A Japanese youth walks along a rooftop area of Osanbashi Pier in Yokohama on July 27, 2021. (Photo: AFP)
Dagashi is a word probably foreign to most people outside Japan. It refers to a variety of traditional and affordable snacks that have been enjoyed by generations of Japanese.
Gathering at Dagashi stores, children would exchange coins for an assortment of candies, chocolates and other treats, sharing their finds and developing bonds through a common craving for these indulgences.
Dagashi stores were vibrant and mostly safe spaces as they were located in neighborhoods, where youths could connect, socialize and learn from each other outside the confines of school and home.
As the popular Japanese saying goes, ‘kawaii ko niwa tabi wo saseyo,’ meaning, if you love your children let them go out. The snacks indeed played a crucial role in fostering social interactions among children but in modern Japan all that is unfortunately disappearing.
The decline of the Dagashi stores is largely due to changing consumer preferences. There are three major chains of popular mini-markets located literally at almost every street corner and increased competition from a variety of stores and supermarkets, besides the rise of online shopping.
As a result, these once-thriving communal spaces have dwindled, robbing Japanese children of an essential "analog platform" for social interaction.
"Their daily activities are all about listening and reading"
This loss of communal space, combined with the lack of opportunities for social connections, has become a real problem for Japanese youths.
A recent survey found that 70 percent of Japanese children lack a place to really relax. As a matter of fact, if we look at a normal day of the average Japanese child of primary school age, they have no time for free interaction.
They are confined in school, and even after school. Their daily activities are all about listening and reading. Actual 'free time' is non-existent.
As a result, especially children from troubled families are now gathering in improvised, disreputable areas, especially in major cities like Osaka and Tokyo.
These meeting points are known as tachinbo, which means remaining on one’s feet without doing anything. They are at risk of exploitation and often, especially girls, get led into prostitution.
Young women soliciting clients in public spaces are not a recent phenomenon in Japan, but the situation has become worse since the Covid pandemic.
Often driven by financial desperation or coercion, these young women find themselves trapped in a dangerous cycle of exploitation, seeking clients to earn a living or merely support their own dependencies, such as being at very expensive host clubs, also in search of companionship.
This behavior not only poses risks to their physical and mental well-being but also undermines the social fabric of the communities where it occurs.
"It is also essential for Japanese society and lawmakers to recognize the importance of communal spaces:
Recognizing the urgency of addressing the issue of street prostitution, Japanese police have taken steps to increase patrols in areas known for such activities. The aim is to curb the demand, identify and apprehend the individuals who prey on these young people.
However, very often it is the young people who get in trouble while those preying on them escape easily.
Police intervention cannot be the only solution to a problem that has a psychological root.
What is perhaps needed is strengthening the family support systems through targeted interventions and addressing the underlying issues that contribute to children seeking refuge in those tachinbo.
This may involve providing counseling services, parental guidance, and access to social welfare programs to promote stability and well-being within families first.
But to fully address this pressing issue, it is also essential for Japanese society and lawmakers to recognize the importance of communal spaces in the lives of children.
Efforts should be made to revitalize or wherever possible preserve traditional gathering places like Dagashi stores, ensuring their survival amidst the changing retail landscape.
Additionally, innovative solutions should be explored, such as the establishment of community centers, public parks, and recreational facilities designed to facilitate social bonding among children.
Collaborative initiatives involving government, communities, and private businesses can play a pivotal role in creating and maintaining these vital spaces.
Investments in after-school programs, extracurricular activities, and youth clubs can provide safe environments aimed at fostering friendship, mentorship, and ultimately personal growth.
By prioritizing the well-being of children and promoting their social development, Japanese society can work toward a brighter future for its youth.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.