Monday, 16 November 2015

The Things I Love About Japan are the Reasons Tiger Needs to Leave


I ran into an elderly neighbour at the bus stop the other day. He was on his way to a junior high school reunion. "We're in our seventies now though," he said, "so there might only be twelve or fifteen of us." My first though was how wonderful that was. Can you imagine in your seventies still being in touch with that many people from when you were thirteen?! And for most of you to still be living in the same town? I imagined them all, the 74 year olds calling the 76 year olds "sempai". The class clown will still be the one cracking jokes, the smart kid will still be the one everyone asks for advice... and there my second thought hit. These things, the things I love about Japan, are the reasons we have to get Tiger out of here. Because he was the weird kid, and so he will forever be the weird kid.
When he first came to live with us he had never been to a friend's house to play, or had a friend over. Play dates are too hard to organise if you are running an orphanage with a hundred kids, I guess. We worked on social skills intensively for a while and he's fine now, but after a few bumpy visits word got around that he was weird and kids stopped coming over to play. He'd never ridden in a car (the orphanage had a bus, of course) and raved to the other kids about these amazing buttons that made the widows open. The other kids laughed; it was like he came from another planet. First exclusion, then bullying. You wouldn't pick him from a group of "regular" kids these days, but it doesn't matter. His role has been determined. We've sent him to Scouts and he's in a sports club not affiliated with school, but neither has been the source of socialisation we'd hoped for. Everything here is centered on school life, and the scouts never hang out once the meetings are over.
School. I love love love Japanese preschools and elementary schools (junior high I feel is 80% focused on crushing kids' souls, on the other hand). I'm still learning a lot about the system, however, and one thing I am learning is that the system has no safety net for kids who are too far outside 'normal'. Our local school has been accommodating and creative, but we're at the end of the options available within the system and at this point it would be hard to describe our situation as anything other than "the system has given up on our child". It turns out not to be an uncommon situation:
Sayoko and her husband, both Japanese, are the parents of an eighth-grader with autism. The family recently returned to Japan after spending five years in the U.S. During his time abroad, their son was able to transition from special education to a mainstream classroom, where he was a straight-A student in his last year and had teachers enthusiastically recommending college in the future.
Despite this stellar record, his autism and its attendant issues with communication mean that Sayako’s son would land squarely back in the “special education” track in the Japanese system. He is currently attending international school, where is he in a mainstream classroom but receives little tangible support for his autism.
“In the Japanese system we are told that even many highly educated, ‘high-functioning’ persons with disabilities can’t get jobs, so it is better for them to attend a vocational high school and gain employment under the ‘disabled persons’ scheme,” Sayoko says, referring to the quota system that exists at big companies. “This idea is instilled into parents of children with disabilities right from elementary school. The path ahead for our son is far from clear.”
The irony of leaving Japan before we're ready because that's what the only Japanese member of our family needs is not lost on us, but that's where we are right now.
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Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Mindful Dog Walking


You’re walking your dog too, but you’re not really there.
Your dog knows it. I see them looking at me and I smile at them, hoping you’ll notice me noticing them and then realize that at the end of your arm is a leash attached to everything you’re busy chasing somewhere else. You really matter to your dog, you know. If you pay attention, you might feel how important and appreciated you are. It feels real good.
I see you with your head down, eyes fixed on your phone’s screen, one arm fully extended behind you. You’re not aware that you’re dragging your dog along who is trying to sniff something very important. When you get home, maybe you realize that you forgot to pay attention to your dog the whole time you were out. It’s almost as if that walk never happened.

