Global Social Dissease Child Abuse
Posted on June 06, 2012 by Akashma Online News
Originally posted on Metropolis Japan Magazine
Thanks to increased government involvement and greater public exposure, child abuse is gradually emerging from the shadows. But Japan’s youngest citizens remain vulnerable to violence at the hands of those who care for them. Tama Miyake reports.
Kenji* bears the scars of a battle lost years before. The 5-year-old has been burned and beaten, held underwater, and singled out as the youngest boy in a family of five children. He is emotionally troubled, panics easily, and is still afraid to take a bath. But this little boy is one of the lucky ones.
Kenji has spent the past three years living with his two sisters in a residential care center run by the prefectural government in northern Saitama. Today, he gets regular counseling, a hot meal at the end of every day, and the affectionate attention of a troop of care workers.
Kenji is a survivor, a battle-hardened victim of what is now being recognized as one of Japan’s greatest social ills: child abuse. His mother is in jail; his father is out of the picture. His grandparents want nothing to do with them, and one of his older siblings is dead. Care workers suspect that child died from abuse inflicted by the parents, but no evidence was ever uncovered.
Yet for all the hardship Kenji has faced in his short life, his is just one story of out of thousands. In the last fiscal year alone, consultation centers around the country received 25,000 reports of suspected child abuse, an increase of nearly 25 percent over the previous year and testimony to what experts say is a breakdown in the traditional family unit, a rise in the number of single and young parents, and the growing tendency toward isolation from friends, family and the community at large.
Despite efforts by the government and volunteer organizations to halt the cycle of violence, many Japanese children never live to see the inside of a care center. Earlier this month, a 3-year-old boy was beaten to death by his father and a 14-month-old boy starved to death under his mother’s care, adding to the more than 60 children who have already died of abuse since the enactment in November 2000 of the Child Abuse Prevention Law.
As more and more children become victims, the Japanese government is finding itself increasingly involved in issues long considered private, and struggling to protect the very people who represent its future. But with the country’s care centers bursting at the seams and resources stretched ever thinner, the question remains: Is it enough to save them?
Here, as in most developed countries, child abuse encompasses physical, sexual and psychological abuse, as well as neglect. And in keeping with most other countries, it’s the mothers who are most often the perpetrators of abuse. But there are several factors that make the situation in Japan far different, and at times far more troubling, than the rest of the world.
According to reports issued by the Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry, the number of suspected abuse cases reported to consultation centers around the country in fiscal 2000 reached 18,804, a rise of 60 percent over the previous year and a 17-fold increase over 10 years earlier. The actual number of cases is believed to be much higher, with the ministry’s release last month of a research study showing an estimate of 35,000 for that year.
The startling increase was attributed in part to the enactment of the prevention law, which obliges doctors, teachers and child welfare officers to report suspected abuse to the consultation centers, and a new system of counting all reported cases rather than only those in which action was taken. But it was also a reminder that, like the bruises and burns that mark so many of its victims, child abuse had become a problem Japan could no longer ignore.
Indeed, the number of cases and the fact that 85 percent of abusers reported in 2000 were the victims’ parents—with mothers making up 60 percent—highlighted the precarious state of the Japanese family, which many say faces unprecedented strain.
“The family is a very stressful unit when you stop and think about it,” says Yuko Kawanishi, a sociologist and professor at Temple University. “And there’s really no period in human history that only the mother and the nuclear family were raising the children.”
With the tendency of Japanese husbands to focus on climbing the corporate ladder and the nation’s rapid development post-WWII, the past 40-50 years have seen the burden of child rearing fall ever more heavily on the mother. “The husband is always busy, he’s almost married to the company. So more and more, the wife gets isolated,” explains Kawanishi, who notes that just one generation ago Japanese families shared child rearing responsibilities among extended relatives and close neighbors.
It’s this growing isolation combined with the immense pressure that many Japanese mothers feel to raise well-behaved, well-groomed and well-adjusted children that experts say can make for a deadly combination. “Typically they are excessively serious about rearing their children and strict about teaching manners so their kids can behave in front of other people,” says Yasuko Takahashi, a clinical psychologist and counselor to abusive mothers in Saitama, of the women she sees in her group therapy sessions. “They believe they are doing it for their children’s sake.”
Another factor adding to the strain felt by many Japanese parents is the increasing lack of communication with the outside world. “I think a lot of it has to do with urbanization,” says Kawanishi. “Nowadays, it’s basically like living with a bunch of strangers. I’ve never even talked to my neighbors. And the worst is this apartment-complex life; it’s not helping lonely mothers at all.”
Isolation, whether in the form of separation from concerned relatives and friends, or in the secluded apartments of high-rise Japanese cities, is in fact a prime factor in most cases of abuse.
Child abuse expert Dr. Eli Newberger cites the issues surrounding discipline and punishment as among the most confused in childcare
“Most severe cases of abuse, in virtually every instance, were in homes where there were no lines of connection to family or professional support,” notes Dr. Eli Newberger, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School with 32 years of experience dealing with abuse as founder of the Child Protection Team at Children’s Hospital in Boston.
