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Child Abuse In Japan. Why Japan Keeps Returning Abused Kids To Their Parents Until They Are Killed

What causes a 5-year old girl to write in her notebook, “Please forgive me,” just a few days prior to her death from abuse? “Please forgive me” is ‘onegai, yurushite,’ in Japanese, and the phrase made headlines after 5-year old Yua Funato was found dead in her apartment home in March. According to news reports, Yua had been beaten by her father and starved by her mother. The direct cause of her death was sepsis, brought on my poor nutrition and untreated pneumonia. Asahi Shimbun reported that Yua was ordered (by her mother) to practice writing Japanese at 4 in the morning everyday and was punished when she made mistakes, usually by being forced to sit for hours on the concrete veranda of their apartment, in the dead of winter.

“Better to light a single candle then curse the darkness a thousand times.”

According to Nippon.com, Yua’s treatment is pretty much standard among the growing number of child abuse cases in Japan. The father beats the child in places were bruises can’t be seen (in her case, injuries were confirmed on her upper thighs and back) and the mother stops feeding them. Verbal abuse, beating s and starvation form the unholy trinity of Japanese abuse cases and Yua, apart from everything else, was told by her mother Yuri that she shouldn’t have been born into the world, and that she was hated by everyone. Yua had to sleep in a tiny room with no heating, away from her parents and younger brother who occupied a bigger room with an air conditioner. At the time of her death, she was 8 kilos lighter than the average 5-year old and her digestive tract was clotted with vomit.

Now three months later, neighbors and sympathizers continue to place incense, candy and flowers outside the Funato family’s apartment in Tokyo’s Meguro ward. Social commentators have sighed and shook their heads with pity. Even Prime Minister Abe has been moved to comment that child abuse “cannot be overlooked.” But all that sympathy came too late for the 5-year old. The whistle had been blown on Yua’s parents several times over two years before the tragedy but the authorities had done nothing to help. Japan’s infamous child consultation centers (notice it’s consultation and not welfare) are hindered by an antiquated rule that favors parents’ rights over children’s, parents’ testimonials over children who, like Yua, had cried to a social worker that she didn’t want to live at home because her father beat her. Japan’s social workers mainly consult with the adults, and the first thing they ask the parents of a child perceived to have been beaten, is: “Are you abusing your child?” Yeah, right, like the parents are going to come clean and admit it. In the case of Yua, the parents had been “cautioned” and invited to attend a parents seminar, designed to help adults become better carers of offspring. The Funatos never showed up.

The damning, daunting fact is this: As of 2016, there were well over 100,000 cases of child abuse reported in Japan, up 100 times since 1990. In the US, that number  is something like 67,000. And before Yua, there was Riku and Takumu and many other children of pre-school age who had been beaten, abused, starved or outrightly murdered by their parents. In spite of the government’s pledge to build more day care facilities and put families first, Japan is a place that’s not very nice to kids. Daycare is one thing, but public schools – once the bastion of a legendary educational system, is rife with problems from bullying to underpaid, overworked teachers who are mostly too tired to notice that a kid is showing up to school with bruises, or haven’t had a square meal in days. As the media keeps reminding us, one out of six Japanese children live in poverty, and go to school (if they are able) on empty stomachs.

As for children blessed with a stable home life, they often feel crushed by a tremendous pressure to succeed, i.e., get into a good university that will ensure a well-paying job 15 years down the line. Many kids start going to cram school as early as second grade, studying for entrance exams that will ensure at least a partial foot in the door of a prestigious university.

The experience of being born a Japanese national used to be described as following the ‘Bathtub Curve,’ meaning the best years of a Japanese life came at the beginning, between 0 and 12 years old, and in the end, between 65 and 75. My high school politics teacher taught us that, and I still remember the shock of seeing the long, flat line that supposedly represented the years between adolescence and retirement. Equally shocking was that upward curve representing babyhood and primary school. Were those years really so glorious? In primary school, summer vacation lasts just over a measly month and even that was tempered with shitloads  of homework that had to be completed and submitted on September 1st. School lunches were for the most part, awful rations laid on prison-like tin trays. At home, dads returned on the last train, stressed to the very core of their beings and moms were equally tired from chores and childcare.

