A Savior in the Night City


Young women forced to run away from home to escape abuse, bullying, poverty, and a host of other problems now drift through the nighttime entertainment districts of Japan’s capital. What is most needed to rescue these vulnerable girls, who have fallen through the safety net of Japan’s social welfare system?

Resetting a Life

In 2009 I founded the nonprofit organization Bond Project, dedicated to helping girls in their teens and twenties already burdened with “the pain of living” put their lives back on track. We listen to these young women’s stories, share them with the larger world, and put the girls in touch with the appropriate support systems. Now we have begun providing a space where we can offer them shelter from their desperate circumstances and support them as they try to establish independent lives.

The defining moment that led me to my life commitment came when I met a solitary young woman wandering the night streets of Tokyo’s Shibuya district. At that time it was my practice to walk through the city at night carrying copies of Voices, the free magazine that we had launched in 2006, reaching out and speaking to girls who seemed to be in need.

“My name’s Tachibana Jun,” I told the girl. “I put out this magazine. If it’s all right with you, could you tell me your own story?”

Her face had a vacant look, but she took a copy of the magazine, flipped through it, and said, “Sure.” She told me that she was “Ayumi” (not her real name), that she was 17 years old, and that she had run away from home in Japan’s northeastern Tōhoku region only three days before. She had posted a message on an internet hookup site reading: “17-year-old runaway. Looking for someone to buy me dinner in Shibuya.” She was waiting for a man who had offered her a meal to show up. When I asked her why she had run away from home, she replied: “I wanted to reset my whole life here in Tokyo.”

What dire circumstance could make a girl of only 17 already want to “reset” her entire life? In Ayumi’s case, her parents had divorced when she was a young child. She had been bullied in school. Unable to get along with her stepfather after her mother remarried, she ran away from home and lived by selling her body in so-called enjo kōsai (dating older men for money) and Japan’s fūzoku sex industry. Dropping out of high school at 16, she gave birth, got married but could not make it work, was thrown out of the house . . .

All these terrible things had happened to her. Yet Ayumi was still generous enough to share them with me, a complete stranger.

“I thought I’d start my life over again in a new town,” she told me. “But now that I’ve made it to Tokyo I don’t know anybody here. I don’t have a job, I don’t have any money, I don’t even have a place to live. What am I going to do?”

The girl shared all her fears with me that night, and my encounter with this desperate young woman at her wits end and with nowhere left to turn proved to have a profound impact upon me as well, and on the future course of my life.

Conveying More Than Words

I first decided to become a writer when I was 18.

I decided that after I had been interviewed myself by a magazine reporter. It is now 28 years since that day, and I can remember only a little of the interview itself. What I do remember, however, is how easy the middle-aged reporter was to talk to. No matter what outrageous things I told him, he never tried to lecture me but simply laughed. He peppered me relentlessly with questions and truly listened to all that I had to say.

For a rebellious young woman, the very existence of a grown-up like this reporter was a revelation. Until then I had perceived all adults as the enemy, and I had never once thought about what kind of adult I wanted to grow up to be myself. Looking back today, I see that I, too, was one of those impulsive 18-year-olds, living only for the day without a thought for the future or where I was headed in my life.

It was thanks to that meeting, coming at that time, with an adult who I would not have minded growing up to be like, that I myself changed. I became interested in adults, listened to the stories that all kinds of people had to tell, and realized that—in order to transmit their voices to others—I also wanted to write words of my own.

In time, that interview led me to a meeting with a magazine editor in chief. It was decided that I would go all around Japan and write up interviews with young women living different kinds of lives. That led next to work as a video reporter, covering topics like so-called ladies’ teams—all-female groups driving souped-up cars and motorcycles—all across Japan. I got married when I was 25, gave birth to our daughter, and in 2006 I and my husband, the professional cameraman Ken, launched our magazine Voices—Kimi no koe o tsutaeru (Voices: Sharing Your Words) at our own expense. To date we have put out 21 editions in all, including special editions, covering everything from pregnancy, abortion, abuse, and runaways to wrist-cutting, enjo kōsai, the sex industry, and drug overdoses from the perspective of young people who have experienced them.

But as I reported from places like the popular Sentā-gai (Center Street) shopping and entertainment zone in Tokyo’s Shibuya district or Shinjuku’s Kabukichō red-light district, I became convinced that simply listening to and sharing the heartfelt stories of these young women with nowhere to go was not going to be enough. What they really needed was a place of safety and security where they could prepare themselves to live self-supporting lives.

Connecting Caregivers with Girls in Need

The sad truth is that many of the young women I have met on the street still have not fully grasped what desperate trouble they are in. Furthermore, even those who have realized they need help often do not know how to articulate those feelings. Most of them are completely unaware of the very existence of governmental services that could help them. And even if they do at last manage to find a shelter that will take them in, they are then suddenly expected to become “model young ladies” overnight, turning over their cellphones to the shelter operator and strictly following the shelter rules. For some of these young runaways, such demands are more than they can accept, and they return to the streets.

In an even more serious turn, no matter how badly these young women have been harmed or how difficult their situations may be, few of the girls I have met on the street even have an awareness of themselves as being victims. Instead of expressing anger at what has been done to them, they take all the responsibility for their plight, saying that it was all “their fault” for being “weak.” The lower a runaway’s self-esteem, the more she is at risk of suicide, and the more urgent her need for immediate intervention, the less likely she is to have any form of contact with a responsible adult. And even when the advice these young women do receive is appropriate, they rarely have the internal resources left to decide themselves to take action and escape their plight.

