Florist Fukuju Mizuki: Approaching social assistance differently

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Florist Fukuju Mizuki founded Lorans, a flower shop and café in Tokyo’s trendy Harajuku district to provide employment and education opportunities for people with disabilities. In 2021, the shop also started a project to support disadvantaged children. Interviewer Inuyama Kamiko sits down with Fukuju to discuss her approach to solving social problems.

Keeping the needs of society in mind

INUYAMA KAMIKO Japan today sees a growing focus on employing people with disabilities in a manner that respects their dignity as workers. How did you become interested in the topic?

FUKUJU MIZUKI I started working for a sports management company right out of college, helping professional baseball players build philanthropic projects. I was unsure of which path to take and the experience struck me with the importance of giving back to society. Serving others gave my life new meaning and made me think about what else I could do.

So in 2013, when I was 23, I opened my flower shop Lorans and after three years in the business I started hiring people with physical and mental disabilities. At that time, the employment of people with disabilities was typically viewed as a social issue. However, I wanted to shift the narrative away from the one-sided perception that people with disabilities need to be supported and instead present them as actors who contribute to society.

Fukuju Mizuki, owner of Lorans.

INUYAMA In addition to employing people with disabilities, Lorans focuses on showing how people who receive employment support make a profound and meaningful contribution to society. This is especially true for your program to support underprivileged children. What was the origin of this effort?

FUKUJU The pandemic has taken a toll on families who are struggling financially, and I had the idea of ​​opening the café section of the store to local children. First, we provided meals once or twice a month as part of an initiative by the city of Shibuya called Children’s Table. However, as the coronavirus situation worsened, we closed the store or shortened opening hours in line with government recommendations. It was getting harder to offer in-person meals, so we switched to delivery. Luckily, word of the program got around, and the number of companies offering financial and other support grew steadily.

News reports and other sources quickly made it clear that the pandemic was hitting single-parent households particularly hard, with businesses shutting down. The scale of the problem became clear when a new staffer with experience in the field pointed out that one in seven Japanese children lives below the poverty line.

In addition to the catering, I decided to open the shop as a kind of after-school care center. We continue to deliver meals and with financial support from the Nippon Foundation, the café is now open weekdays from 5pm to 7pm for local children.

INYUAMA I was particularly interested in how you integrated floristry into the program, e.g. B. Decorating tables with flower arrangements to create a warm atmosphere.

FUKUJU Since Lorans is primarily a flower shop, it made sense to include this page in the program. Some of the children are taking the flowers home to their mothers, which hopefully encourages communication between parent and child.

The interior of Lorans in Harajuku.
The interior of Lorans in Harajuku.

Providing an Adult Presence

INUYAMA The provision of meals fulfills a basic physical need, but it is also calming, which has a positive impact on children’s emotional well-being. Did you see that on Lorans?

FUKUJU Growing up in Ishikawa Prefecture, I regularly came into close contact with various adults in the community. This is something that I feel is missing in the lives of many children in Tokyo. They do, of course, interact with their teachers and friends’ parents, but they don’t have many opportunities to spend time with other adults in the community.

Inside the store, however, the kids can mingle and hang out with the staff and the volunteer university students. Through these interactions, they learn about different perspectives on life, which helps them grow as individuals. They also benefit from spending time in the company of peers other than their siblings or school friends. Many of the children are in similar situations, such as having to spend hours alone at home while their parents are at work, and may share their feelings of loneliness and other concerns. Sometimes arguments arise, but these are important too, as they help children deal with people outside their normal circle of family and friends.

How to keep utilities running

INUYAMA Children who are abused or neglected at home, or who have trouble integrating into school, often seek solace on the streets, putting them at risk of further abuse. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of having places outside of school and home where children can spend time in a safe and supervised environment. However, funding and staffing such initiatives is a challenge. How do you do that with Lorans?

FUKUJU Providing children with places where they can be safe is important, but establishing and maintaining such programs is no easy task. Many groups rely on community centers where they rent space to provide meals. The state provides some level of support, but funding is often minimal and groups often have to reach into their own pockets or find other means to cover costs. There are many hurdles to overcome, and organizers need to be flexible in their approaches to keep programs moving. One tactic would be for authorities to facilitate collaborations with local restaurants so children can come in during quiet hours between lunch and dinner, when stores aren’t as busy. Involving neighborhood businesses in a program is good because it makes it easier for children to use the space on a regular basis.

I have taken the approach of matching the cost of meals and staff with the donations we receive from supporting companies and positioned this program as part of our Corporate Social Responsibility activities. Relying on volunteers and other support is great, but without a stable source of funding, a program can find itself unexpectedly short of funds and have to collapse. This is something I experienced while helping the philanthropic work of professional baseball players who supported the programs they set up as long as they played and made money only to receive financial support after they retired.

I hope that Lorans can become a role model for other organizations. Of course, this means that we do everything right on our side. There is a mountain of problems to contend with, and we do our best to deal with new challenges as they arise.

Different views to include

INUYAMA How did the store’s disabled staff respond to the kids meal program?

FUKUJU It was a very fulfilling experience. Many of our employees struggle with emotional disabilities stemming from family situations or problems in their relationships with those around them. A staff member says it was a healing experience to do for the children what she would have wished her mother to do. As a person who is often on the receiving end of support efforts, it is wonderful that she learns the joy of helping others.

Employees fill orders at Lorans.
Employees fill orders at Lorans.

Another positive finding is that employees are now more willing to take initiative in their work, whereas in the past they have often waited for direction. Typically, people with disabilities are only entrusted with simple tasks. For example, they may be tasked with assembling components without even knowing what the end product will be. This approach suits some people, of course, but I find it important to make it clear to employees the importance of their contributions so that they can share in the joy of bringing joy to others. This in turn deepens their gratitude when they receive help. I notice that above all in the way the employees thank each other more often.

The children’s meal program was an invaluable experience that has amplified the benefits of giving disabled employees an opportunity to contribute to the organization in an equal and meaningful way. As Loran’s progresses, I want the perspectives of our employees to guide our path as we continue the Children’s Project and continue to grow our workforce.

INUYAMA It’s a wonderful project and it’s refreshing to see that the focus is on removing barriers to social participation for a diverse group of people and not just their disabilities. It’s obvious that your employees are experiencing the joy that comes with being needed by others – I hope we see many more jobs like this emerge in the future. Thank you for your time today!

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Fukuju Mizuki, right, and Inuyama Kamiko at Lorans flower shop in Tokyo’s Harajuku. All photos © Uwadaira Tsunebumi.)

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