As gifts of school backpacks and other items in the name of the main character in the manga "Tiger Mask" and other fictional characters flooded into children's welfare facilities, light has been shed on improvements sorely needed at these facilities.
The national attention that has come with the anonymous donations has spurred efforts to improve children's facilities, which had previously not garnered much public interest. Conditions at some children's facilities have been described as similar to those at orphanages just after World War II.
Thirty children live at the Hikari-no-ko Gakuen welfare facility in Tateyama, Chiba Prefecture. Hikari-no-ko has received five anonymous donations since mid-January, including stationery, school backpacks and an envelope containing 150,000 yen cash. The envelope's postmark said it was sent from Tokyo's Kanda district, but there was no return address and the sender's name was written as "Naoto Date," the hero of "Tiger Mask."
"Since the central and prefectural governments only provide the minimum level of living expenses for the kids, we're happy to accept the donations," said Kakuo Nishiami, head of the facility. "But I feel a little hesitant about anonymous gifts. If the donors would include their names, we'd feel a lot better about using them."
According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, there were more than 1,000 donations to children's welfare facilities and child consultation centers since late last year as of mid-January.
In the wake of the unprecedented rush of donations, Zenkoku Jido Yogo Shisetsu Kyogikai (Zenyokyo), a national alliance of children's welfare facilities, put messages of gratitude and requests on its Web site on Jan. 13. Since then, the organization said it has been contacted about donations almost every day.
But many officials at children's facilities said that while they welcome the goodwill, it comes with mixed feelings because what the facilities really need is fundamental improvements in living conditions.
"Nowadays, more than half the kids at the facilities have experienced child abuse," said Hideyuki Tsuchida, deputy head of Zenyokyo.
"The current system was made between 1945 and 1954, predicated on the idea that the facilities should only provide a minimum level of food, clothing and shelter. We still have the same staff levels as those years, so it's impossible to provide an environment to properly raise a child," he said.
The government's minimum standards for living conditions and services at children's facilities are quite low. The standards stipulate, for example, "Baths should be given at least twice a week," and "Living space per child should be 3.3 square meters [from infants to high school students]."
It was only last fiscal year when money was given to the facilities so young children could attend kindergarten and middle school students could go to cram schools.
Compared with living conditions at welfare facilities for the elderly and the handicapped, which have improved over the past decade, it is obvious that standards lag at children's facilities.
A civic support group for Hikari-no-ko Gakuen was formed when the home was established 30 years ago. The group gathers about 2 million yen a year through membership fees, bazaars and other means. The home needs 47,430 yen a month per child for living expenses, and the group's money is used to cover shortfalls.
"Thanks to people who have given continuous support, we can take children on fun outings--like camping for primary school students or mountaineering for middle and high school students. In winter, we sometimes go skiing," Nishiami said.
"Because these children have suffered, it's important to help them create happy memories," he said.