Saturday, 5 January 2013

Adoption in Japan Part 1: Why are there so many kids in orphanages?




Life sized training baby dolls from health class reflected in dirty glass
Nothing to do with orphans, I just need an image in every post
Before the tsunami, there were more than 36,000 children in “orphanages” in Japan. Around 3,000 of them were housed in 乳児院 (nyujiin: infant nurseries, usually for children under two years old). The overwhelming majority of these children are not orphans in the sense of having no living guardian. Nor have they been removed from their parents’ custody. The majority have living parents who retain legal custody but who are not raising them. In some cases children are housed in orphanages temporarily. In other cases, they will remain in institutions from birth until adulthood, never meeting their parents. Because parents maintain legal rights to the children, they are unable to be adopted. The emphasis on maintaining legal custody for biological parents is so strong that even in cases where a baby is found abandoned in a train station locker or in a park, the local courts may rule that the baby is unavailable for adoption just in case the biological parent ever comes looking for them. In other cases a family member other than the parent is the legal guardian but does not want to be responsible for giving the child up for adoption, despite not wanting to have anything to do with them. 

Both for the families of children in orphanages and for society at large, there is no resistance to the idea that children grow up in institutions. For most people I have talked to, it seems like “the right place” for “nobody’s children” to be taken care of. Some 乳児院 send photos to the birth parents and entreat them to take the babies home for special events like the child’s birthday or New Year’s celebrations. Their aim is to eventually reunite the biological family. At the 乳児院 I volunteer at, some parents visit their children every weekend, trying to maintain contact despite the circumstances that prevent them from caring for them full time. Others drop in sporadically and shower the kids with presents and affection, then don’t come back for months. Others promise to come then don’t, leaving the children waiting in their best clothes beside the door, waiting for it to open, hour after hour. No one seems to question the idea that reuniting biological families is the best outcome, even when we read about cases where children are killed after being reclaimed from orphanages by their parents. In one heartbreaking case, an eleven year old girl was beaten to death by her mother with a golf club after spending many years in an orphanage. News reports dwelled on the tragic letter the little girl had written to her mother telling her how much she loved her while in care. I saw something very different in that letter~ well meaning staff encouraging her to write to her mother to facilitate a reunion regardless of the documented history of abuse.

Even in cases of serious, documented abuse it is very difficult to forcibly sever parental rights. One of the reasons volunteers are asked not to share pictures taken in orphanages is that children may be in hiding from abusive parents. The state can remove children and place them in orphanages, but if the biological parents find out where they are they can just walk in and drag them home. In some cases parents have laid in wait near school gates and abducted their children as they leave. Because the legal custody has not been severed there is little anyone can do.  There is also little awareness of child abuse as a social issue.  A 1996 article quotes Tsuzura Masako, then head of the Tokyo child welfare office, denying over the course of several years that child abuse existed; despite her own office taking hundreds of calls a year relating to child abuse. Her exact words: “Child abuse? There is no such thing. Parents hitting their own kids is just a temporary thing. It’s just discipline.” Abuse is unlikely to make it to court until it becomes fatal, and even then penalties are light. The infamous Heki-chan case of 2006, in which parents tortured their three year old using a variety of implements over many hours until his death, resulted in a seven year jail sentence for the father and six and a half years for the mother. In my prefecture a woman who buried her two year old daughter in the woods then claimed she had been abducted from a supermarket car park was given a two year suspended sentence for dumping the body but was not prosecuted for killed the child, because by the time her body was discovered she was “too badly decomposed to determine cause of death.”

I want to emphasise that my experiences in orphanages have been nothing but positive. The many staff I know personally are committed to doing the very best they can for the kids in their care. However, the care given to the children in orphanages is utterly insufficient to prepare them for participation in society even in the best case scenario. At the same time, not every orphanage is a best case scenario.  There are also serious problems with abuse in orphanages themselves.  Many of Japan’s orphanages are privately managed, including many operated by Catholic churches. Some private orphanages are treated like family businesses, with the director passing the position on to their son or daughter when they retire.  In the 1990s a number of cases of sexual abuse in privately operated homes resulted in no action being taken because the perpetrator was the child of the director and heir apparent to the “business”. In one case, after an employee reported the sexual abuse of a twelve year old girl to the child welfare office, the director of the orphanage took a voluntary two month pay cut. This was considered an appropriate response and no criminal proceeding were pursued, nor was the perpetrator prevented from continuing to work in orphanages. Technically the private institutions are under the supervision of the government, but as with all government positions in Japan staff are transferred in and out of the supervisory positions without any specific training. When they go to “inspect” the orphanages they have no idea what they are looking at, and may simply visit, drink tea in the director’s office, then leave.
Even without facing abuse, institutions just aren’t appropriate places for children to grow up.

“A little boy had been brought over from the baby orphanage to join the 3-to-18-year-olds’ orphanage. This is the way the system is set up here. Suddenly uprooted from the only home he had known, he was plopped down into a big building full of older boys. Though I had just walked into the room and he was seeing me for the first time, he clung to me for all he was worth and would not be comforted. I’ve rarely witnessed anything as pitiful.”

The social worker who is working with us through our adoption application suggested that we should try to take the child to the supermarket and involve them in cooking meals as much as possible, because they may be used to prepared food being delivered in a dining hall and have no mental association between fresh ingredients and prepared food. For a child in that situation, imagine the shock of suddenly being thrust out into the world to fend for him or her self?

In Japan school is compulsory only until junior high. Although 90% of students attend high school (high school graduation is require for almost all jobs), the figure is inverted for children who live in orphanages. One reason for this is that in order to pass high school entrance examinations Japanese children usually attend cram schools, the cost of which can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. The government does not provide any money for orphans to attend cram schools, because that would mean they would have to admit that the system exists. The official line is that public education provides everything children need to pass their exams, and although it is blatantly untrue and no one believes it for a second, the educational futures of orphans are sacrificed to maintain the meaningless charade. One of the most helpful things university student volunteers do in orphanages is offer free tutoring. 

