Free To Be

In a recently published article in the Japan Times, the uncomfortable issue of child suicide stemming from school pressures was brought into the light once again. On the first day of the academic school year in April and again on the first day of school after the long summer break, suicides among students spike, a trend that has gone on for over 40 years.

Though the Japanese education system is a wonder in many ways, it has serious blind spots that put children, especially those who have trouble fitting in, at risk. For students who are socially awkward, terrible and often relentless bullying is common. For students who are not academically gifted, the constant pressures of testing, where your future opportunities can be set for you in the 6th grade is a factor. And for students with learning or behavioral disorders, the rigid structure of public school can be extremely difficult, on top of the bullying and academic performance pressures.

Last year at JEMS Mt. Hermon, I was introduced to a brother who is passionate about giving children who don’t fit into the rigid mold of public education and chance to learn, thrive, and be accepted unconditionally. Moto Kimura is principal of the Keiyu Gakuen free school, a church-based school near Ueno Park in Tokyo. Moto is a co-worker in more ways than one: he is a JEMS affiliated ministry worker.

Moto, his wife, and his two children all serve and attend Keiyu Gakuen along with about a half-dozen other staff members. They serve children from elementary school to high school age. The curriculum is fairly fluid and there is plenty of room for play. Minor behavioral “problems” that wouldn’t be tolerated in public school classrooms, like talking out of turn or getting up and walking around during a lesson, are ignored by the staff. The kids are free to be who they are.

Since last November, I have been serving monthly as a Chapel time speaker and photography teacher, as well as an informal English “coach”. I give a simple message to the children which I usually try to focus on God’s purpose for our lives and our value as His children. Then we eat lunch together and I talk to some of the kids (in English and my broken Japanese) and joke around with them. Every two or three months, we also do a simple photography lesson in the afternoon, which is basically teaching them how to use a camera and taking portraits of each other, which I allow them to print on the spot. The photographs they have taken of each other have become a source of amusement and laughter as we bring them back as slideshow material every month.

I love my time at the free school as I have developed friendships with the staff and kids. The kids may not be perfect students but it is not difficult to see how wonderful they are in the eyes of God. They are full of life and happiness, and being in a safe place where they can be who they are without fear of being disciplined or bullied brings out the best in them.

Sadly, not enough is being done in Japan to help the many children who cannot conform to the strict mold of the public education system. While much lip service is paid to reforming the system, at the heart of the matter, society wants children to be trained to conform, which is the basis of Japanese society being group-oriented, not individualistic. So progress is slow and every year, hundreds of children will needlessly take their own lives in protest of the system they cannot fit into.

Like Keiyu Gakuen, the church can step in fill needs where they are not being met. A free school is a huge resource commitment, but having clubs or making the church a place children can come to feel safe, with adults they can trust and who genuinely care about them can make a big difference. As one director of a Tokyo non-profit said so accurately:

“School shouldn’t be a place requiring children to sacrifice their lives. I want children to know there are places other than school where they can learn and make new friends.”

Please pray for the children of Japan, especially now as they return from summer break, but also every day. Pray they find hope in something greater than academics or social standing. Pray they find their worth in the eyes of the Lord, who gave his life as a sacrifice because of his great love for them and us.

Chiba Summer Mission – Children’s Home

In 2012, our team visited the local children’s home to play with the kids for a short while and hand out candy we brought from the States. It was the same every year for us; a short visit to let the kids know we were thinking of them, then we were gone for another year. But that year, our team decided we needed to get more involved at the home. So we began to pray for the following year and how we might have a greater impact on the lives of the children.

God answered our prayer in an amazing way when the son of the Japanese pastor of our church got a job at the Children’s home. With his help, we were able to plan five afternoons of programs for the kids consisting of games, crafts and water play. Instead of a 30 minute visit, we spent several hours each afternoon there, building relationships with some of the kids. We brought along a local Christian family with a passion to minister to children in this environment so that they could continue the relationships after we had gone. Though there were some difficulties with some of the kids, God allowed this family to have a positive impact on other kids living at the home.

One such child was A., a girl who had stopped attending middle school and spent most of her time alone in her room, listening to music. Through the relationship, A. began to get involved with this family and started getting help with her school work. Earlier this year, A. passed her high school entrance exam and when we met her this year, the joy in her was obvious. While last year she was a bit withdrawn and shy, this year she was bubbly and full of laughter. A. had also been memorizing Bible verses through AWANA and was reminded of a time in her childhood when she went to church for a short time. We pray for A. to continue to learn more about Jesus and having a growing hope for a positive future after leaving the home when she graduates.

This year, we repeated the five days of craft and games ministry program. We were greeted in the parking lot by a few of the girls we met last year who were anticipating our visit. Soon, nearly 20 kids had come to make rainbow loom bracelets with us, some from the previous year and some new. By the end of the week, 30-40 kids had participated in at least one day of our program, many of them coming to several days.

This year we met H., a girl we had seen last year but had little interaction with because she wasn’t interested in participating in our activities. This year, she came to our craft making activity on the first day and unlike the previous year, her scowl was replaced with a beautiful smile. By the third day, she went to the home of our friends with A. and another girl to participate in a Hip Hop dance class and make and eat gyoza. She was so excited about the gyoza because she told our friends that living at the home, she had never eaten homemade gyoza before. It was a heartbreaking reminder of the kind of life some of these children are living.

Building relationships with the children and reinforcing their self-worth is good ministry, but we realize that such ministry has its limitations. We can minister in a limited way to the kids at the home (we cannot overtly share the gospel there), but that is only a temporary ministry to these children. The reality for many of these children is that when they turn 18, they have to leave the home. The government provides a small stipend but it is barely enough for a month’s food and rent. As a result, many of the children find themselves homeless or forced to take illicit jobs to survive. Though there aren’t any statistics, you can imagine the suicide rate in this demographic would likely be disproportionately high. The staff of the home is aware this is a huge problem but it is a national issue, and not one they can easily change. However, a group of people at this particular home have come together to work on the problem.

The group is called Hajime no Ippo (First Steps) and consists of several of the staff members of the home, including the current administrator, who will be retiring next year, and his successor. This small group of people are passionate about changing the system so that children leaving the home have a greater chance to make it on their own. Through a series of miracles, our Christian friends were invited to participate in the group, and in turn, introduced us and our team leader to the group. The members we met were overjoyed to know that there were other people who shared their heart for the children in the Japanese orphanage system and invited us to participate in future events promoting greater visibility into the extent of the problems.

Our prayer is to find ways to help this group in concrete ways: finding resources to help them become a recognized NPO (a difficult process in Japan), helping them promote and educate the Japanese Christian population about the extent of the problems in the Japanese orphanage system, and of course, serving and loving the children and providing, in a small way, a source of constant love and support to them.

For the protection of the children, we can’t post any photos of the children on the Internet (the image used in this article only shows the faces of our team members). I wish we could though, because if you could look into the eyes of any one of these children, your heart would break for their situation, just as God’s heart is breaking for them. The Bible reminds us dozens of times about the Lord’s compassion for the fatherless and how we ought to have the same. Would you join us in praying for the Lord to provide hope and a future for each of these children?