JAPAN TAKES EMERGENCY MEASURES TO PREVENT WORSENING CHILD ABUSE
Last March 2, a five-year-old girl died in the emergency room of a hospital in Meguro Ward in Tokyo due to physical abuse by her parents.
When proclaimed dead, Yua Funato weighed 11.6 kilograms—some five kilograms (11 pounds) less than an average Japanese girl of her age. She had moved from Kagawa Prefecture to Tokyo last January with her step-father Yudai (33) and her birth mother Yuri (25), both of whom have been indicted for abuse and neglect. In the family apartment, police found notes from Yua, begging her parents to stop abusing her:
“Please, please, please forgive me. Please forgive me…”
In a cabinet meeting of relevant ministers on July 20 aimed at adopting emergency measures to cope with an alarming increase in child abuse and neglect in Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe described Yua’s death as “soul-crushing” and urged the ministers to resolutely commit themselves to working out effective countermeasures immediately.
The main feature of Abe’s proposal is an increase over the next four years in the number of child welfare officers to slightly more than 5,000 from the current 3,030.This in itself is welcome news, but falls far short of what really is called for.
On July 6, the “Genron” Internet television news show that I host every Friday night aired a special program entitled Japan Must Become a Nation Mature Enough to Save the Lives of Many Yuas. My main guests were novelist Ryusho Kadota and attorney Keiji Goto, who serves as the representative director of Think Kids, a non-profit organization dedicated to saving children from abuse and neglect. The key theme of our discussions was “the need for sharing information between all relevant governmental agencies.”
Information pertaining to child abuse and neglect currently is fundamentally
forwarded to child counseling centers and police in every locale across Japan. There is a strong need to ensure that the child counseling centers and the police share that information.
In the other advanced nations of the world, such a system has well been established based on the conviction that society and the state have the responsibility to protect the lives of all preschoolers. But in Japan, the traditional vertical administration system of the government has prevented especially the police and child welfare centers, which are managed under Welfare Ministry guidelines, from sharing child abuse information. Generally speaking, while the police rather readily supply information to the centers, the reverse seldom is the case.
Kadota sternly pointed out:
“In view of their origins, child counseling centers and the police are substantially different in terms of structure—their DNA, so to speak. Child welfare officers may get angry viewing this program, but to them a case like little Yua’s death is not uncommon. Meanwhile, the police are first and foremost committed to saving citizens’ lives. They have the DNA that urges them to save Yua’s and many other lives like Yua’s.
“Child counseling centers have DNA enabling them to work to help restore relationships between parents and children, or peace in families with trouble. So, it never crosses the minds of child welfare officers in the first place that they should supply the information they have available to police in order to protect children’s lives.”
Hearing this, I fear child welfare officers may likely be upset, as Kodota himself recognized. However, new and incriminating information concerning Yua’s death and the failure of the current system was brought forth shortly after the “Genron” program was aired.
In its July 16 edition, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the nation’s leading economic journal, reported that the Shinagawa child counseling center had a call from a doctor at the Kagawa child counseling center just after an orientation meeting for new pupils on February 20 at the public primary school which Yua was supposed to enter.
While in Kagawa, Yua had twice been taken into custody at the local child counseling center. The doctor had “recognized bruises and scars seemingly inflicted by means no other than abuse” and said he deemed it necessary to inform the Shinagawa center.
It is important to examine the circumstances surrounding Yua’s death chronologically. As mentioned earlier, Yua and her parents moved from Kagawa to Tokyo on January 23. Six days later, on January 29, the Kagawa child counseling center contacted the Shinagawa center to inform them of the family’s move. Eleven days later, on February 9, one of the Center’s child welfare officers was dispatched to Yua’s apartment to check on her, but her mother refused to let him see her.
Eleven days after that, on February 20, Yua’s mother attended the orientation at her primary school by herself. I asked Naoki Hayashi, appointed head of the Shinagawa center in April, to explain on the phone what had happened. Hayashi replied:
“From the information we obtained from our sources, I was aware that Yua was absent from the orientation for new pupils.”
As it turned out, the Kagawa doctor who was concerned about Yua called the Shinagawa center shortly afterwards. When asked why the staff of the center was not alarmed by the warning of the doctor who clearly knew Yua’s situation best, Hayashi said he could “not answer that question.”
Hayashi also said that the purpose of his center’s attempted visit with Yua on February 9 was to initially establish a good relationship with the Funatos, who had just moved to Tokyo. The center’s primary mission was not necessarily to check on Yua’s wellbeing. This jibes exactly with what Kadota referred to as the DNA of child welfare experts.
It may have been a bit harsh to ask Hayashi about events that happened prior to his appointment as the head of the center. But it is a fact, as reported in the Nihon Keizai article, that when the center received information on Yua directly from her physician in Kagawa, they “simply regarded it as information (pertaining to a closed case of child abuse) and, therefore, failed to respond with a specific action.”
Asked about the government’s plan to increase child welfare officers, Hayashi said he valued it highly, noting: “I welcome the decision because it will allow child welfare officers to better appreciate the domestic situations of abused children and determine what can be done to help them.”
A Huge Crisis
In point of fact, this was the point most vigorously discussed during the “Genron TV” show. Kadota made this strong statement:
“Of course, child welfare experts will say they welcome the increase wholeheartedly, as they will see it as a chance to enhance their expertise. The power of their organization will increase simultaneously. But the reality of child abuse in our society has so worsened that such measures can hardly be sufficient. I don’t think the lives of our preschoolers can be protected unless child counseling centers cooperate with the police as speedily as possible by sharing relevant information.”
Physically speaking, I am afraid the nation’s public child counseling centers, now numbering 209 with 3,030 child welfare officers, can be fully trusted with our children’s lives. According to Hayashi, he has 25 child welfare officers working under him. The Center covers three wards of Tokyo with a total of 1.4 million preschoolers—Shinagawa (390,000), Meguro (280,000), and Ota (730,000). How can only 25 officers watch over all of them? Goto had this to say:
“Including unreported cases, it is generally believed that children who die from parental abuse average one a day in Japan. In view of this harsh reality of our society, it’s simply meaningless to talk about improving the expertise of child welfare officers. Meanwhile, there are approximately 300,000 police officers across Japan, of whom 100,000 are assigned to “koban” police boxes. Even if these officers only ask parents how their children are doing on their rounds, things will begin to change.”
But some quarters criticize providing the police family-related information as an infringement of our human rights. What these pundits don’t realize is that only the minimum necessary information on families with little children should be provided. Already in prefectures such as Kochi and Aichi, the police and child counseling centers are working smoothly together by sharing relevant information. Saitama Prefecture will implement “information sharing” measures starting on August 1, just about a month from now. Saitama governor Kiyoshi Ueda had this to say:
“We have devised a software enabling us to have child counseling centers and the police share pertinent information while strictly protecting it. As a matter of fact, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has said that local governments may start taking steps as soon as they are ready. I believe that the government essentially wants to break the barrier of the vertically segmented administration system which has prevented a sharing of pertinent information between agencies.”
The ultimate objective of honoring human rights is to protect lives. Abe has already instructed his ministers to do everything possible to achieve the government’s goal. We must make every effort to penetrate the thick wall of the Ministry of Welfare to pave the way for an early sharing of child-abuse information between the ministry and the police.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 813 in the August 2, 2018 issue of The Weekly Shincho)