Dismal as it often is, there’s no comparing a normal Japanese childhood to what Yua, and tens of thousands of children like her, are going through on a daily basis. Some commentators have lamented that there are simply not enough social workers to go around. True, every time a child dies from abuse, the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labor (Koseirodousho) issues a statement about labor shortage being the definitive problem in the service industry. There are just not enough Japanese to do the work of caring for children, the elderly or the sick and diseased. When a staff member of a senior home was arrested last year after killing one of his charges, the reason given was fatigue. He was fed up with having to care for helpless people, and his work chart showed he had been pulling 12-hour shifts with almost no days off.

With Yua, the social workers who had been in charge of her case had also been understaffed, which led to carelessness and cutting corners. Yua’s parents moved the family from Kagawa prefecture to Tokyo, after a neighbor blew the whistle on Yua’s father. The child consultation workers in Kagawa then neglected to pass the full bulk of the paperwork from Kagawa to Tokyo, and Yua’s case was never reviewed in her new locale. Add to that the fact that child abuse facilities are notoriously crowded. Barring extreme circumstances, abuse victims are often returned to their parents, and the cycle of violence begins all over again. This was certainly true of Yua, who spent 3 months in a child care center in Kagawa but was not allowed to stay.

Sometimes, family is the most horrendous aspect of a child’s life. If Yua had been separated from her parents, chances are she would have lived. But Japanese tradition dictates that families must stick together, and what goes on within that circle is sacrosanct. More than the labor shortage, or parents seminars, we need to rethink the Japanese family, and take a long, hard look at its dysfunctions.


Editor’s Note: The Japan Times in a recent editorial , What is lacking the fight against child abuse, had some suggestions on how to prevent further tragedies. 

“A 2016 revision to the child abuse prevention law simplified the procedure for officials of such centers to carry out on-site inspection of homes where child abuse is suspected without the parents’ consent. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry says that protection of children should be prioritized and that officials should not hesitate in the face of parents’ objections to take abused children under protective custody. However, it is believed that many welfare officials balk at resorting to such action out of concern that support for the family may not proceed smoothly if the action is taken over the parents’ opposition.

Japan’s efforts to stop child abuse are weak when compared with the systems in many Western countries. For example, in the United States, where efforts to prevent abuse of children started much earlier than in Japan, far greater numbers of child abuse cases are reported to and handled by child protection service agencies. Such agencies are staffed by far larger numbers of experts per capita than in Japan, and the police and the judiciary are more deeply involved in the effort against child abuse. What’s lacking in our system to stop child abuse should be explored so that similar tragedies will not be repeated.”

Kaori Shoji

Kaori Shoji is a film critic for the Japan Times and write about fashion and society as well. 欧米の出版物に記事を執筆するフリーランス・ジャーナリスト。The Japan Times、The International Herald Tribune、Zoo Magazineへ定期的に記事を寄稿している。

14 thoughts on “Child Abuse In Japan. Why Japan Keeps Returning Abused Kids To Their Parents Until They Are Killed”
  1. Ever since I moved to Japan in 2001, I got the impression that child abuse was extremely high. But I thought perhaps I was hallucinating. Great article on this problem. Unfortunately, given Japan’s ostrich (head in the sand) approach to problem solving, we wont see an end to this anytime soon.

  2. “As of 2016, there were well over 100,000 cases of child abuse reported in Japan, up 100 times since 1990.” I suspect this could be a result of changes in Japanese society that occurred after the ‘bubble economy’ crashed, which resulted in increased financial insecurity for Japanese families. How many of these parents are marginally employed and struggling financially, or are being bullied at work to increase productivity? There is an old cartoon of a boss kicking a man, who kicks his wife, who kicks her child, who kicks the dog.

  3. The picture of child abuse in the US presented here is rather at odds with that given by child abuse prevention sites in the US. For example

    American children are suffering from a hidden epidemic of child abuse and neglect. National child abuse estimates are well known for being under-reported. The latest 2015 Child Maltreatment Report from The Children’s Bureau was published in January 2017. The report shows an increase in child abuse referrals from 3.6 million to 4 million. The number of children involved subsequently increased to 7.2 million from 6.6 million. The report also indicates an increase in child deaths from abuse and neglect to 1,670 in 2015, up from 1,580 in 2014.1 Some reports estimate child abuse fatalities at 1,740 or even higher.3

    The United States has one of the worst records among industrialized nations – losing on average almost five (5) children every day to child abuse and neglect.1,2


    This does not, of course, excuse failures in Japan but it does show the authors of this article to be cherry picking US data.