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Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Exploitation and Adoption in Japan

Still from the Documentary Shared Below
Some time ago, when researching how young adults cope with life after institutionalisation, I watched an interview with a woman who had become a prostitute after leaving the orphanage and struggling to live alone. "I enjoy feeling like someone wants to be together with me," she said, "even if it's just clients."* it affected me greatly and I still haven't written up the post I'd planned, several years on. I'm writing about the young woman now because I recently watched another video that reminded me of her comment. I'm sharing it below, but it's only available in Japanese:

The documentary above features a 23 year old woman named Chihiro who is facing an unwanted pregnancy resulting from "dangerous" work she is required to do in the brothel where she is, in effect, an indentured labourer. Like many young women, she became caught up in a situation where she was told she had a large debt that she could only afford to pay off by working in the associated brothel. By the time she realised she was pregnant the possibility of an abortion had passed. Unable to end the pregnancy but also unable to work, she relies on Baby Pocket, an NPO that provides housing and food for women who agree to have their babies adopted through the organisation. Raised by a single mother, who worked "without a break" to support three children, Chihiro always looked after her little sister and they would think of excuses to visit the supermarket where their mother worked and cue at her register just to get the chance to see her. With a debt of 20,000,000 yen waiting for her, all Chihiro wants to do is have the baby quickly and get back to work. She thinks she'll be able to work again within "two months" of an unmedicated vaginal birth.

We're getting to the part of the documentary I found really traumatic, just so you are warned. Following the birth of her son, Chihiro is not permitted to hold him. She is briefly allowed to see him through the glass window on the nursery before being wheeled away. The agency staff member is coming the other way with a camera to record the baby for his adoption profile and quickly ducks into a doorway to hide as the documentary follows Chihiro's disappearing figure. Baby Pocket say it is "too hard" for mothers to bond with their babies before giving them up for adoption. They, of course, get to decide because these women are utterly powerless and alone. Mothers are allowed to hold their babies once, AFTER signing the adoption paperwork. From about 33 minutes into the video it's just awful. I don't know what the exact details of the agreement are but Hayes and Habu's Adoption in Japan: Comparing Policies for Children in Need similar arrangements with an unnamed agency are described. The agency in the book uses the housing and food provided during pregnancy as a tool to enforce the surrender of babies, insisting on an instant repayment of all the provided costs if the mother changes her mind. For a woman like Chihiro, already burdened with a massive debt and no access to legal help (both this insistence on immediate repayment and the debt that landed her in the brothel in the first place are almost certainly illegal), this would probably seem insurmountable. Please let me say again, I do not know what Baby Pocket's policy is regarding mothers who want to keep their babies.

Unable to nurse, cuddle or interact at all with her son during her hospital stay (usually a week in Japan), Chihiro talks to him through the glass at night when no one else is around. She apologises to him because all the other babies are with their mothers and only he remains in the nursery alone. When the paper work is signed and she gets to hold him he settles into sleep immediately and smiles. Chihiro breaks down. It took me three views to get through because I couldn't keep watching and I'm crying now having to think about it. She holds him until she has to let him go. This woman's body has been used by others for her entire adult life. Her baby was the result of her use by others, and then his existence too became a way of using her. Although technically adoption for profit is illegal in Japan, there are plenty of loop holes including NPOs "hiring" child care companies to look after babies between their birth and adoption. Money paid to these companies (registered to the same address and with the same director as the NPO) is then outside of the financial regulations the NPO faces and the cost can be passed to the adoptive parents with a profit resulting for the agency (I mean, ahem, the TOTALLY UNRELATED COMPANY). You can read more about dubious adoption agency practices by clicking here.

Chihiro says at the end of the documentary that she wants to quit working as a prostitute. "It'll be painful," she says, "but nothing could be more painful than this." Realistically, with no support or back up, will she be able to escape? I'm hopeful but not optimistic.

The Yomiuri Shimbun did some reporting about agencies using adoption to turn a profit and the response from international adoptive parents was disappointing to say the least. Unsurprisingly, the most "profitable" agency is one which sends babies to North America. The routine institutionalisation of children in Japan is unacceptable and adoption is part of the solution, but it is a very small part and must never, ever be at the expense of vulnerable women who are given no advice about other options. 

*I can't remember where I saw the interview, unfortunately I just closed the window in a mood of horror without recording the location. If anyone is familiar with the interview I would like to be able to properly link to it, so please let me know.
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