Recently, I've talked a lot about the case of Kurihara Mia (栗原心愛), a 10-year-old girl who was found dead in the bathtub of her apartment by police. It became quickly apparent that Mia's death was a case of child abuse, and authorities moved quickly to arrest her father. (Her mother was later arrested as an accomplice.)
Is Japan Too Deferential to Parents? Advocates Speak Out After 10-Year-Old's Death
As the story came to light, it became clear that the measures meant to protect children fell apart in Mia's case. Mia had been taken into protective custody at one point, but her father, Yuichiro (雄一郎), blustered and threatened his way into obtaining copies of survey answers that Mia had written in which she told her teacher that she was being abused. Yuichiro was allowed to be in the room with Mia when child protective authorities questioned her about whether she wanted to go home. Mia eventually wrote a letter - written under obvious duress - saying she wished to be sent home.
After his arrest, Mia's father claimed he never "abused" his daughter; he'd simply "disciplined" her. The same excuse was used by the parents of Funato Yua (船戸優愛), who starved their daughter to death when she wouldn't "behave." These cases exposed several flaws in Japan's child protection system - namely, an exceeding deference to the wishes of parents, coupled with a tolerance for physical abuse disguised as corporal punishment.
The Abe government vowed several weeks ago that it would take action to prevent such tragedies from happening in the future. After weeks of debate, Abe's cabinet has put forward a radical solution: a complete ban on corporal punishment (体罰). The proposed law, if it passes the Diet, would take effect in April of next year. While corporal punishment would be illegal, there would be no explicit legal penalty for violating the ban, which is mainly intended to decrease the use of "discipline" as a cover for abuse. The bill also includes measures to strengthen the powers granted to child protective agencies to take kids into protective temporary custody, mainly by splitting the "intervention" and "support" functions of child care centers into two separate units. Many child agency workers have complained that the need to serve both functions, and to keep their parents on "their side," is a major reason why centers are hesitant to take and keep kids in protective custody, even when the situation clearly warrants it.
(JP) Link: Move to Strengthen Laws Preventing Parental Corporal Punishment; Cabinet Decision on Strengthening Abuse Prevention
However, it's easy to make laws; it's harder to change people's minds. If taken literally to bar all forms of corporal punishment, the law would be stricter than laws in the United States, where no state directly outlaws corporal punishment by parents. (It is only banned in schools in 31 states; another 19 states technically allow corporal punishment by teachers.) Some 70% of Americans still support what one survey explicitly phrased as "a good, hard spanking."
If TV surveys are a decent indicator (eh), a ban on corporal punishment would face the same uphill battle in Japan. Twitter user @oyatsuraiyo captured this graphic of a survey from Save the Children Japan that showed some 70% had "disciplined" their children - and a full 60% thought that corporal punishment is permissible.
体罰を容認する奴が半数以上いるんだから生きるの苦しいよな pic.twitter.com/NkMpNjJlLj— のー (@oyatsuraiyo) 2019年3月19日
Another user, @suzu0408, in a comment shared nearly 500 times, argued that the problem isn't the lack of a clear law, but Japanese society's attitudes towards kids as such:
Big given: corporal punishment is bad. But banning it by law? Before that, shouldn't we support parents who raise their hands against their kids, and stop giving cold stares at crying kids? Parents are doing their damnedest, keeping kids from making trouble for others. What a wasted society.
In a more humorous take on the issue, user @nemousu44 included a pic from Crayon Shin-chan with this caption:
親の体罰禁止が法制化されたので、みさえはアウト pic.twitter.com/1KBs76k2gQ— ４４君 (@nemousu44) 2019年3月19日
With prohibitions against corporal punishment by parents strengthened, Misae [Shin-chan's mother] is right out.
One major problem with the debate around this proposed law is that it's not exactly clear what will constitute "corporal punishment." Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare will be charged with creating those guidelines. An editorial in the Asahi Shinbun issued a call for crispness and clarity:
There's no legal penalty in the corporate punishment ban. But if society develops a common understanding that it won't permit violence to be rationalized in the name of "discipline," it'll be easier for child centers to involve themselves with families. The situation calls for easy to understand guidelines and raising of public awareness.
(JP) Link: (Opinion) Preventing Child Abuse: Toward Instituting a System Protects Life
Whether the law survives in its current form, or gets strengthened or weakened during Diet debate, remains to be seen. And as usual, the devil will be in the details: if the Ministry of Health gives parents too much deference and leeway in what constitutes "discipline" vs. "punishment," the law will be effectively useless.
Sadly, no matter what happens with this bill, I expect Japan will continue to wrestle with this issue for years to come, just as every other country in the world does.
I'm the publisher of Unseen Japan. I hold an N1 Certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and am married to a wonderful woman from Tokyo.
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