Covid and youth work in Japan

How has the context of Covid affected youth work in different international contexts? At the beginning of this year, a small group of youth workers and researchers from Japan and England met up online to discuss how youth work has fared during the pandemic. This post is by Tania de St Croix, Colin Brent and Bernard Davies of In Defence of Youth Work, with thanks to Maki Hiratsuka and colleagues, and to Kaori Kitagawa.

IDYW in Japan

Many of us in IDYW have had the pleasure of working with Maki Hiratsuka and her colleagues from Japan, initially coming together through IDYW’s storytelling workshops. We have enjoyed in-depth collaboration over the years, learning together about the similarities and differences of youth work in our contexts, sharing our stories from practice, and collaborating on youth work storytelling that contributes to practice development and the public awareness of youth work in Japan and the UK.

In our recent informal online meeting, it was joyful and strengthening to meet together and share stories from youth work in Sapporo, Tokyo, Kyoto and London, considering the question: ‘How are we living and working in coronavirus pandemic times?’ After the discussions, those of us from the UK asked if we could share some reflections here on our website, as we thought youth workers in the UK would be interested. It is possible our notes are not entirely accurate, but hopefully they give you a flavour of how youth work is faring in Japan in times of Covid.

Youth work in Japan in times of Covid

In Japan, where coronavirus infections have ebbed and flowed (yet with lower rates of illness and death than in the UK), there has been little specific guidance or support for youth workers at the policy level. As in the UK, however, youth workers and their employers have acted creatively and with commitment, negotiating and interpreting for themselves how the changing regulations and situation affect their work.

Most youth work spaces closed and re-opened at different times, depending on policy, risk and practical barriers, while others remained ‘unofficially’ open as much as possible, while often needing to restrict numbers. Many of the projects that had revolved around communal experiences of cooking, food production and communal eating– a young people’s training bakery and an after-school canteen – remained closed for a larger amount of time than some of the more ‘free’ youth club style spaces. Outreach activities continued where possible, including the ‘Kitchen Car’ (a mobile provision, see photo), bringing waffles and conversation to housing estates that lack other youth facilities.

Challenges included:

  • Thinking about whether and when to continue with face-to-face work at different times.
  • Staff shortages – staff needing to self-isolate or unable to come to work due to travel restrictions.
  • Young people’s mental health – existing issues are exacerbated, for example young people who find school difficult were even more reluctant to attend, and there appeared to be an increase in self-harm (especially amongst young women).
  • Youth workers in Japan often work with young people who are extremely socially isolated, supporting them to gain confidence to leave their home, meet with others, and prepare for work. The pandemic has been a challenge for those young people, especially those who had started looking for work; for some, perhaps restrictions also relieved social pressure.
  • As in the UK, poverty was intensified – young people and families had trouble affording food and rent. Young people lost part-time jobs and faced financial difficulties as a result, and some young people were drawn into the criminal justice system as they had become involved in illegal activities to make money.
  • Domestic abuse continued to be a problem – increasing numbers of young people came to youth workers for support with these issues.
  • In some areas, youth workers were required to register the names of young people attending in order to comply with restrictions on social gatherings – this was a hurdle for youth workers and young people, who felt such details should be kept anonymous.

Creative, responsive youth work

As in the UK, youth workers in Japan have responded creatively to the situation, extending outdoor and community activities – involving young people in rice harvesting, river cleaning, and street cleaning, for example (see images above). New projects began to meet emerging needs – for example, a ‘Cousin’s House’ was opened for young people (including young parents) who needed an alternative homely ‘extended family’ environment, in which youth workers were seen as ‘aunties / uncles’ as opposed to taking a ‘teacher / family member’ role. Some projects developed online youth work, while others considered it but were able to re-open before it became necessary. Youth workers did their best to keep in contact with young people in difficult circumstances – including through the sharing of resources, games and comic books – and made specific efforts to maintain contact with individuals they were concerned about.

The need for association, the need for youth work

One of the key themes we discussed was the strong importance of association, of being together, of meeting others, which seemed clearer than ever. There was a strong feeling that youth work was necessary and should stay open and available to young people as much as possible. Youth workers in Japan continued to keep in contact with young people while centres were closed, asking for their perspectives. Their conversations highlighted how highly young people valued their youth work spaces, often identifying them as a ‘second home’. When projects were able to re-open, this was valued not only by young people but by the wider community – a youth-led bakery, for example, aims to ‘send messages of love’ to customers through bread. It was felt that relationships between youth workers and young people remained as strong as ever; in some ways, it was felt that both young people and youth workers realised even more clearly how important open access youth work and ‘free spaces’ are.

Youth work misunderstood at policy level

There was a feeling that the value of youth work was not adequately understood at a policy level, where the focus on formal education left little capacity for attention and resources for youth work, or for placing young people’s voices at the centre of youth policy-making. This felt familiar to those of us in the UK!

The voluntary principle: youth work by choice

We discussed the importance of youth work that is chosen by young people, according to the voluntary principle – as in the UK, youth workers in Japan work mostly with young people who choose youth work for themselves, finding it on the internet or through word of mouth (with a smaller number linked into youth work by parents, schools or other services). This creates a very special dynamic and relationship, including an emphasis on peer experiences and community. Some projects had noticed an increase in interest among students in volunteering as youth workers – university students often felt isolated due to online learning, and volunteering was a way to engage in their communities.


There was much we didn’t get the chance to discuss, and we look forward to more opportunities for international learning. Thanks as ever to Maki Hiratsuka, all of her wonderful colleagues (listed below), and to Kaori Kitagawa, our skilled and always cheerful translator!

Tania de St Croix, Colin Brent, Bernard Davies, January 2021

UK members: Bernard Davies, Tania de St.Croix, Colin Brent, Kaori Kitagawa (Translator)

Japan members:

Youth workers:

from Sapporo (Hokkaido) : Ko Matsuda, Sayaka Matsumoto, Naomi Sato, Hiromitsu Fukui, Naomi Kodama

from Tokyo:  Fumiyuki Nakatsuka, Himiko Hirose, Yuki Kato

from Kyoto:  Atsuo Mizuno, Misako Yokoe, Michiyo Kokubu

Researchers:   Akio Inui (Tokyo), Toshiro Yokoi (Hokkaido), Sachie Oka(Fukuoka), Yoshinari Minamide(Gifu), Miki Hara(Shiga), Maki Hiratsuka (Tokyo)

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