The Struggles of a "Third Place" for Students under the COVID-19 Pandemic
Youth centers have increased around the country in recent years, offering junior and senior high school students a "third place" that is neither school nor home. These facilities become a place for students to hang out, engage with mentors, both senior students and adults, and provide support to specific fields of studying. However, following the prolonged shutdown of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic since last year, there are still calls to stay home and refrain from going out. With the physical hangouts no longer an option, b-lab, an activity base for students in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, is exploring a new form of "third place."
A "stage" for junior and senior high school students, created by local government and NPO
Bunkyo-ku Seishounen Plaza, or Bunkyo Laboratory, nicknamed "b-lab," is located in the Yushima area of Bunkyo Ward. The name Bunkyo Laboratory was thought up by the local junior and senior high school students of Bunkyo Ward. The facility was founded by Bunkyo Ward and its operation run by KATARIBA (Tokyo), a certified NPO, with the concept of becoming "a hideout for junior and senior high school students." Students can use the facility free of charge as long as they live, attend school, or work in the ward. To this day, b-lab have welcomed over 137,000 users.
Inside b-lab, students can be found studying, performing music, publishing free newspapers and distributing them to schools across the ward, and even collaborating with local communities to plan parasport events - any activity one can think of. This sort of youth center that supports students' after-school activities was first founded in Finland and across the Scandinavian countries. The number of youth centers in Japan, particularly in the Tokyo Metropolitan area, has been increasing over the recent years.
B-lab employs a system called the "student staff" by which junior and senior high school students are responsible for management of events at the facility, enabling students to have a taste of "real-world." The "student staff" make plans for the events and activities based on their own interest, and carry them out with the support of facility staff. A manager of the Children and Youth Section of the Bunkyo Ward government said, "By engaging in self-directed activities and gaining a sense of accomplishment, students mature and grow into independent adults. They will eventually become pillars of the community, become the driving force to the reinvigoration of the ward." Rumi Yoneda, Director of b-lab, is confident that the facility has a bright future. "Students who initially come to b-lab for a place to hangout will eventually see b-lab as a 'stage' to shine on. I hope to have more students use the space and find their vibrant selves."
Faced with the pandemic
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic turned things upside-down. With schools temporarily closed, the decision was made to close b-lab too in March 2020. A place where over 250 events were being held annually was suddenly lost. This marked the first temporary closing of b-lab, which had welcomed students every single day aside from the year-end and New Year holiday since its opening. "Losing an everyday place to hang out might cause students to lose motivation. Just how long will this closing last?" Yoneda and the manager at Bunkyo Ward share the same anxiety.
"Still, b-lab shouldn't be stopped." There was a sense of mission. The b-lab project was vital from the start as it is part of the Bunkyo Ward's key governing policies of "connecting to a bright future for children." With the thought of "we can't stop the progress. Let's do what we can," b-lab worked out ways to hold online events to maintain engagement with students even during the shut-down.
Students who were unable to meet with their friends due to school closures enjoyed chatting online and getting help with studies from staff, meeting the students' needs while being an alternative to a real-world place. In addition to events like the Online Meal Club, where students cook their own meals at home and eat with friends in online hangouts, music festivals featuring live music performances and various other projects, normally held three times a year, were also held online. Gradually, b-lab's "stage" has moved online.
In June 2020, after the state of emergency was lifted, b-lab was able to reopen with crowd limitation. It began to hold offline events at the facility, staying heedful of COVID-19 safety measures. During this time, the different roles and area in focus of KATARIBA and Bunkyo Ward government played to its benefits. "First and foremost, COVID-19 precaution measures are given top priority. On top of that, we also took the autonomy of youth into consideration. If a contagion cluster happens in the facility, we will need to shut-down and progress will be stopped again," says the section manager at the ward. The reality is, new cases of infection continue to turn up in the schools that student users attend.
On the other hand, with the facility closed from March to June 2020, spanning over the school year, KATARIBA's concern is that current student users will not be able to pass the baton to the incoming group. "How well will we be able to recover to the active community we had previously with the first-year junior high school students not knowing what b-lab used to be like?"
While balancing the operation with precaution measures, b-lab saw liveliness gradually coming back. Junior high students writing novels and applying for newcomer awards under the guidance of children's book authors, while others planned practice sessions of the Scandinavian sport, mölkky. A male first-year junior high student who only began using b-lab after its reopening is proactive in giving guidance to new visitors of the facility, "so that all kinds of people will all in love with b-lab." A division of roles was beneficial, with KATARIBA in proposing ideas while supporting student's autonomy and Bunkyo Ward government in charge of infection precaution measures. Yoneda reflects, "In a way, the pandemic helped us strengthened our cooperation with the ward government."
Protecting a place where young people come together to be active
In January 2021, just as the activities were on track to recover, Tokyo and nine other prefectures issued a new state of emergency. The main difference from last year's state of emergency was that schools remained open and so did b-lab. However, "although club activities are canceled at many schools, that doesn't mean students can spend time freely at b-lab after school," said the manager at Bunkyo Ward. Events at the facility were canceled, usage of the music studio and sports venues were restricted, board games were made unavailable, and desks were rearranged so that students do not face each other, leaving b-lab open for self-study only.
However, student "regulars" want to chat with friends and staff, just like always. Some students gather around the whiteboards to help each other with studies. Should this be stopped, or tolerated? "There's a need to judge the gray zones," says Yoneda. The manager at Bunkyo Ward adds, "provided the situation, it is entirely possible to shut-down b-lab any time. However, it's because of the experiences and achievements of previous years that we've been able to find ways to keep it open."
While online events roam on, discussions continue daily over the balance between precaution safety measures and readying a "stage" for students' activities. Even though the online events were hurriedly put together during the pandemic, it is now a central piece and a stage for broadcasting students' efforts to all of Japan.
The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology reports that suicides among elementary, junior high, and high school students reached a record high of 479 in 2020. Suicides by high school students are particularly high. In August, following the summer break, the number hit twice that of the same month in the previous year. In that sense, "third places" where students can open up and spend time freely are more valuable than ever under the pandemic. Watching over these students, Yoneda says, "At b-lab, students can express what they want to try, and can make friends. This experience will be there to support them for the rest of their lives."
Born in Nerima Ward, Tokyo. Graduated from the Faculty of Letters, the University of Tokyo. Covered police, administration, education, sports, etc. in Aichi and Gifu prefectures as a reporter for the Mainichi Shimbun. Currently active as a freelance writer following retirement; works with NPO KATARIBA.