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The worrying trend of vulnerable youth in urban Japan

It is not merely a matter of law enforcement but a complex issue pointing to economic inequality and family breakdowns
Japanese youth stroll on Propeller Street in the Harajuku shopping district in Tokyo in July 2001.

Japanese youth stroll on Propeller Street in the Harajuku shopping district in Tokyo in July 2001. (Photo: AFP)

Published: April 23, 2024 03:41 AM GMT
Updated: April 23, 2024 05:24 AM GMT

Japan, the world’s fourth-largest economy, has witnessed a concerning trend in recent years. Young individuals, particularly in bustling urban centers like Tokyo’s Shinjuku Kabukicho area, increasingly find themselves entangled in crime and vulnerable situations.

This scenario echoes the post-war period when orphans and displaced youths roamed the streets in search of sustenance and shelter, highlighting a historical challenge that remains inadequately addressed.

After World War II, Japan faced a myriad of reconstruction challenges, among them the plight of countless children left orphaned or separated from their families. These children, often referred to as "war orphans," were a common sight in cities across Japan, scavenging for food, shelter, and any means of survival.

The societal disruption caused by the war left a significant portion of the youth population vulnerable to exploitation and delinquency.

Fast forward to the present, and while the circumstances may have evolved, the underlying issue of youth vulnerability persists.

Recent actions by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department to guide young people away from potential crime and exploitation in Shinjuku Kabukicho’s “To-Yoko” area underscore a modern manifestation of this long-standing problem.

"In a country as advanced as Japan, children and teenagers still find themselves in situations where they are at risk of exploitation"

The operation, which resulted in the guidance of 31 young individuals, reveals a societal gap in safeguarding the well-being of minors. This is particularly striking in a nation known for its economic prowess and technological advancement.

The involvement of a significant number of minors, including high school and middle school students, in these guidance operations points to a broader issue of social safety nets and support structures for young people.

It is alarming that in a country as advanced as Japan, children and teenagers still find themselves in situations where they are at risk of exploitation or involvement in crime. The fact that many of these young individuals come from outside Tokyo suggests a nationwide challenge that requires comprehensive solutions beyond mere police intervention.

This situation calls for a more significant effort from all sectors of society, including religious organizations, which have a long tradition and experience in providing care and support to vulnerable populations.

The Catholic Church, among others, has historically played a crucial role in addressing social issues by running orphanages, providing education, and offering refuge to those in need. In modern Japan, religious and faith-based organizations could be pivotal in extending their outreach to these vulnerable youths, offering them protection, guidance, and alternatives to street life.

The notion of religious institutions stepping up to address societal issues is not new. In many parts of the world, churches, temples, mosques, and other religious centers are havens for the marginalized and destitute, offering not only spiritual guidance but also tangible support such as food, shelter, and education.

"The challenge of vulnerable youth in urban Japan is not merely a matter of law enforcement"

In Japan, where traditional ties to religion may not be as pronounced as in other countries, there exists an opportunity for religious communities to reaffirm their relevance by engaging in social issues affecting contemporary society, especially those concerning the youth.

The challenge of vulnerable youth in urban Japan is not merely a matter of law enforcement but a complex social issue that touches on aspects of economic inequality, family breakdowns, and societal values.

The decreasing number of younger fathers and the increasing unmarried rate, as highlighted by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, reflect changing societal norms and economic pressures that have a cascading effect on the younger population.

Efforts to guide and protect vulnerable youth must be multifaceted, involving not only the police and social services but also schools, community organizations, and religious institutions. These entities must collaborate to create a safety net that can catch young people who are at risk of falling through the cracks.

Education programs, community outreach initiatives, and support services tailored to the needs of young individuals can make a significant difference in preventing their exploitation or involvement in criminal activities.

Moreover, there is a pressing need for a societal shift that addresses the root causes of youth vulnerability, such as economic insecurity, social isolation, and the lack of affordable and accessible educational and recreational opportunities.

Implementing policies that support family stability, economic opportunity, and accessible mental health services are crucial steps in building a more protective society for all, especially the youngest and vulnerable.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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