Children’s Cafeterias: Filling the Void for Kids Who Can’t Eat at Home


A growing number of “children’s cafeterias” across Japan are offering meals at little or no cost to children, mainly from single-parent households, who are not sufficiently fed at home. Kanazawa Masumi, an expert on child welfare, reports on measures that are being taken to tackle the multifaceted problems of child poverty.

As a school social worker, I have been involved in issues facing children since 2005. The position entails observing how the problems children encounter at school correlate with their home environment and making efforts to improve their living conditions and to ensure they receive an adequate education.

Many children currently face problems like the following in localities throughout Japan.

  • When a school social worker visits the home of a child who has been skipping school, the house is in disarray. The child is looking after younger siblings and does not have enough to eat. The house has a smell, and there are health and sanitation concerns.
  • The child has a mouthful of cavities and has not been to a dentist in years. Because the child has not completed the requisite ear, nose, and throat exams, he or she is not allowed to use the school pool.
  • A group of older, noisy junior-high-school kids are hanging out in the apartment and are engaging in theft with their friends.

For children in situations like the above, going to school can be very difficult.

Although schools try to speak with parents to improve the children’s situation, they are often unable to reach them. The conditions in these children’s homes suggest that parents, too, are suffering, both emotionally and economically, and are in need of care.

Poverty and Neglect

One mother had a mental disability and had difficulty managing the household finances and doing housework. No one had ever taught her to cook, and she had never held a kitchen knife. As a result, the family would often eat out, and the public welfare benefits the family received would always dry up halfway through the month. Another parent in a single-parent household worked from early in the morning until late at night, leaving little time to shop for school necessities or help with homework. On top of struggling financially, the parent was unable to spend any time with the kids.

Some parents have mental health issues. There are those who used to perform housework effortlessly but now cannot bring themselves to do the necessary chores. In such households, children often do what they can to help, with the older siblings looking after their little brothers and sisters.

In examples like these, the children are placed in situations of neglect, deprived of basic human needs like food, clothing, and shelter, as well as emotional support. “Neglect” is frequently translated into Japanese as “refusal to foster” or “abandonment of childcare,” giving many people the impression that parents are deliberately denying children what they need.

In reality, however, parents are often in need of assistance themselves but either are not availing themselves of the welfare system or do not know about it and thus face difficulties in spite of their efforts. They also commonly lack relatives and friends whom they can turn to, are isolated from their local communities, and no longer even think of relying on others. The sad truth is that poverty and neglect are closely intertwined, but the general public is not fully aware of the problems due to the complexity of the issues involved.

Seeds of Inequality at the Start of Compulsory Education

One of the factors aggravating the situation is the fact that compulsory education from age six in Japan is not actually free of charge but relies to a great extent on parents bearing expenses. Examples include uniforms, gym wear, shoes to be worn in the classroom, toolboxes, randoseru school bags, and other supplies that are needed when enrolling in public school.

More expenses keep cropping up after school starts, such as school lunches; off-campus activities like field trips and overnight excursions; workbooks; sewing kits; materials and ingredients for lab experiments and cooking practice; club activities; and the list goes on. Even if it receives financial aid for school enrollment, a family in dire financial straits cannot really be blamed if it is unable to prioritize children’s school expenses.

Parents who fail to pay these expenses, though, tend to be reproached in Japan. As a consequence, they are often too ashamed to talk to anyone about their problems before their children start school. In this sense, from the moment that children enter compulsory education, some are being deprived of their right to equal educational opportunities and of important paths to growth and development.

Providing “Night Care”

In an effort to alleviate the socially ingrained tendency to heap all the blame on parents, school and community social workers are providing places to look after children in the evening, when after-school facilities are closed, as well as during school breaks.

These facilities are places where children can eat, play, quarrel, and learn what is right and wrong in the company of adults. Many place special value on eating with others.

Children gather at these “night care” facilities after school as if they were coming home and spend their time as they please—some play with staff members; others do their homework, asking a volunteer for help when there is something they do not understand; and yet others quietly read alone. They may squabble among one another on occasion, but there always are adults looking on. If they hurt someone, there are grown-ups who will give them a scolding. Here, children can find people who will teach them how to say they are sorry.

As dinnertime approaches, the children and staff prepare meals together. Everyone eats together, chatting with others as they dine and often opening up to talk about themselves.

In short, these facilities provide a space where children can feel safe, have dinner in the company of others, and find adults willing to help with homework. Spending time in such an environment draws out the children’s innate strengths. Exposure to the pain of peers and watching them being supported by others show them that it is okay to depend on other people. Children regain the opportunity to grow and develop emotionally, and parents are able to build new relationships with their children as they watch over their growth.

Developing Systems That Directly Support Children

Addressing child poverty obviously necessitates coping with adult poverty. A low-income household will confront many social disadvantages, making it more difficult for children to move out of poverty. To end this vicious cycle, support must be given directly to children in parallel with financial assistance to parents.

Specific measures might include making field trips and school lunches free of charge, providing escorts for children who need them during their commute, and creating a grant-type scholarships. Educational and livelihood support is also needed for children growing up in reformatories. Junior-high-school graduates and high-school dropouts should, if they wish, be given opportunities to continue their studies and be entitled to free medical care.

Such direct support to children who need it now will contribute to their empowerment and enable them to break the chain of poverty.

Learning from the Growth of Children’s Cafeterias

Programs have been launched across Japan to combat child poverty and give children a place where they can feel at home following enactment in 2013 of the Law on Measures to Counter Child Poverty. In addition to government-led efforts, many more kodomo shokudō, or “children’s cafeterias,” are opening as bona fide grass-roots, community-based initiatives.

The operators of these cafeterias range from restaurateurs to Buddhist priests and local volunteer groups. Their objectives are equally diverse, focusing, for example, on addressing child poverty, promoting food education, or enhancing community interaction. But they all seem to want to create spaces where children can come, on their own, to have a meal with others.

One significance of the movement lies in the fact that it has brought together not only those directly involved with assistance for children but also a broad spectrum of people from various occupations, positions, ages, and nationalities to face up to the crisis facing children in Japan. Many people have come to realize that eating together as a family is increasingly becoming rare throughout the country—not just among low-income households—and are joining hands to address this crisis.

The public is gradually waking up to the need to take measures against child poverty, as evidenced by articles about children’s cafeterias on the front pages of major newspapers. To get more people on board to think about and to act on this issue, greater attention needs to be directed at the problems.(*1)) I and many others who share this concern have collaborated with musicians and other artists to produce two theme songs for our activities, titled “Yūkoku” (Evening) and “Tadaima” (I’m Home). We hope that the music and the accompanying videos will serve as catalysts for enhancing and deepening public awareness of this issue.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on September 26, 2016. Banner photo: People young and old dine with children at a children’s cafeteria in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, on July 21, 2016. © Yomiuri Shimbun/AFLO.)

(*1) ^ The videos Hinkon o seotte ikiru kodomotachi: Jin no monogatari (Children Living with the Burden of Poverty: Jin’s Story), Part One and Part Two, and Hinkon o seotte ikiru kodomotachi: Satoshi no monogatari (Children Living with the Burden of Poverty: Satoshi’s Story), Part One and Part Two, help visualize the issue of child poverty and bring people to think about the issue together. (All videos are in Japanese.

education children poverty