For Kanae, it was so painful to be alive that she wanted to take her own life at the age of 20.
“I always put a smile on my face, but I was ready to end my life,” recalls Kanae, who declined to give her family name.
Before taking such a step, Kanae wanted to meet Jun Tachibana, who has long helped troubled young women in Japan. Kanae yearned to let out all the agony she had never revealed to anyone.
When the two met, “I was surprised she accepted what I said without argument. She then said, ‘Thank you for talking to me. Let’s meet again!’ ” Kanae recalls.
“ ‘Again?’ I didn’t reply because I had already decided to die.”
But Kanae did not die. She has seen Ms. Tachibana several times since then to vent all her troubles.
In retrospect, Kanae had lived for her mother and tried to be a “good girl” for her, she says. She has gradually recovered since she decided to live for herself.
“My meeting with her has had a huge impact on me,” says Kanae, referring to Tachibana. “I just wanted even one person who knows the truth of who I am.”
Tachibana, who leads the Tokyo-based nonprofit group Bond Project, has talked with thousands of girls and young women in the past 10-plus years. Many of them are dealing with complex issues such as poverty, drug addiction, an unwanted pregnancy, or abuse.
“Such girls want to forget their circumstances. Some want to end their lives, and others have a medication overdose in order to be free from their problems,” Tachibana says. “Some girls slit their wrists to punish themselves because they think they are a failure.”
These problems are little discussed in male-dominated Japan, although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he wants to “create a society in which all women shine.”
The girls who are in trouble in Japan are “invisible” to many, says Chieko Watanabe, president of the organic cotton business Avanti in Tokyo, who has been a longtime supporter of the Bond Project. “But their circumstances mirror the problems of society and cannot be ignored.”
Tachibana and others at the Bond Project provide the listening ear that many of these young women need – via hotlines, consultation over the internet, and a counseling room. The group can also connect individuals with other services, including those offered by government agencies and hospitals.
HOW SHE GOT STARTED
Tachibana’s career started as a writer for media outlets, focusing on young girls. In 2006, she launched a free paper called Voices, which aims to resonate with vulnerable, troubled girls.
As Tachibana started to receive more calls and emails from girls and young women asking for help, she founded the Bond Project in 2009. The nonprofit has seven staff members, including Tachibana.
A big fan of Lady Gaga because of her theme of empowerment, Tachibana has written two books on troubled girls; the second came out last year. She has also spoken to audiences across Japan.
As of 2010, when the first book was published, Tachibana had talked with more than 3,000 young women. Since then, she has stopped counting. The Bond Project keeps up relationships with many of those it helps.
As shown by Kanae’s story, a key issue for many young women is the relationship they have with their mother. In Japan, some mothers keep their daughters on a leash in an effort to get them to excel in school, Tachibana says. She has seen cases in which mothers won’t let their daughters go to the movies with friends or out for a meal with them.
“Some mothers never praise their girls, but they put them down unless they achieve a perfect score on a test. I believe that could do real damage to their self-esteem,” says Tachibana, herself the mother of a daughter.
The importance of self-esteem is hardly recognized in the country, she says. “Girls with low self-esteem are afraid of making mistakes and worried that others would think of her as weak and no-good if she gives up something or stops,” Tachibana says. “They tend to blame themselves, saying, ‘I don’t want to become a nuisance to others’ or ‘I’m sorry to consult with you about something like this.’ ”
On many occasions, Tachibana says, she has heard girls declare, “I wish I had never been born.”
And some girls repeatedly run away from home.
To help those who may be on the street, members of the Bond Project regularly look around busy areas of Tokyo late at night. Tachibana and her husband, Kenjiro Tada, have let hundreds of young women stay at their home so they would not get tangled up in trouble. At one point the Bond Project had a shelter, but with an increased number of public ones available now, it refers individuals to those.
“Jun’s group has its own way to make contact with troubled girls,” says Ms. Watanabe of Avanti. “What they do is very important. I have learned a lot from them.”
Kumiko, who declined to give her real name, says she was a victim of dating violence. As soon as she found information about the Bond Project on the internet, she rushed to one of its offices. The group provided shelter to her, and then contacted city officials and police in her hometown so she could return to her home safely.
“Once they took me under their protection, I gradually came to understand I had been brainwashed by the man,” Kumiko says. “It would have been horrendous without a group like the Bond Project.
“I admire Jun-san and her staff. They showed me a strong model of female resilience,” she adds, referring to Tachibana. Kumiko is now the mother of a 10-month-old girl, and she is signing up for a university correspondence course.
Although Kumiko actively sought out the Bond Project, some girls aren’t really capable of that. “They cannot convey what their problems are and don’t know whom they should talk to,” Tachibana says.
Many of the girls that the Bond Project runs into don’t even know how to say hello or thank you, she says. The group teaches some girls how to brush their teeth, trim their nails, and comb their hair.
“They are victims of parental neglect,” she says. “We need to teach them these basics, while many adults only exploit them.”
Tachibana makes a comparison to when she was in her late teens and was a leader of female hot-rodders.
“Back then, I was able to express myself and had many friends I could rely on when I was in big trouble. We never turned to adults,” she recalls. “Many of the girls I meet today have a lot of friends’ names in a directory on their smartphone. But I don’t think they have any reliable friends.
“Since I had a different girlhood experience,” she continues, “I cannot say I understand how these girls are feeling. But I can still listen to them, and we can look at their problems together.”
Even though the young women are dealing with serious problems, there are still some lighter moments. One thing they tend to enjoy is having their picture taken just the way they want – something that can also boost their self-esteem, Tachibana says. (Mr. Tada, Tachibana’s husband, is a professional photographer.)
“Girls can bounce back,” Tachibana concludes. “Their recovery reminds us that we ran into them when they were in the deepest trouble and most vulnerable.”
“They now think clearly. Even if they are in trouble once again, they now can go to the right person and ask the right question,” she says. “Seeing their resilience is very empowering and keeps me going.”
HOW TO TAKE ACTION
UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups that support the betterment of children, women, or both:
Globe Aware has a mission that includes working with children in slums and other disadvantaged youths. Take action: Help fight poverty in India.
Empower and Care Organization in Uganda is developing a program to create self-sufficiency among women in transition. Take action: Be involved in the development of this program.
Rural Development Centre supports women’s groups to promote equity in economic empowerment and increased access to health and educational resources. Take action: Volunteer with this organization in Cameroon, especially handling activities related to microcredit.
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