Light on the dark streets of Tokyo

Hidden problem: Some teenagers, mainly girls, roam the streets of Kabukicho in Tokyo to run away from family problems at home, such as abuse. — Reuters

Hidden problem: Some teenagers, mainly girls, roam the streets of Kabukicho in Tokyo to run away from family problems at home, such as abuse. — Reuters

WHEN Nito finds a girl who appears to be a teenager, the 28-year-old approaches and exchanges a few friendly words, such as "How are you doing?" or "Is anything wrong?"

Then Nito hands them a small card introducing herself and her organisation, Colabo.

The organisation provides support to teenagers, mainly girls, who face difficulty staying at home because of family problems such as abuse. When Nito leaves, she always says, "If you have any trouble, feel free to contact me at any time."

Colabo offers a wide range of support for teenage girls, including walking busy night streets to find them. The organisation provides consultation to about 100 to 130 teenagers facing problems every year, either face-to-face or through social networking services.

It also runs a short-stay shelter, and provides housing to help teenagers stand on their own feet. Holding seminars to better understand the situation is also an important activity.

Nito, the founder and head of Colabo, explained why she takes to the streets to search for girls – "These teenagers hesitate to ask for help. They don't even believe they can be helped.

"I want to approach girls before they fall into the hands of recruiters for sex-related businesses, or adults who want to sexually exploit them."

Her card states her organisation's philosophy – "Give all girls housing, food, clothing and human relationships. Let's create a society that doesn't exploit girls."

Nito herself once roamed the streets of Shibuya and Kabukicho at night, from around age 14. Because of abuse and other family problems, home was not a safe place for her.

Sometimes she slept on cardboard in a park or on the roof of a building. Adults told Nito to go home, but she thought to herself, "I want to, but I can't."

Nito said two types of people approached her and her friends – those seeking to buy sex, and recruiters for sex-related businesses. Sexual abuse and unwanted pregnancies were common in their world. She quit high school in her second year.

"I was in total despair then," she recalled.

Her life took a turn when she met a lecturer at a preparatory school who was also engaged in social activism.

Inspired by him, Nito began volunteer activities. She visited the Philippines at one point, where she was taken to a brothel targeting Japanese men. There she was shocked to witness local girls her age speaking broken Japanese to attract customers.

"The same kind of men I encountered in Shibuya were there," Nito recalled.

"I thought – 'Why is this happening? Aren't there any other life options for these girls?' I think that was the time I began thinking about social problems," Nito said.

To nurture her growing awareness, Nito decided to enter university. There she joined an organisation engaged in international cooperation dealing with issues regarding children and women.

At the organisation, she talked about her past and about her friends, only to receive unexpected responses. "Their reactions were like – 'Aren't girls like that doing it of their own free will?' and 'That's their own responsibility,'" Nito recalled.

Nito was shocked to learn that students who were keen to help women and children abroad were indifferent to the problems of female teenagers in Japan. The experience made her realise what problem she wanted to tackle the most.

"I wanted to remain engaged with the problems in Japan. I felt that a person who has come this far has certain responsibilities," Nito said.

She launched Colabo in 2011 while she was at university, and incorporated it two years later.

Various girls approach Colabo. One teenager arrived in dirty clothes, apparently not having taken a bath for days. The organisation provides sanitary pads for free, but some girls don't know how to use them, because no one has taught them.

Nito talked about a 14-year-old girl she met recently. When she arrived at Colabo's office, the girl just stood at the entrance.

"Please come in," Nito said. The girl entered, and stood still in front of a chair. "Please sit down, this is your seat," Nito said. The girl sat down. Nito served her tea, but the girl didn't touch it. "You can have it," Nito said. The girl finally took a sip.

The teenager didn't take any action until she was told to do so. "She was strongly controlled at home. She hesitated to take action on her own, out of fear of a harsh reaction," Nito said.

"Children who experience strong control or violence tend to hesitate expressing – or even having – their own will."

Nito said she feels happy witnessing small changes in the girls – such as emotionless teenagers gradually becoming able to express their wishes freely.

"I'm moved to see their changes, for example, when girls throw themselves on a sofa and complain, 'I'm hungry.'"

Colabo's activities expanded gradually to provide mid- and long-term support to girls. However, as Colabo's activities spread, it resulted in a new problem - she has less time to go out on the streets and contact teenagers, which she regards as the core of the organisation's activities.

To solve this problem, Nito and other members of Colabo are working to start a bus in Shibuya and Shinjuku at night that will serve as a sort of "mobile lounge" which teenagers can visit casually.

Inside the bus will be a space to rest, chat and eat. It will stop frequently and distribute light meals. Colabo members will listen to teenagers on the bus, or walk around nearby streets to approach them.

The organisation recently bought a microbus, and is negotiating with the ward offices of Shibuya and Shinjuku over places where it can stop. Nito plans to start operating the bus as early as autumn this year.

"Even if there's a place to help children, they won't come if you just sit down and wait. People who support children need to go where they are to reach them," Nito said.

"It's quite rare that their problems are solved quickly. I want to keep in touch, stay together and be one of the faces they think of when they're in trouble." – The Japan News/Asia News Network

Japan , troubled girls