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NPO helps foster kids in Japan

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By Jessica Ocheltree

In most places around the world, the definition of family has broadened dramatically over the last few decades. With increasingly complex arrangements of in-laws, step-relatives, foster families and adoptive families, our understanding of the bonds that hold people together has become correspondingly deeper.

Yet here in Japan, where so much of modern life is still based on the patriarchal ie system, “family” is generally restricted to the traditional ties of blood and marriage. For those households that fall outside of the norm, life can be difficult indeed. Recently, a coalition of organizations has been seeking to reform current policies, in part by heeding the voices of those most affected: children in institutional care.

Over the course of a weekend recently, an array of such groups held a symposium in Meguro to discuss ways they can make a difference. The event was co-organized by the Anne Funds Project, a Tokyo-based NPO that promotes foster care and helps foster kids become more self-reliant, and the Orange Ribbon Campaign, a movement devoted to preventing child abuse. The two-day gathering featured a round table discussion that included social workers, children in foster care, and other adults who had come out of institutional care. While each speaker offered a distinct perspective, a few themes cropped up again and again.

One of these is a lack of choice for people under the care of the state. In Japan, the overwhelming majority of kids without families to look after them are placed in government-run facilities. In 2007, 35,925 such children were institutionalized, while only 3,633 were placed with foster families. Under Japanese law, people in state care have very little say in where they are placed. The wishes of the biological parents — even in cases where there has been abuse — tend to carry more weight than the child’s, and the final decision is often made by a judge who may not have any experience in family law or social work.

For foster families, meanwhile, the biggest issue is an absence of support. They often face resistance and a lack of understanding from schools, medical institutions, neighbors, friends — even their own families. Without well-established government programs or local support groups to help them, they end up feeling isolated and lost.

One thing everyone seemed to agree on was that institutional homes, even “family-style” ones, were not serving the interests of children or society. Corporal punishment is still allowed in Japan, large institutions with more than 50 kids remain common, and even those social workers who want to create a warm and affectionate environment feel constricted. As one of them put it, “How do you express emotion in an institution where a hug could be considered sexual harassment?”

Another issue addressed at the convention was the lack of after-care provisions in Japanese law. When institutionalized children legally become adults, they often end up completely on their own, without the money or means to support themselves. Anyone who has ever tried to rent an apartment without a proper "koseki" family registry and Japanese guarantor will know what kinds of difficulties this presents.

The highlight of the convention was the presentation by keynote speakers Emmanuel Sherwin and Stephen Ucembe, who are social workers with the International Foster Care Organization (IFCO). Both men themselves are veterans of child-care facilities in their home countries of Ireland and Kenya, respectively.

Sherwin spoke on the importance of empowering children to make changes in their own lives. Although he warned that meaningful change doesn’t happen in one day, he pointed to Irish laws enacted in part due to his advocacy efforts, including the formation of a union for children in care, and guaranteed access to university for all institutionalized kids. Ucembe focused on the importance of love and how a child’s treatment in care can create repeating patterns of neglect and abuse.

“When I was a child, I don’t remember ever getting a hug,” he says. “How do you love if you’ve never been loved? How do you bring up your own family if you’ve never been brought up in one?”

Those are questions that Japan’s government will have to wrestle with. But more importantly, they are questions that all of us in Japan should think about, because without accommodating foster parents, without understanding neighbors, and without a willingness to accept non-traditional families, even the best government initiatives are bound to fail.

To find out more about the Anne Funds Project, see http://members.jcom.home.ne.jp/ankikin/new/english1.html (English & Japanese). For more about the Orange Ribbon Campaign, see www.orangeribbon.jp (Japanese). Details about the IFCO are available at www.ifco.info

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

10 Comments
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I really hope that some changes can be made in Japan regarding their foster care system. It makes me sad when I read stories like this.

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How do you bring up your own family if you’ve never been brought up in one?

That's life. I hope things do change here too. But I wouldn't hold my breath.

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“When I was a child, I don’t remember ever getting a hug,” he says.

That makes me sad. I'll give you a hug!

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Corporal punishment is still allowed in Japan, large institutions with more than 50 kids remain common, and even those social workers who want to create a warm and affectionate environment feel constricted. As one of them put it, “How do you express emotion in an institution where a hug could be considered sexual harassment?”

This is so very depressing to read. What sort of country would continue to put a huge majority of such kids in institutions - instead of finding loving surrogate families for them? The Foster family system is far from perfect, but speaking from an Australian viewpoint with family experience, is at least attempting to give kids as normal an upbringing as possible.

The wishes of the biological parents — even in cases where there has been abuse — tend to carry more weight than the child’s

Japanese legislators desperately need to look at nations with experience in these matters ie Australia/Ireland/Canada/The States and move forward into the 1960's. It is high time Japan started placing a little importance on children.

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Keep on doing a good work, as children need parents. Not only the love of a mother. But also the love of a father too.

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a little snippet from reality.Last week at my school, high school girl goes missing with no money.Has a boyfriend that beat her up when she tried to break up with him yet she goes back to him.Never met her father and the mother has been bashing her since primary school.The mother has even said 'aitsu korosuwa'..'I'll kill that bitch' to the kid's homeroom teacher. Cue to the staffroom where the teachers are more concerned that the girl may have run off with the boy...they know she is beaten by her mum and has no other family.The girl herself asked to be institutionalised in her primary school years but the mother prevented it.

go figure! This is the reality of many kids in Japan.

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It seems that very few Japanese couples want to adopt children.Probably the most cold and heartless country in the world in this regard. This is why the children remain in foster care. Amway has an amazing program supporting parentless children

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michaelqtodd at 10:00 AM JST - 31st January

It seems that very few Japanese couples want to adopt children.Probably the most cold and heartless country in the world in this regard.

That's right. Truth hurts!

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Heartbreaking. I can't believe that there are so few kids placed with foster parents and so many that are 'institutionalized'--What a horrible word!

I read that in 2006 the government was going to offer an allowance of about 300US dollars per month per foster family. Should be at least twice that amount. And they also said they wanted to increase the number of foster homes by 15% but obviously there are still way too many kids in these child-care institutions. And what about all the kids that are abused? Where do they end up? I shudder to think of what these institutions are like. Kids need a home with loving parents!

The more I think about the lack of care & protection of children in Japan and the crazy vicious circle that this country is getting into, the more frustrated I become. They are worried about the population decreasing yet there are over 300,000 abortions annually. Teenagers don't know about how to prevent pregnancies. And child abuse seems to go on with no consequences to the abusive parent. It's acceptable to discipline kids with physical punishment. It costs something like 5 million yen just to get your kids through to the end of high school...OK. I'll end my rant here. Final point is that Japan really has to start caring for CHILDREN!!

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It seems that very few Japanese couples want to adopt children.

Not so much not wanting to adopt, but the bureaucracy makes it so difficult. Many birth parents are not willing to cut all ties to kids they have put into institutions. If you become a foster parent (fairly easy) instead of adopting (very difficult), you never know when the child will be taken away and sent back to the birth parent(s).

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