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I’m a Second Year Middle School Student. My Job is Nursing Care. Life is Hard.

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In Japanese society today, new challenges emerge with each passing year. Of particular note is the existence of “young carers” — children who regularly take on household chores and care for family members that would normally be considered adult responsibilities. The burden and responsibility placed on these children can negatively impact their schoolwork and relationships. Additionally, according to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, it is estimated that around 5.7%, or about 1 in 17 public middle school second graders, are young carers. These youths are sacrificing their own education, relationships, and happiness to take on adult responsibilities for their parents, grandparents, siblings. Though barely recognized by society, recent research and personal accounts reveal the hardships and human rights issues faced by Japan’s young carers today.

Definition of Young Carers

“Young carers” refers to children and adolescents under 18 who regularly care for family members suffering from chronic illness, disability, mental illness or addiction. Their daily caretaking tasks can include personal care, administering medications, feeding, transferring, transportation assistance, and more. Young carers also take on household chores like cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundry, and caring for younger siblings. In addition to physical care, they provide emotional support by keeping chronically ill parents or grandparents company and cheering them up. These excessive caregiving demands place enormous pressure on a critical period of the young people’s own growth and development.

Prevalence in Japan

Based on research by scholars at Osaka Dental University, approximately 5.2% of high school students serve as young carers in Japan. This means that in any given classroom, 1 in 20 students shoulders a heavy caregiving role at home. The family members they care for are most often grandmothers, followed by mothers, fathers, and siblings. Cultural traditions of filial piety help explain the frequency of elderly parents and grandparents relying on children in Japan. However, the excessive caregiving burden restricts these young people’s education, relationships, and transition to adulthood.

Impact on Education

Excessive caregiving responsibilities often negatively affect young carers’ school attendance and academic performance. After caregiving early in the morning or late into the previous night, they may frequently miss, arrive late, or seem tired in class. Struggling to balance caregiving and schoolwork, their grades suffer. Some consider dropping out to focus on caregiving.

A Story

A-san (alias), began caring for her terminally ill grandfather in central Japan at age 16 after he was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. With her mother working full time and often absent, A-san took on managing her grandfather’s deteriorating condition and accompanying him to emergency hospital visits. In her second year of high school, as her grandfather’s health further declined, the caregiving burden increased. A-san says:

“Caring for my grandfather became my role and place in the family. It made me feel like I had found my place at home.”

Meanwhile, her teacher scolded her for spacing out at school. The teacher criticized her caregiving role and insisted she should focus on studying.This lack of understanding and support further isolated A-san during this difficult period.

Though an excellent student, she was accepted to her first-choice prestigious national university, but her parents refused to pay the tuition fees.They ordered her to remain local after her grandfather’s death to continue caring for her now-frail grandmother.Feeling hopeless and with nowhere to turn, A-san left home after graduating high school.

Mental Health Impact

In addition to academic struggles, young carers in Japan constantly suffer feelings of isolation, stress, anxiety and depression. Lacking peers who understand their family responsibilities, they feel lonely. The daily high stress often manifests in physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches and fatigue. The sense of being overwhelmed and hopeless drives some young carers to contemplate suicide.

Mental health professionals are also beginning to recognize their duty to support young carers’ wellbeing. For example, Nagahata-san, a school social worker in Minami Uonuma City, visits students struggling with caregiving at home, providing counseling and connecting them to useful local resources. But most exhausted young people remain overlooked and untreated.

Financial Hardship

Families relying on young carers also frequently experience income decreases due to loss of a parent’s employment. To provide for themselves and siblings, young people may take on part-time jobs while also working caregiving at home. Some contribute their own earnings to the family finances. These economic burdens compound the stress on young carers.

Societal Attitudes

Despite the importance of their family role, young carers’ sacrifices go largely unrecognized in Japanese society due stigma. People view such caregiving as the natural family duty and show little sympathy or support. Some school officials and employers even criticize them, insisting they should concentrate on studies or work over caregiving. This lack of understanding isolates young carers and trivializes their suffering.