Even if a child survives their orphanage upbringing with few emotional scars and a passable education, they may face lifelong discrimination in employment, housing and marriage. Yet, despite all this, adoption or even foster care remains rare. In a country with an aging population, declining birth rate and reluctance to accept immigration as a solution to its demographic crisis, one would think that domestic adoption would be encouraged. In practice, a combination of social attitudes and specific government policies discourage adoption. 

References:
“Adoption in Japan” by Peter Hayes and Toshie Habu, 2006, Routledge
“Children of the Japanese State” by Roger Goodman, 2000, Oxford
“Becoming aware of child abuse” by Meiko Hashimoto in Japan Quarterly; Apr/Jun 1996
“Why Nobody Knows - Family and Society in Modern Japan” by Alexander Jacoby in Film Criticism; winter 2011; 35, 2/3
“Child abuse and neglect in Japan” by Yasuhide Nakamura in Pediatrics International; 2002, 44
“Child Welfare Services in Japan: An Overview” by Cecelia Sudia in Children Today; Mar 1988; 17, 2
“Fatal child abuse in Japan: Does a trend exist toward tougher sentencing?” by Saori Nambu, Ayako Nasu, Shigeru Nishimura, Akiyoshi Nishimura and Satoshi Fujiwara in Japan Injury and Violence Research, 2011 Jul; 3, 2
“Health education for nurses in Japan to combat child abuse” by Beverly M. Henry, Reiko Ueda, Masaki Shinjo and Chieko Yoshikawa in Nursing and Health Sciences, 2003, 5
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20 comments:

  1. hi Sophelia--I really appreciate your post here. We adopted a Japanese boy from an orphanage in Tokyo several years ago, and were heartbroken to see so many children "left behind" at the orphanage while so many people were waiting to adopt. This was the case at our son's orphanage, and many others we visited, because of Japan's emphasis on bloodlines and family ties--even though few of the birth parents ever made attempts to stay connected to their biological children and never will. I heard that the system is changing, and can only hope for the children awaiting families that it does change, and soon.

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    1. hello from where you adopted a kid in japan?we like to adopt one too

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  2. For more on my husband and my experience with adoption, please read the article I wrote for Shambhala Sun. I wish you the best on your journey! http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=3520

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    1. Hi Leza, how amazing to hear from you. I actually have a link to your article ready to go in my Part 2 post, I just haven't had time to finalise it yet. I loved reading about your experiences and your story about having to teach him that he didn't have to share his toys ALL the time struck such a cord with me. Thank you for commenting.

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    2. And by Part Two, I mean Part Three >.<

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    3. Hi Leza! I reached out to Sophelia through email but would also like to reach out to you about your experience adopting in Japan. I am a documentary filmmaker and interested in pursuing a documentary about the adoption process in Japan, the stigmas, the children, the birth parents, and the adoptive parents. I would love to hear about your experiences. You can contact me at scahlan@gmail.com! Thanks for your help in advance!

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  3. Hello Sophelia,
    while it is difficult to adopt a child from a Japanese orphanage, if the birth parent(s) go to a Japanese adoption agency (such as NPO Babylife in Tokyo) and actively choose to make an adoption plan, the baby can be adopted quite easily within Japan and internationally. We brought our baby son home in August 2012, and have possibilities of an open adoption when Birth Mom would like it (we are so hoping for that!!)

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  4. My wife can find no information. She was born 16 april 1956 and was in an orphanage in the hakata district. she is reiko yamashita. Her mother ayako. Reiko was adopted by americans at two years old. Anything from anyone would help. blubear@centuryink.net thank you from the usa.

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  5. Thank you so much for this article, it's incredibly enlightening regarding the current state of foster care in Japan - up until now, it's been difficult to find such rich information.

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    1. Thank you Kimberlin. If you are interested in learning please read the recent report by Human Rights Watch. I've only just started reading it, but it has a wealth of information.

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  6. Good work…unique site and interesting too… keep it up…looking forward for more updates.i was really impressed by your blog please keep on sharing such blog.
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  7. Hi Sophelia
    As a member of the 12th Marines stationed out of Okinawa, Japan we would train at Camp Fuji. There was a Catholic orphanage that was supported by the 12th Marines by doing voluntary work details, playing with the children and giving donations. I don't remember the name of this orphanage. It always broke my heart when I thought of those children not being able to be adopted. Do you think you would be able the help me possibly Identify this orphanage. The children wore little blue smocks with yellow caps. I believe there were only boys at the orphanage.

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    1. Hi James, I've read about that orphanage before... the marine organise a Christmas party, right? I remember reading a news article about it but later when I searched I was unable to find it again. I'll take another look, now that you've given me the name of the camp (thanks!) I may have better luck. Check back with me next week :)

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    2. Do Yamanaka Orphanage or Seishin Children’s Home ring any bells?

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  8. Sorry I just saw your post recently. I don't believe it was Christmas. What I do recall and seen in my photos are there were no girls and the young boys are dressed in blue jackets and yellow hats.

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    1. I'm afraid those were the only names I've been able to find, but you may be able to get better information by contacting the local Catholic diocese or a military contact. I sometimes get comments from military families currently stationed in Okinawa~ if anyone reading can help James out please leave a comment :)

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  9. We adopted two children from orphanages in Tokyo in the late 50's. They had American fathers, and Japanese mothers. Maybe this mixture is why it was not difficult.

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  12. Wonderful post! Thank you for sharing.

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