Japanese society, however, has concluded that if these girls cannot bother to seek out advice and assistance themselves, then they must neither be troubled about how they are living nor require any special measures to rescue them from the street. It is because their voices have not reached the ears of society at large that there are no relief systems or countermeasures in place tailored to their special needs. As things stand today, these young runaways simply fall through gaping holes in the mesh of Japan’s social safety net.

Is it any wonder, then, that their spirits should be worn threadbare by the indifference shown to them, day after day, by the world around them? Until they finally come to that terrible conclusion: “I just want to disappear. I just want to die.”

If only there were someone who could serve as an “interpreter” for these girls, I thought. Someone who could convey the feelings and desperate straits of these young women to society, and, in turn, convey the words of those adults who do want to help them in a way that they can finally understand.

With this desire to make myself part of the “glue” that could bind together those who need care and the caregivers, in 2009 I founded the nonprofit organization Bond Project.

No Place to Run

Our daily work at Bond includes plenty of email, telephone, and face-to-face consultations with young women. Yet it goes far beyond that to include a mobile “café-style” consulting room, street patrols, and street surveys. We strive to be a “traveling consulting center” where these women can make themselves heard. And then, when the need is there, we work with lawyers to put them in touch with other, specialist institutions. There are even times when we bring them under our own temporary protection, accompany them to government offices where they can apply for public relief, and arrange for longer-term welfare assistance as we support their efforts to start a normal life on their own.

In 2016 alone, we received 12,395 email consultations, had 1,979 telephone calls seeking advice or help, and arranged shelter for girls on 1,105 occasions. Every month we receive anywhere from 40 to 60 new contacts from young women reaching out for help.

The author and Bond staff members conducting a survey on the streets of Shibuya. (© Ken)

We receive SOS calls from girls in their teens and twenties from all across the country. They can be about anything at all. “I can’t go home because my parents will beat me,” writes one girl. “I ran away from home,” says another, “but now I’m trapped in a hotel with a man I met on the internet.” And these are only the girls who have dared to reach out to us. There are also young women who are being physically or sexually abused but know no other adults in the world except the very ones abusing and using them, and may have no means of calling for help at all.

After receiving such calls, we work together to get the victims into Japan’s public assistance system. Sometimes we have them spend the night at Bond’s own shelter. Yet ironically, we are rarely able to set them up with the assistance offered under Japan’s Child Welfare Act.

To cite but one example, Japan’s governmental child guidance offices are intended to assist people under the age of 20. Yet in practice they have no choice but to prioritize assistance for younger children whose lives are at risk, making it hard to devote time and resources to a girl in her high teens. There are also only limited opportunities to put these young women in touch with orphanages, or with group residential homes where young people aged 15 to 22 in age can live in a dormitory-style environment while they learn self-reliance and the societal skills they will need for independent living.

The young women we see are often severely damaged emotionally and psychologically. They may be silently enduring verbal and physical abuse, even sexual abuse, at the hands of a parent. In the end, the desire to avoid painting their own parents as “bad people” binds them psychologically to their abusers so tightly that they cannot escape even when they are adults themselves. Even those who are still capable of finding an escape can often come up with no other solution except running away from home.

There is an urgent need for many more institutions in Japan where young girls can find safety before they experience even more harm on the street. We need more places where they can live in safety during the time it takes to get them onto public assistance, and many more places where they can stay over the longer term while they acquire the skill sets they will need to live independent lives.

A Place to Learn to Live

Working and living on your own requires physical, financial, and psychological leeway on a scale that is rarely available to runaways. It is all but impossible for a runaway to even legally sign a rental contract or find normal employment. Furthermore, the aftereffects of physical or sexual abuse may leave them psychologically unable to attend school or go to work on a regular basis. They may already have been told that they need their parents’ permission sign a rental contract, or been refused because they did not have a copy of their certificate of residence or other necessary documentation. In some cases, they could not even get proof of their own identity from their home when they made the decision to run.

The younger a runaway is, the more likely it is that the circumstances she was escaping from were such that her last option was trying to make it on her own, with all the risks that entails. No choice but to sell her body for a little food and a place to sleep. No choice but to turn to the underworld to find a place where she can work without identification documents. It is a choice of doing that, or of living in hunger and fear on the street.

By isolating these young women, society, too, bears dreadful risks in the form of growing social problems and criminal offenses. The outcomes we see include unwanted pregnancies and births, abandoned infants, vicious cycles of child abuse, self-inflicted injuries, cutting, and suicide, violence against others, and even murder.

To save these young women from falling into a spiral of self-destruction, we must provide safe places where they can pause and rest—where they can find peace, regain their mental and physical health, and reforge the ties with others that they need in order to value and care for themselves.

We need a new model of shelter that is suited to the times we live in today. It was with this in mind that we founded Bond House, a support home for independent living, in Tokyo in July 2017. We take in young women ranging in age from their teens to their twenties who, for a variety of reasons, have no other place to live. Staff members stay at the home overnight and take care of the residents’ meals and other essentials. I want to believe that the day will come—no matter how long it takes—when these young women will be able to decide for themselves what kind of lives they want to live.

The young women we help first met us during what must have been some of the most terrible days of their lives. There is one thing I want to tell them: that I believe—even if they may not yet believe in it themselves—in their own power to live.

“Thank you for your courage in speaking with us,” I want to tell them. “Now, for a little while, let us look after you.”

(Originally published in Japanese on October 10, 2017. Banner photo: Bond Project director Tachibana Jun listens to young women on a Tokyo street. Photos © Ken.)

poverty domestic violence sex industry Child abuse