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Displaced kids get a helping hand in Toyoko area of Shinjuku

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The Kabukicho area in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo

For the past several years, many young people with nowhere else to go have hung out in the Toyoko area of Kabukicho nightlife district in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, where they are sometimes entangled in violence and sexual assault.

A group called Nihon Kakekomidera, which has long provided a refuge for people with problems in Kabukicho, started providing meals to displaced youths this summer. Some have been in such desperate straits they have tried to take their own lives, and the group is trying to provide a safe place for them to eat.

The Toyoko area is located around the Shinjuku Toho Building, a complex built on the site of the old Shinjuku Koma Theater. Young people who became interested in the area through video sharing apps have flocked to Toyoko, and a series of problems have been reported, such as forced prostitution and illegal lodging in which a number of people share a room but only pay the fee for one person.

Police and municipal authorities patrol the area, but many young people who are taken into custody eventually return to Toyoko.

Runaway for 2 months

“Have you been eating well these days?” a staff member of Nihon Kakekomidera, a public interest incorporated association, said to a group of young people while giving them plates of cream stew at the group’s office near the plaza in Toyoko on a Saturday in early September.

By shortly after 3 p.m. when food started to be served, the 20 or so seats at the tables were filled with people in their teens and 20s. “Wow, it looks good!” one person said, and the office bustled with chatter.

A 14-year-old junior high school student from Tachikawa, western Tokyo, came to the office for the first time that day. A staff member spoke to him as he ate voraciously, and he confessed that he had not been home for more than two months. He had been hopping from one hotel to another in the Toyoko area.

“The food was so good. I want to eat it every day,” the boy said with satisfaction.

Self-harm

Nihon Kakekomidera set up an office in Kabukicho about 20 years ago and has handled consultations for such people as women who were subjected to domestic violence and former prisoners seeking jobs.

In August this year, the group received a call saying that kids had been spotted in Toyoko.

Hidemori Gen, one of the directors of Nihon Kakekomidera, said he had been aware of the so-called “Toyoko issue” for some time but had not gotten deeply involved, partly because of the pandemic. Looking at the young people hanging out there, he saw not only carefree people but also some standing around with a hollow look.

Gen, 66, and other members started speaking to them, doing so while picking up trash so as not to make them wary. Some of the people Gen talked to said they had escaped from dysfunctional homes, while others were in critical condition, including a girl who had become addicted to drugs and a woman who repeatedly cut her wrist.

Bridge to home

“I want them to know there are adults they can trust and a place where they can feel safe,” Gen said.

He and the members immediately began preparing this place and began serving meals at the end of August using ingredients collected through donations from local residents.

On Fridays and Saturdays from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., they serve food to young people who come to the office, help them feel comfortable in a safe environment, and listen to their problems related to issues like friendship and job hunting.

About 30 people now come to the office daily, and some have begun talking about their dreams for the future.

Still, there is no end to the number of youths coming to Toyoko from outside Tokyo after learning about the area via social media.

In Kabukicho, there have been reports of such young people being recruited by gangs. Nihon Kakekomidera plans to have staff in the office also on Friday and Saturday evenings, starting next month, to provide a place for them.