Fukuju Mizuki Florist: Taking a Different Approach to Welfare

Florist Fukuju Mizuki established Lorans, a flower shop and cafe in Tokyo’s trendy Harajuku district, to provide employment and training opportunities for people with disabilities. In 2021, the shop also launched a project to help underprivileged children. Interviewer Inuyama Kamiko sits down with Fukuju to discuss her approach to solving social issues.

Keep an eye on the needs of society

INUYAMA KAMIKO Japan now sees increasing emphasis on employing people with disabilities in a way that respects their dignity as workers. How did you start to take an interest in the question?

FUKUJU MIZUKI I started working for a sports management company right out of college, helping professional baseball players set up philanthropic projects. I was unsure of the path I wanted to take and the experience made me realize the importance of giving back to society. Being of service to others gave new meaning to my life and made me think about what more I could do.

So in 2013, at age 23, I opened my flower shop, Lorans, and after three years in business, I started hiring staff with physical and emotional disabilities. At the time, the employment of people with disabilities was generally presented as a social problem. However, I wanted to move the narrative away from the one-sided perception that people with disabilities should be supported and instead present them as stakeholders who contribute to society.

Fukuju Mizuki, owner of Lorans.

INUYAMA In addition to employing people with disabilities, Lorans is dedicated to showing how people who receive work assistance contribute to society in profound and meaningful ways. This is particularly the case for your program to help underprivileged children. What was the genesis of this effort?

FUKUJU The pandemic has taken a toll on families in financial difficulty, and I had the idea of ​​opening up the café section of the store to neighborhood children. Initially, we provided meals once or twice a month through a Shibuya municipal initiative called Children’s Table. However, as the coronavirus situation worsened, we closed the store or reduced opening hours in accordance with government recommendations. It became more difficult to provide meals in person, so we moved to deliveries. Fortunately, word of the program spread and the number of companies offering financial and other support continued to grow.

It quickly became clear from news reports and other sources that the pandemic was hitting single-parent households particularly hard due to business closures. The scale of the problem was highlighted when a new staff member with experience in the field pointed out that one in seven Japanese children live below the poverty line.

Besides providing meals, I decided to open the shop as a sort of after-school daycare. We continue to deliver meals, and with financial assistance from the Nippon Foundation, the cafe is now open to neighborhood children on weekdays from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

INYUAMA I was particularly interested in how you involved floristry in the program, such as decorating tables with flower arrangements to create a warm atmosphere.

FUKUJU Since Lorans is first and foremost a flower shop, it made sense to integrate this side into the program. Some of the children bring the flowers back to their mother, which we hope will promote communication between parent and child.

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

Ensure an adult presence

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

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

At the shop, however, children can talk and hang out with staff as well as university students who volunteer. Through these interactions, they experience different life perspectives, which helps them grow as individuals. They also benefit from spending time with peers other than siblings or school friends. Many children find themselves 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 quarrels break out, but even these are important because they help children learn to deal with people outside their normal circle of family and acquaintances.

How to make helper programs work

INUYAMA Children who suffer from abuse or neglect at home, or who struggle to fit in at school, often seek solace on the streets, exposing them to further abuse. The pandemic has shown how important it is to have 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 at Lorans?

FUKUJU Giving children safe places to go and relax is essential, but establishing and maintaining such programs is not an easy task. Many groups depend on community centers, where they rent rooms to provide meals. The government provides some level of support, but funding is often minimal and groups often have to dip into their own pockets or find other ways to cover costs. There are many hurdles to overcome and organizers need to be flexible in their approaches to keep programs running. One tactic would be for authorities to make it easier to work with local restaurants to let children in during off-peak hours between lunch and dinner, when shops aren’t as busy. Incorporating neighborhood businesses into a program is a good thing because it makes it easier for children to regularly use the spaces.

I have taken the approach of covering meal and staff costs with the donations we receive from supporting businesses, positioning 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 unexpectedly run out of funds and have to drop out. It’s something I experienced helping the philanthropic work of professional baseball players, who supported the programs they established as long as they played and made money, only to withdraw financial support once in retirement.

I hope Lorans can become a model for other organizations. This of course means doing things right on our side. There is a mountain of problems to solve and we do our best to meet new challenges as they arise.

Different views to include

INUYAMA How have store staff with disabilities responded to the children’s meal program?

FUKUJU It was a very enriching experience. Many of our employees struggle with emotional turmoil stemming from family situations or problems in their relationships with the people around them. A staff member says it has been a healing experience to do for the children what she wishes her mother would do for her. As someone who often receives supportive efforts, it’s wonderful that she learns the joy of helping others.

Staff fulfill orders at Lorans.
Staff fulfill orders at Lorans.

Another positive result is that staff are now more willing to take the initiative in their work, whereas in the past they often waited for instructions. Generally, people with disabilities are only responsible for simple tasks. For example, they may be required to assemble components without even knowing what the final product is. This approach works for some people, of course, but I think it’s important to impress upon staff the importance of their contributions so that they can share in the joy of bringing happiness to others. It deepens their sense of gratitude when they receive help. I noticed it especially in the way staff say thank you more often.

The Children’s Meal Program was an invaluable experience that reinforced the benefits of giving staff with disabilities the opportunity to enjoy contributing to the organization in an equal and meaningful way. As Lorans moves forward, I want the perspectives of our employees to guide our trajectory as we continue the children’s project and further develop our staff.

INUYAMA It’s a wonderful project, and it’s refreshing to see the focus on breaking down barriers to social participation for a diverse group of people, rather than just their disability. It’s clear that your staff feel the joy of being needed by others. Hopefully we will see many more workplaces like this take shape in the future. Thanks for your time today!

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

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