    1. If you’re trying to make a Soviet era “whatboutism” point, you’re succeeding. Should we compare child abuse cases in Japan to those in Denmark? Because then Japan would be even worse.

      1. Im Danish and every country would be worse compared to Denmark. Slapping your child once is called abuse and it will get the authorities involved. Hundreds of children are being taken away from their homes each year because of minor things compared to what it takes in other countries. As soon as a child is not thriving then the authorities will take it away. And even though they just try to help it is also a fact that many children have a hard time adapting to the system’s idea of wellbeing since “system kids” don’t have any base where they can feel at ease or any adults they can feel safe with. They are either sent to institutions or temporary foster families and AT THE SAME TIME they are kinda forced to maintain contact to their real family as everyone hope that they will some day return so that everyone can live happily ever after with spontanous singing and dancing animals – which means that the child is in some kind of limbo and that is not
        beneficial for it at all. It turns into insecurity, trust issues, rebelious behavior and identical crisis. Unfortunately many crimes are made by “system kids” cus they grew up without any “frames” in which they were guided through life by being brought up. So yeah we do safe the childrens bodies but we also destroy their minds and hearts.

  4. The US child abuse numbers for 2016 – Millions
    So Japan may be idealistic regarding US parenting styles and life. These numbers will go down as you veer away from Western ways

  5. Thanks for this.
    I’d like to give a UK perspective.
    In the U.K. the Children’s Act 1989 came into being 30 years ago. It states “the welfare of the child is paramount. “
    Whatever is best for the child must come first, not the wishes of the parents.
    Children are still killed by parents, and our social services system is greatly under strain.
    People are still reluctant to report this suspicions. However, when abuse is identified, generally speaking, a child is protected. Mistakes have been made, but unquestionably, lives have been saved.

  6. Child abuse is rampant in Japan. Japan’s laws for protecting victims of abuse have been pathetically non-existant and downright archaic. I am Japanese and grew up in a typical Japanese household. By that I mean that I have been verbally and physically abused from my father for most of my life. I now live with PSTD and I am dependent upon strong psychiatric medication to get by everyday. After living away from home for several years, my mental state has slowly improved to the point where I am able to start thinking of reporting that a-hole to the police, especially after the aforementioned incident of Yua Futano. Just like some third world country with no real rule of law, abusive behavior in Japan has long been overlooked and it will only stop when these despicable offenders start rotting in jail. To those who have experienced similar incidents, REPORT REPORT REPORT.

    For victims seeking assistance for abuse in Japan, I recommend contacting Houterasu, a legal support center. Their website is https://www.houterasu.or.jp/en/ and they can be contacted at 0570-078377.

  7. Those of single mothers without decent pay- often thier only means to survival is to find a boyfriend or husband whom they can depend financially. Often children are abused by step-parents (or mom’s new boyfriend). Mothers are desperate for survival and unable to leave the relationship. of course this is not the only reason why it happens, but cases are too familiar on news often ended with the child’s death. Child Protective services and emergency removal of children (with Law-Enforcement assisatnce) are non existing in Japan. I belive it is not because “Japanese Tradition”, instead, we do not have politicians and law makers who can change the law quickly and bravely to address this issue. One case, a social worker visited a house suspected of child abuse almost 100 times, and nothing happened. A child died soon after (killed by her parents). At the social services side, I do not feel that there are supervisors who can make those difficult decisions. This issue is so complex than Japanese’ unique culture and values. Japanese law to intervene and investigate child abuse must change drastically. It is also so important to create a system to help single-prent households with children to lessen the financial burden to alleviate the stressors. I am a Japanese born inidividual moved to US and practicing as a LCSW in CA.

  8. I looked up child abuse in Japan due to the theme of neglect of unwanted children seen in some anime such as Fruits Basket and Kotaro Lives Alone. Living in the United States, I never expected to come across entire stories with such a pro-life message. Yet it finally struck me that Japan must have a history with child abuse and neglect such that such anime exists where your heart feels like it is being pulled apart limb by limb when you watch it.

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