words by writing them are given paper exams. He described it as the strong point of one-on-one teaching. He also said that he rarely gives students homework, although he tells students to review where they have made mistakes. Since COCOA is a place to let them know the pleasure of learning, he considers that his mission is not to make students study hard but to motivate them.
As with all other public facilities, COCOA was affected seriously by COVID-19. Since the government declared the state of emergency in April 2020, it closed for a while. Although online lessons were getting more popular, COCOA decided not to adopt them and not to use such technical tools. It was because such tools were not affordable for some students, besides, COCOA placed the most importance on warm-hearted communications. After the state of emergency was lifted, COCOA reopened with infection prevention as long as it could, such as cutting the number of desks to keep physical distance and arranging another room, especially for students preparing for entrance exams. Students used to interact with each other by eating snacks during break time before the pandemic, but now they cannot due to COVID-19. Break time was not just for relaxing but also for volunteer-student or student-student communications. All volunteers we interviewed said that they feel sad about less opportunity to communicate with students than before.
After looking around COCOA’s lesson, Mr. Tamura at CCSW said “I hope that students will return here as volunteers in the future.” As mentioned at the beginning of this article, there is a matter of intergenerational reproduction of poverty. It means that if parents are poor, their children consequently grow up poor. However, even such children can learn human warmth at COCOA through communications with volunteers. They will surely be able to help others next.
All of the staff at COCOA told us their thoughts in a soft tone but with great earnestness. We were moved deeply by their earnestness in overcoming child poverty.
Written by Ayaka Sato and Toko Sone
Editted by Sarah Marlowe