I am currently working for Suisen Fukushikai, a social welfare organization that caters to a wide variety of clients and their needs. They have multiple centers for people with intellectual disabilities, both children and adults, as well as an infant care center, a center for the elderly, and an all-day daycare center (or hoikuen) for children under elementary school age, as well as a separate center that does after-school activities and long-term vacation care.
The mission of the organization is to provide care that treats clients as individuals, with all the compassion and care possible. Their philosophy is that all clients, whether they are neurotypical children, the elderly, or the intellectually disabled, will function better in society if their independence and self-determination is respected. Unlike many institutions in the United States (and Japan) that are created to take care of those who need extra care, Suisen Fukushikai actually does appear to follow through on this philosophy.
While I do not work in the adult daycare center, my housemate does, and they have reported that the workers are there to help the clients do what they want and to provide interesting activities, rather than to shepherd them around or keep them complacent. In the children’s centers where I am working, there is a structure and routine to the day but the children are primarily engaged in free play. When disputes arise in the younger set, there is not a punishment structure in place the way Americans would have. Instead, the workers try to find the root cause of the dispute, and let it dissipate naturally. In the older children there is an expectation that disputes will be solved among the children. While this is by no means a perfect system (and does have problematic implications when bullying enters the mix) it does mean the children tend to comply more frequently with requests by authority while still retaining the feeling of autonomy.
For my first two weeks on the job, I worked at Kazenoko Hoikuen. They have a baby home as well as a preschool. There are two main groups of children in the preschool; the two-year-olds and the three-to-five year olds. Within the three-to-five group, there are three classes, each composed of about thirty children. I worked with the Umi, or Sea, class. The three-year-olds are known as Kuma, or Bears, the four-year-olds are Kirin, or Giraffes, and the five-year-olds are Zo, or Elephants. For a non-native speaker of Japanese, communication with three-year-olds is often confined to simple sentences and some sound effects. At first I thought that I was having trouble understanding one child because of my lack of fluency, but one of the teachers in the classroom told me that even she had difficulty understanding the child.
On my final day with the Umi group, I was given a little book with pictures the kids had drawn for me (although most of the younger kids misspelled my name as Joria instead of the Japanized Juria). The teachers had taken photos of me with the kids and placed it on the cover.
In order to give me the fullest experience possible, my direct supervisor, Morimoto, has me moving to different centers and classes. I am currently working in Kazenoko Jidokan, which operates for the elementary school children (ages six to twelve), primarily graduates of Kazenoko Hoikuen. Because for most of the school year these kids are being taken care of during the day, Jidokan mainly operates extracurricular activities. They are currently on an extended vacation, however, and so many parents need or want all-day care. My communication with these children is simultaneously more complex and easier; they hold actual conversations with me, rather than the adorable but incomprehensible ramblings of just-turned-three-years-old children.
My daily life in both centers is primarily me interacting with the children and both learning and teaching language skills. As an intern I do not have the level of responsibility that the teachers have; they conduct a lot of low-level administration as well as keeping track of individual children’s progress in notebooks (in the younger classes). In Jidokan, while the kids help by doing most of the food preparation, the teachers also have to be able to direct the cooking. My job then becomes an auxiliary one; if the centers were a family, and the teachers were parents, then I would be the cool cousin who comes in to help out and is not really an authority figure.
More specifically, at Kazenoko Hoikuen, the schedule is based around lunchtime, nap for the under-five set and special play for the Zo (five-year-olds), and snack time. During the summer morning swimming is also a scheduled activity but children are allowed to sit pool time out (though they rarely do). Apart from those scheduled activity all time is free-play. My role is to help dress/undress children for the pool, participate in the children’s games (and occasionally manage disputes), help them sort themselves out during mealtimes, and clean. The most important duty, as has been stressed to me, is to interact with the kids.
At Jidokan during the summer break the schedule is much looser. The children have various rotating duties when it comes to cooking and cleaning, including fetching the main course from Kazenoko Hoikuen and doing dishes after lunch, but other than that everything is free time. Tomaru Haruna, the person who arranged this job, teaches an elementary-school level English course on Wednesday and Friday afternoons, but the children can choose whether or not to go. Most children choose to play indoors, if only because of the outside’s roasting heat, but there are opportunities to play outside.
My role in this is to involve myself with the kids and to occasionally aid in food preparation or post-lunch dishwashing. Much of the time I end up helping a kid with their English homework, or drawing something at a child’s request. As this is much more like an all-day summer camp than a school, the days are very laid back.
As a co-op experience, this one feels as if it is extremely well thought out. Suisen Fukushikai as a whole is very intentional, and our placement in the company is reflective of that. Even for a Japanese institution it is in many ways unique; the teaching places more emphasis on real, practical skills like gardening and cooking, and forms of experiential learning, making it a good fit for the Antioch community and separates it from both its Japanese and American counterparts. It has definitely been an opportunity for me to explore educational styles while also improving my Japanese language skills.