If you had asked a Japanese 20 years ago about child abuse, chances are you would have been told there was no such thing in Japan. It is hard to believe that even as recently as that, the favored way to “solve” a problem was to hide it. And child abuse was particularly well hidden, wrapped in the sanctity of “the family” and its time-honored prerogatives.
If we know better today, it is due in large part to a freelance journalist named Atsuko Shiina. It was around 1988, she tells Shukan Economist (Sept 21) in an interview, that she read a rare newspaper report of parental maltreatment that ended in the child’s death. Shocked into investigating further, she found… very little. There were no Internet search engines then. Bookstores had nothing on the subject. Scouring medical libraries, she had somewhat better luck. Doctors had begun observing and documenting the phenomenon in the 1970s. But medical reports do not reach the general public.
Child psychologists and surgeons had begun putting two and two together. Retarded physical and mental development in some cases, telltale bone fractures in others, aroused suspicions of something sinister going on beneath the surface. That for years these suspicions were scarcely acted upon is partly a matter of squeamishness, partly a matter of law.
Japan’s signing in 1994 of the U.N. Convention of the Rights of the Child helped the public understand, Shiina explains, that “children are not their parents’ private property.” Even so, passage of a Child Abuse Prevention Law took until 2000. The law empowers child welfare investigators to enter a home where abuse is suspected, and to oblige citizens to report possible abuse to local authorities.
A book Shiina wrote about her research in 1994 became the basis for a best-selling manga that generated “a mountain of letters.”
“I never even knew [before I read the manga] that what I went through was abuse,” wrote one victim, now grown. Shiina also heard from desperate parents. “At this rate, I’ll end up murdering the child,” said one mother in a frantic phone call. “I’m going to jump off a building and kill myself.”
Shiina found herself becoming an unofficial consultant, recommending counselors and child psychologists, visiting mothers hospitalized for stress, and so on.
In 2009, child consultation centers nationwide handled 44,210 cases of child abuse. The number rises in tandem with stress, economic failure and social isolation. This past summer, there occurred a particularly horrifying episode: a 23-year-old single mother allegedly abandoned her two toddlers, aged three and one, to starve to death in an Osaka apartment.
Shiina seeks understanding rather than vilification. As part of the title of her book puts it, “There’s nothing more difficult than being a parent.”
“If there had been someone the young woman could have turned to for help,” she tells Shukan Economist, “tragedy could have been averted.”© Japan Today