For a Lost Child
My experience within the walls of a Japanese children’s home
By Nicolo Govoni, [email protected]
The air is fresh and clear between the branches of a shrine grove.
As the rainy season gives the inhabitants of Tokyo a day of rest, it is typical in the evening to see couples strolling hand in hand, children lingering on their bikes and ladies hurrying home loaded with shopping bags.
Walking through the slender streets of Minami Kugahara, lined with terraced houses, the street lights reflecting on the silent rails, twilight coming down placid and gentle, I muse that the city down here doesn’t look all that different from the small Italian village my grandmother grew up in.
St. Francis is a small shelter for orphaned children located in South Tokyo, surrounded by the peace and tranquillity of the suburbs. The sloping roof on the brown sky, the golden light shining through the windows, a small garden beyond a wrought iron gate before I remove my shoes to get in. I’m immediately greeted by Sister Yoshibayashi, an old nun with a clever light in her eyes, not a wrinkle in sight on her grey robe, and her hair, grey as well, covered by a veil, makes way in the corridors of St. Francis.
I look around and register the furniture around me carefully, the pictures on the wall, the kawaii statuettes on a polished-looking chest; I try to memorize each element, not only because I will have to write about it, but because I know I’m privileged, for even just being here, my feet flat on the carpet, breathing in the smell of a place carefully protected against intruders, a place that keeps the most fragile and precious of all treasures: the future.
Deep in the corridors of the institution, the light is dimmed to save power, giving the structure an air of welcoming discretion, looking like a hen with her chicks.
“Our 50 children are divided into “family pods” of 7 or 8 each,” Sr. Yoshibayashi says, “each with 3 caretakers, rotating in 24 hours shifts, so that the kids are never left alone.”
She stops in front of a group of elf-fit shoes and slippers scattered on the ground, in front of the parquet floor, where a slightly ajar door contains the dim light coming from inside. Then Sister Yoshibayashi pushes on the handle, revealing a reality that only a few are allowed to see: a cloud of smells and muffled sounds embraces me, so familiar that I’m stunned for a moment. To the silent question in my gaze, the nun responds with the hint of a smile and a wave of her hand. “Come in,” she seems to say.
And then I’m in another world.
It may seem like mere rhetoric, but it’s not. This is indeed as physical an experience as landing in a well known country after a long journey or the smell of a loved one after years away. The sense of smell, memory’s old friend, is in effect the one doing the trick. Crossing the threshold of this first “family pod”, what was once a cosy institution loses every possible connotation of a children’s home, and simply turns into a “home”.
The floor creaks beneath my bare steps, and I feel the warmth of the wood on the soles of my feet, I sense the tenderness of the kitchen light cutting through the evening, I smell dinner ready on the table, I smell crayons, drawn curtains, scattered toys on the ground (they do have a smell, believe me), unmade beds and clothes hanging out to dry. I sense a day that, after a long morning spent in the classroom, an afternoon of sports and math exercises, is moving towards its well earned end.
At first, I’m motionless, speechless. This is not an orphanage, this is “home”, I repeat to myself, and not any “home,” but my home, and yours, and of all those who, in this world, are born with the sacred and too often undervalued right to a happy childhood.
And then I meet the inhabitants of this home, a group of kids ranging from seven to thirteen, squatting in front of the evening anime. Actually, they don’t really pay much attention to me, busy as they are with the job of procrastinating between homework, meal and shower. I chuckle to myself remembering how I was a pro at this, when I was their age. And despite the fact that I had the love of both my parents, a roof over my head and a slew of possessions to call mine; this place that night was soaked with the very same intimacy I used to know as a child.
The caretaker, a boy of 28 finished with an apron and cooking moist hands, confirms this feeling right away, when questioned about his work. “The part I like the most about my job is seeing these children grow up and become better in front of my eyes, and have a part in this process,” he says, and I believe him unconditionally. I know what he’s talking about.
The door opens yet again, and I witness the heartening moment in which a second caretaker comes in to take over the first, and one of the kids, getting up from the TV-induced trance, trots over to welcome him, hugging him tight at the waist, his chin well planted in his stomach, speaking to him from below. He’s telling him about his day, I imagine, just as he would with an older brother or his father.
Then we climb to the second floor, where the little ones are housed. This time, beside the wooden door, a welter of childish screams fills the room. I see a helpless caretaker wrestling a horde of giggling gnomes, her back on the floor, but to no avail, as they submerge her without mercy. Soon, however, silence falls as dozens of wide-eyed glances are aimed on me, a common question reflected on each of the little faces: “What are you doing in my house?”
Cautiously, they approach me, as scouts would an unknown beast, assessing the danger at every step.
Do you know what the expression “a bundle of joy” means? You don’t, believe me, unless you’ve been used as a ladder by a mob of tittering imps. At first, this small boy in pyjamas, not even as tall as my knees, shows me a Lego spaceship, which I observe carefully turning it between my fingers, aware of the expression on the child’s face, almost as if based on my judgment, he would receive the Nobel Prize. When I congratulate the boy for his skills demonstrated in the construction, he beams with pride and starts dragging me towards his room to show me Legos covering almost every inch of the floor.
Then a couple of little hands appear leaning towards me, a special needs girl waving and smiling ear to ear as she looks at me from below, waiting. I glance at Sr.Yoshibayashi, and she smiles, her eyes briefly disappearing beyond her glasses, and so I pick the little girl up.
It doesn’t really matter where you come from, the language you speak or the food you have for supper, when a child stretches their hands towards you, you pick them up, and you lift them as high as you can. The little girl, giggling high above my head, clings to my chest like a pint-sized monkey, and I must admit I’m taken aback, and throw a look at the old nun, who’s laughing her head off, as are the caretakers, and so I laugh too. Soon enough the pairs of hands reaching out to me have multiplied.
An army of human bonsai pushes me to the corner, and I feel a sudden sense of indescribable admiration and deep gratitude for those who devote their lives to the care of these kids, not as “throw away children”, but as if they were their younger brothers, their own children or grandchildren.
St. Francis welcomes orphans aged 2 to 18 years, but often allows them to stay over the age of maturity so that they can face the world without having to leave the only place where they’ve ever felt safe.
Later that evening, I visit other “family pods”. In a separated structure, a group of high school girls who grew up in the institution lead usual teenage lives, texting on their smartphones, wondering with a mixture of fear and excitement what to study at university. One of them plans to pursue Mass Communication, like yours truly, and I rejoice at the idea of mentoring her through Living Dreams in the times to come.
In yet another “pod”, kids my age and older have dinner after a day of work, practice English in preparation for an interview, lingering a little longer before they leave St. Francis for good.
I’m not saying that all children’s home are like St. Francis. I am well aware of the cases of abuse that happen in institutions in Japan as well as all over the world even as I type, even as you read this. What I mean to do, though, is to make St. Francis an example, for this is how it should be done. We need to accept that the majority of these children won’t be adopted, but that they can still hope for a better system, and therefore for a better future.
This place proves that sometimes love is stronger than blood, and that every effort we make is truly worth it. I believe it’s uplifting to think that change can be achieved, and that it can be achieved together, one step at a time.