But experts on Japan’s young carers like Professor Shimada of Osaka Dental University classify it as a major human rights issue.

“High school is literally the final stage of one’s childhood…It’s extremely important that those rights are protected until they transition into adulthood.”

The Way Forward

Recognizing and changing policies to support young carers’ health, education, and transition to independence is essential. First, schools need training to identify students showing signs of excessive caregiving. Teachers must make academic accommodations for students balancing caregiving, not scolding them for family responsibilities beyond their control. Workplaces that are understanding and flexible about caregiving also help prevent young people from total isolation.

Additionally, families of elderly and ill persons need affordable access to quality professional home healthcare services. This would ease unsustainable caregiving burdens on young people and allow them to focus on school and relationships. Policies like caregiving allowances could alleviate financial pressures on households facing hardship. With understanding and proactive support, Japan’s youth in family caregiving roles could gain hope of balancing their household duties and dreams for the future.

Yoshie’s Story

To illustrate the lifelong impact of young caregiving burdens, Yoshie Nakadani shared her experience as a former young carer at a support group in Japan. After Yoshie’s parents divorced and her mother worked full time, at age 16 she took on sole responsibility for caring for her bedridden grandmother after a stroke. Balancing studying and work was grueling, but Yoshie persevered, saying she “had no choice but to keep going.”

After university, Yoshie hoped to find an employer who would understand her family caregiving role. But her university career center said no company would hire someone with such responsibilities and insisted she immediately cease caregiving activities. With no other job prospects, Yoshie focused on caregiving and became completely socially isolated, even becoming depressed and suicidal at times.

Now 38, Yoshie still cares daily for her 98-year-old grandmother. Lamenting that caregiving caused her to mature too quickly, she says:

“I feel like I live on a totally different island from my peers.”

By speaking out, Yoshie hopes to raise awareness and compassion for the painful trials she and other young carers face in Japan’s aging society today.

A Human Issue

Individual experiences like Yoshie’s provide stark illustrations of young carers’ hidden suffering. Despite criticism from family, school officials, employers, and society, these youths sacrifice their education, careers, relationships, mental health, and personal dreams out of love and duty for family. Many regret and feel ashamed that caregiving deprived them of “normal” teenage experiences. Frank storytelling and compassionate listening are essential to recognize this silent suffering and address it.

Professor Shimada, a researcher on young caregiving, appeals to professionals to respect each family’s unique needs and circumstances.

“Each child caring for an ill parent is an individual existence.”

One university student shared that conversations with an understanding social worker allowed her to avoid dropping out to provide round-the-clock care for her grandmother. The social worker validated that her grandmother’s life was precious but so was her own future. This honest appraisal and advice empowered her to utilize helpful resources like home helpers and group homes to continue her studies.

Open communication, comprehending young people’s trials, and connecting them to social support can be lifelines. But the challenge remains of identifying young carers, as many students refrain from speaking up. Raising awareness among Japan’s teachers, doctors, and communities to spot signs like isolation, emotional pain, and academic changes is vital. Shining light on these invisible existences allows society to begin upholding young carers’ wellbeing.

The Road Ahead

As Japan’s population ages rapidly in the coming decades, the need for family-based care will continue growing. In Japanese society, support measures for young carers are being progressively rolled out. Municipalities are advancing various initiatives to aid them, such as enacting ordinances and setting up consultation desks. This demonstrates an improving recognition of and response to the difficulties faced by young carers.

It is hoped that through these efforts, understanding of and assistance for the challenges borne by young carers will deepen. Each one of us turning our eyes to their existence and the hardships they face, and reaching out a helping hand, will be an important step in building a better society. The issue of young carers is a social problem that can only be solved when all of us consider it together and take action.

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Hardship
Nursing
Japanese Culture
Productivity
Teenagers
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