The past few decades have seen the rise of another trend relatively new to the Japanese family dynamic: dekichatta kekkon (shotgun marriages). “Most shotgun marriages are among very young people,” says Kawanishi, who attributes this to a loosening of sexual practices and a lack of birth control options. “So we’ve seen this kind of polarization between sexually educated women who are waiting longer and longer on the one hand and on the other hand this very different group of very young, uneducated women who are getting pregnant very early.”
Lacking much life experience outside their own homes, these young parents also have the potential to join another group that’s at high risk of becoming abusers: single parents. Forced to support themselves and their children in a depressed economy, Japan’s single parents have been identified by the government as needing particular support.
“Since single parenthood is one of the causes of child abuse, people should extend a helping hand to single-parent families,” says Mr Ohta, head of the children’s consultation division at the health ministry.
Breaking the chain
Having established child abuse as a rapidly growing social problem, the Japanese government is now charged with finding ways to stop it. In addition to the recently enacted prevention law, which allows it to challenge custody rights by banning abusive parents from having contact with their children, the federal government has strengthened support services by allotting subsidies to municipalities, distributing manuals on detection and treatment of abuse to childcare workers and police officers, and conducting studies on the handling of abuse cases.
“We must work on manuals designed to respond to cases, and as far as deaths are concerned, quick discovery is necessary, so the involvement of police and other related authorities is necessary,” says Ohta. “Comprehensive involvement is necessary, as has been carried out until now.”
But those on the front lines say these efforts are far from enough. “Right now the governmental eye goes more to the older generation and their care,” says Chizuko Yaita, the sole therapist at the residential care center housing Kenji and his sisters. “I know you can’t compare, but they have to realize that kids are also very important for Japan’s future.”
Yaita has been counseling abused children for the past two years at a center housing 80 children from 3 to 18 years old. But the US-trained therapist says the salary the government offers is so low she can only afford to work at the center three days a week. Meanwhile, the care workers who deal with the children on a daily basis are stretched to the limit.
“The hardware is getting better, but the software is not enough,” Yaita says, noting that almost every care center has had to turn children away because they’re already full. “We need more care workers for the situation to get better. Sometimes it’s impossible to do even the simple things because they don’t have enough time or hands.”
According to a survey conducted by the health ministry, many prefectures and large cities have only one child consultation center, the first point of contact for intervention in abuse cases. Even more troubling, most workers at these centers receive only one or two days of training. With local governments controlling these centers as well as elementary schools and day-care facilities, the level of protection for young Japanese can vary widely from city to city and prefecture to prefecture.
Volunteer organizations have made efforts to fill in where government support runs out, staffing emergency hotlines for children and parents, offering local childcare services, and reaching out to isolated families. But old habits can be hard to break, particularly in Japan, where psychological care is still in its relative infancy.
“The word counseling scares people,” says the psychologist Takahashi, adding that it has taken her a year to establish a level of trust with the mothers she counsels. “There has to be some kind of unique cultural adaptation of counseling.”
According to Yaita, the concept of counseling was only introduced to most residential care centers two years ago, when the government made funding available to hire therapists. But with budgets still stretched, most care centers cannot afford more than two therapists for up to 80 residents. Perhaps more worrisome, outside of volunteer groups and the efforts of concerned care workers, there is no established system to counsel the abusers.
“The parents are the problem, right?” says Yaita. “This is very bad; because of a lack of number of care workers, they don’t have time for [the parents]. In the States, those parents must do something, like group therapy, but we don’t have those regulations.”
Adding to this is the fact that while there are strong grassroots efforts as well as newly enacted laws, including one obliging medical workers to look for signs of child abuse at mandatory health checks for children aged 18 months to 3 years, there are no penalties for not reporting suspected abuse. The handling of child abuse in the courts is also relatively new, with convicted offenders receiving widely varying jail terms—or, as was the case with a Fukui Prefecture couple convicted of causing the death of their 11-month-old daughter early this month, suspended sentences.
Therefore, as the country struggles to come to grips with abuse and all its elements, it appears unlikely to most that the situation will improve anytime soon. “Judging from the past,” says Ohta, “it does not look like cases will decrease this year or next.”
To learn more about child abuse, report a suspected case, or get involved in its prevention, contact any of the following organizations.
Main child consultation center in Tokyo
Report a suspected case, talk to counselors, and receive information from the local government. Tel: (03) 3208-1121. In case of emergency, call police at 03-3212-2111 (English) or 110 (Japanese).
Center for Child Abuse Prevention
Call the hotline, learn about prevention, and volunteer for events and other services. Tel: 03-5374-2990 (Japanese).
Child Research Net
Read articles on all aspects of child development, share ideas, and attend conferences.
Tokyo English Life-Line
Talk to counselors, receive support, and volunteer as a counselor.