Food for Thought

Food for Thought

A recent donation by the Club is helping to fight the growing problem of food insecurity in Japan.

Clutching canvas bags and wheeling suitcases, dozens of people wait patiently in line under a tiled roof at Zojo Temple near Tokyo Tower.

When they reach a set of tables, volunteers hand them otherwise unremarkable plastic bags filled with rice, vegetables, juice and other staples of the Japanese kitchen.

“It would be difficult to put enough food on the table if there was no Minato Kodomo Shokudo,” says Kayoko, a 47-year-old single mother of two living in Azabu Juban. “I’ve been coming here for almost six years. My girls are 7 now, so I don’t know where we’d be without it.”

“I’ve been raising my daughter on my own from the very beginning,” explains Maki, 37, as 11-year-old Sakura examines the bags of food they’ve just received. “I didn’t know about this food pantry until a year ago when I saw a notice on the Minato Ward website. I had hoped we would manage without it, but going without this now would put us in a tricky situation.”

“It’s always nice coming home with new things,” adds Sakura, fingering an omamori charm passed out by one of the volunteers.

While families typically walk away with about two kilograms of food per month, the number of people who benefit from the donations is much greater, according to Hiroko Abe, who founded the service.

“Around 160 people come to our food pantries each month,” explains Abe, 53. “Sometimes, only one member of a household will make the trip, so we estimate that our food reaches about 460 people, children included.”

A former Minato Ward official, Abe grew impatient with what she saw as the government’s lackluster response to the growing financial and food insecurity among Tokyo residents. Though Japanese authorities don’t collect regular data on the subject, some estimates suggest that up to 14 percent or nearly one in seven children live in a household below the poverty line.

Image: Sakura and Maki

In 2016, Abe started operating a kodomo shokudo [children’s cafeteria], where young ward residents could come for a meal, no questions asked. When the Covid-19 pandemic swept through Japan and countless people saw their already unstable incomes slashed even further, Abe set up what would become Minato Kodomo Shokudo’s monthly food pantries.

“We used to focus on single-parent households, but recently we have been receiving applications from tax-exempt, low-income families as well,” she says.

But the food pantries wouldn’t be possible without the support of private donors.

“It costs about ¥200,000 per session to purchase everything we distribute,” says Abe. “But we only receive ¥120,000 in support from Minato Ward. That’s ¥10,000 for each monthly food pantry we run, which is almost the same as nothing.”

Image: Hiroko Abe

That support is from the wealthiest district in the wealthiest city in all Japan.

“Even in Minato Ward, there are people in need,” says Abe. “This means that the situation is even worse in the rest of the country.”

While organizations like Abe’s are fortunate enough to attract private supporters, that’s not always the case for likeminded activists in other parts of Japan. In those cases, help is still at hand.

“We consider it our mission to step in and help establish strong foundations for social welfare programs across Japan, especially those focused on helping children,” says Makoto Yuasa, founder of the nonprofit Musubie. “Japan was once known for having this great safety net for people who’ve fallen on hard times, but now the responsibility is falling increasingly on the individual to do something about it.”

Well-known among social activists in Japan, Yuasa, 53, advised the government on issues of financial and food insecurity in Japanese society for three years. Since then, much of his energy has gone into Musubie’s efforts to seed and reinforce social welfare programs supporting children across the country.

“Sometimes we hear from people who want to help their own communities, but sometimes we get involved with others who simply want to do some good, regardless of location,” says Yuasa. “Maybe they need money to get started or just advice on how to rent a location or recruit volunteers. It’s up to us to find how best we can help.”

Image: Musubie’s Yutaka Kamaike and Makoto Yuasa

Yuasa and his colleagues, including co-director Yutaka Kamaike, are also reliant on the generosity of others to continue their work. After a recent ¥750,000 Connections contribution to Musubie, the Club can count itself among those stitching back together the safety net for some of Japan’s most vulnerable families.

Such donations, says Abe, can be seen as helping to alleviate the symptoms of a much wider problem.

“We need to think about creating a society where families can gather around the dinner table with peace of mind,” Abe says. “Until this becomes our reality, all we can do is try our best.”

Members interested in volunteering with Minato Kodomo Shokudo should contact the Connections Office.

Words: Owen Ziegler
Images: Yuuki Ide
Top image: Minato Kodomo Shokudo at Zojo Temple