Thursday, 13 December 2012

2010 Orphanage Christmas Party

At Tokyo Orientation, when I first arrived, I learned about a JET-based organisation called Smile Kids that encourages ALTs to volunteer at orphanages. I was keen to get started but heard that ALTs in my prefecture already had an annual Christmas visit organised, so I waited for that. Unfortunately, it fell through and 2009 was the first year when there was no visit. So after a fair bit of background work I managed to get a visit organised for 2010. We only visited one of the (several) homes in our area, but it was a bit of an organisational nightmare even so. Everything the home (a sixty-year-old orphanage run by nuns) told me turned out to be inaccurate; they made last minute changes that I couldn’t pass on to all the volunteers… it was a mess. I think they were just a bit confused about what we wanted to do (and why), and were a bit concerned based on some sub-optimal experiences from the previous (very haphazard) system of ALT visits. Nevertheless, it went better than expected and I’d go so far as to call it a success. Unfortunately I was away for the last two Christmases and no one wanted to take over the organisation, so there were no visits. This year I'm here, and we're holding our second party at the same orphanage this Sunday. I'm posting this to reflect on the previous one in preparation.
Usually one does not post pictures showing children's faces, but this is taken from one of the organisation's own sites. I'm not linking to the site just to further decrease any privacy issues, but this is not my photograph.
To me the number of kids in care is appalling, but I’ve also been shocked at how NOT shocked the Japanese people I’ve talked to about it are. I suppose they don’t see what the problem is, as long as they are well cared for. There’s also a strong undercurrent of eugenics in society here. If a child is in care because its parents are in jail, there’s not much sympathy because the child is seen as having bad blood. As one person I told about our visit said, “they’ll just grow up to be criminals anyway, why bother?” A number of times I’ve heard child abuse being discussed quite openly in the staffroom; having heard of some of the situations kids are living in unaided, I think that the children who actually are removed from their families must have endured unspeakable suffering. The attitude seems to be that the social stigma and lifelong disadvantage resulting from being placed in care is so serious that it is better for a child to remain in an abusive home until their life is in imminent danger. I think that says a lot about how society responds to children in care. Obviously the border between regular violence and lethal violence is pretty unclear and I wonder how many kids die in the gap. I know of two since I’ve been here, one survived by her younger brother who watched his father kill both his mother and his sister with a knife. The other student was asleep in her house when her father set fire to it. I work in a low socio-economic area with high rates of gambling and alcohol addiction combined with the highest birth rate in the country, so the situation here isn’t necessarily representative of the entire country, by the way. Although I guess the social stigma of growing up in an orphanage is a nation-wide problem. The point of the story is that we’re doing what we can here. The inaugural Christmas visit had a few glitches, as I said, but overall it was a great event. The kids had fun, the ALTs had fun, the presents we brought went down well and we even got the little kids dancing at the end.

We had a bit of an awkward moment with the girl the Mr. and I were teamed with. He wore a Gundam T-shirt, which drew her attention. We asked if she liked Gundam, and she said that her mother likes Gundam. Then she got a bit sad and quiet and went and sat in the corner for a while. Oops. The other moment I felt bad was after handing out the presents we'd brought. We had one present for each “room”. The kids are divided into rooms by age and gender. The older boys had got air hockey table. One room had boys from two all the way up to eight, so it was a challenge to find something they could all enjoy. I thought I’d made a great choice with an indoor bowling set decorated with Anpan-man, a popular kids’ character. All the other kids were ecstatic about their presents, and the eight-year-old who opened the bowling set was super excited to find out what it could be… but was not impressed when he saw it. “Anpan-man?! Seriously?” He sat down next to his friend and they both looked at it for a while, then he said: “Well, the little kids will like it. I bet they’ll play with it lots.” His friend agreed and they both cheered up, smiling from ear to ear. Imagining myself in the same situation at the same age, there is no way I would have been cheered up by the idea of someone else enjoying a disappointing present. As I stood there in awe of the way they handled the situation, I heard the teacher's voice in the back of my mind: “They’ll just grow up to be criminals anyway, why bother?”
Because humans are more than the sum of their parents' choices.
Because these children are wonderful and special and invisible.
Because they are CHILDREN and it's CHRISTMAS!

You can read more about Japan's approach to child welfare and adoption in these posts:
Share this article :


  1. This post... it made me want to cry.
    I am happy that you can make a difference for these kids during this time of year though. It is just such an overwhelming problem. It's so hard to imagine a solution to the problem, especially in Japan where there are all these attitudes about everything.

    1. I really wish we had been able to get the visits to the one behind NUFS up and running. Those kids were so lovely.

    2. Well, since someone we know is now gainfully employed at NUFS you should encourage the behavior :) It would be a great learning experience!

  2. I discovered your blog yesterday and I am really in admiration of what you do for these children.

    I travel to Japan quite often, and was really surprised by some stories you relate in your posts. It is a side of Japan I did not know about at all. The world need more people like you.

    1. Thank you for your kind words... although I always feel that what we o is very little in the grand scheme of things.


Because of all the spam lately, comments on old posts will now be moderated. This means it may be some time before your comment appears. You can always email me directly, check the contact page for details.