The birthday that nearly wasn't
On a recent fall day, a mother and her three daughters gathered around their dining table to mark a special occasion. They were huddled over a cake for the eldest girl's seventh birthday. The mother, Mai, says the celebration very nearly didn't happen.
Mai has been raising the girls on her own since her husband died two years ago. Her grief over the sudden loss was compounded by overwhelming anxiety about the child-rearing task ahead of her.
"I hardly remember anything from that time," she says. "But eventually I pulled myself together. I realized that as long as my kids are healthy, then I'm happy. I resolved to do whatever I could for them."
Mai recently switched her full-time job for a part-time position that gives her more time with her daughters. The change also caused a sharp drop in her earnings. As a result, she's had to cut corners to make ends meet. When her eldest daughter started elementary school, Mai decided she had to focus her finances on the essentials. Instead of splashing out on a new backpack and lunch box, she recycled some of her own that she had used decades earlier.
The family relies on a foodbank for groceries. The daughters also eat at a nearby cafeteria that caters to disadvantaged children, and wear second-hand clothing supplied by a welfare worker.
Birthday presents are another luxury Mai can't afford, but when her eldest recently turned seven she was determined to do something to mark the occasion.
"It's important to make time just for her on her birthday," she says. "I really wanted to celebrate with a cake."
Santa to the rescue
That's where an NPO called Charity Santa stepped in. The group started out as a Christmas charity for families with young children, but this year it branched out into another project. In October, volunteers started working with pastry shops to provide birthday cakes to kids from struggling homes.
Birthdays bring pain
The group was motivated by the results of a survey it conducted of more than 2,000 disadvantaged households. Twenty percent said they can't afford birthday cakes for their kids, and 30 percent can't buy presents.
More telling, the survey found that 21 percent of parents feel pain rather than joy in the lead-up to their child's birthday.
"Parents can't cut back on food any more than they already have," says Natsuki Kiyosuke, a representative director of Charity Santa. "Instead, they're sacrificing the special things that they wish they could provide."
Voices of anguish
Some of the comments left by survey participants were especially moving.
One parent wrote that "on my child's first birthday, I managed to prepare a cake using bread, yogurt, and sweet potatoes. I couldn't afford to make cakes for my other kids. One of them was quietly crying."
Another said "when I made a picture of a cake, my child looked really happy, but then asked me why other families have real cakes when we don't. It's so frustrating. It makes me so sad."
Special sixth birthday
Kaori (not her real name) says simple milestones such as birthdays are especially meaningful for her son Hayato because he has a developmental disorder.
For his fifth birthday last year, the 37-year-old single mother could only afford to get him a small piece of cake and a candle from a 100-yen store.
She says the rising cost of flour effectively ruled out the possibility of buying a whole cake this year, too.
"No matter how hard I try to save, prices keep going up," Kaori says. "I'm scared and tired."
Then she found out about Charity Santa, who responded to her request for help by sending a cake.
Expanding the project
The directors of Charity Santa say that due to overwhelming demand, they can't provide cakes to everyone who applies. For now they're using a lottery system, but with increased donations they hope to eventually expand their support.
Professor Nakamuro Makiko of Keio University, an expert in educational economics, points to studies that highlight the impact of childhood experiences on later growth.
"One study shows that such experiences have an impact on so-called "non-cognitive skills" such as 'self-affirmation' and 'motivation’," she says. "We have to think carefully about addressing the kind of economic hardship that makes it impossible to do ordinary things in everyday life. A stable life has a significant impact on a child's emotions."
For families like Mai's, something as simple as a birthday cake can bring much-needed relief and encouragement in difficult times. As Natsuki Kiyosuke says, "We may only be supporting families for one day out of 365, but it could be the day that motivates them for the other 364."