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Alyssa Pearl Fusek on how Japanese law and cultural attitudes leave foster kids in limbo. (Photo: YsPhoto / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Life in Limbo: How Japan is Failing its Institutionalized Children

Essay   Posted on December 06, 2018 in • By Alyssa Pearl Fusek • Read Related Articles

All over the world exist children who, for one reason or another, cannot live with their biological parents. This is where alternative child care comes in — foster care, adoption, and in the worst case scenario, child care institutions or group homes. The US, UK, and Australia, while not stellar examples of alternative child care, have conducted research into the harmful effects of institutional life on a child's development. The solution is obvious: make child care institutions a last resort, and divert resources to foster care and adoption.

It's a message Japan seems to have misinterpreted.

As mentioned in our previous article on adult adoption, 98% of adoptions in Japan involved adult men. That's a hard statistic to swallow when you think about that dismal 2% of adoptions involving children. That number has nothing to do with Japan's declining birth rate and everything to do with a lack of support for those navigating the treacherous waters of the country’s alternative child care system.

Consider this — as of 2013, 39,047 children in Japan were living in child care institutions (児童養護施設; jidō yōgo shisetsu) due to abuse, neglect, parents' financial strains, and other reasons. What's even worse, in recent years abuse and neglect has taken place inside these very child care institutions meant to care for children already facing abuse in the home.

Japan sees rise in child abuse cases at orphanages and foster homes | The Japan Times
The number of child abuse cases reported in orphanages and foster homes has increased in recent years, according to government data, with some of the victi

Taking a step back, we have to ask: why are there so many children living in child care institutions? Most importantly, why aren't they being fostered or adopted?

In 2015, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on parental rights in Japan's alternative child care systems, namely foster care, adoption, and institutionalization. Again and again, the voices of the parents — regardless of strong evidence of child abuse and neglect — overpowered those of the child's. It's sad to be revisiting this topic again and seeing little to no progress. Back then, as now, the societal opinions of foster children and other children in alternative care remain based on outdated ideologies and misconceptions. And, as in the past, the government has failed to step up.

The Development of Child Care Systems

After the Meiji Restoration, the new government made the institution of patriarchy official in the Civil Law. This meant that children essentially became property and weren’t allowed legal rights, much like slaves. Maltreatment and neglect abounded in those days. Parents used children to beg on the streets, participate in hard labor, and more. While a group of child advocates did rally enough support to pass the Child Maltreatment Prevention Act of 1933, it wouldn’t be until after World War II when widespread reforms were implemented.

The war left homeless children and children without parents or any living relatives to care for them. These war orphans roamed the streets, engaging in petty crime to survive. Their predicament necessitated the need for stronger laws guaranteeing their safety and welfare. This led to the Child Welfare Act of 1948 which, in a great upset to the old patriarchal mode, granted universal rights to all children. Now it wasn’t just the family that had to look out for their children, but society as a whole.

(JP) Link: Without Dreams: Children in Alternative Care in Japan

夢がもてない | 日本における社会的養護下の子どもたち

Life in a Child Care Institution

Child guidance centers (児童相談所; jidou soudanjou) are largely responsible for the placement and care of children needing alternative care. Yet despite the number of foster families registered and waiting for children, most centers end up sending children to a child care institution.

Living in a child care institution can do more harm than good for a child. There are few, if any opportunities for children to explore independence in such a strictly controlled environment. Kids often share rooms and have few opportunities to be alone. The staff's lucrative role as caregiver rather than parental figure leaves children floundering in learning social skills necessary for daily life. Staff turnover is high, and for infants who require a lot of attention, the inability to form strong attachments affects them and their relationships with people. Everything is done for the children, from cooking to cleaning to buying clothes. When they leave the institution at the age of 18, they often struggle to find work, and in the worst case, become homeless.

This 2014 Human Rights Watch video showcases the difficulties for children, foster parents, and child care staff alike in Japan’s current alternative child care systems. It's okay if you shed a tear or two. I did.

In their book Adoption in Japan: Comparing Policies for Children in Need, Peter Hayes and Toshie Habu point out that parents prefer "to have their child placed in an institution than they are for the child to be fostered or adopted....as it allows them [children] to maintain a link with birth parents" (Hayes and Habu 101). Basically, they're giving up the stresses of child-rearing without giving up their child or their legal rights over their child. The parents may see this as convenient, but it leaves the child in physical and emotional limbo.

A TV Drama Delivers the Wrong Message

Ashita, Mama ga Inai (Tomorrow Mama Won't Be Here)
A Japanese drama took heat from social critics and foster care staff for what some called a story line that will further stigmatize Japan's foster kids.

In recent years reports of child maltreatment have increased because "people are more aware of maltreatment and because maltreatment, once considered a private family matter, has been re-constructed as a societal problem" (Kadonaga 6). The public is aware to some extent of what goes on behind closed doors. How the public has utilized their awareness of this social problem, however, is a whole other issue.

In 2014, a drama called "Tomorrow, Mama Won’t Be Here" (明日、ママがいない; Ashita, Mama ga inai) began airing on Nippon TV. The drama focused on a group of girls living in a child care institution and their struggle to reckon with themselves, society, foster families, child guidance center staff, and forces beyond their control. The leader of this group is called Post (ポスト), a nickname she steadfastly demands to be called because she was abandoned in a “baby postbox” (赤ちゃんポスト; akachan posuto) — a box similar to a post office drop box used by hospitals as an anonymous way for mothers to leave unwanted infants.

The drama met with a lot of criticism and protest from a variety of people, from social justice reporters to child care institution staff. Many took great issue with Post's nickname, saying it enforced discrimination against orphaned children. People called to have the network ax the show. Feathers remained ruffled even after Nippon TV issued an apology and admitted their lack of thorough research into the alternative care systems. They promised to do better.

They didn't.

In a HuffPost Japan article, Sophia University professor Mizushima Hiroaki had this to say about the drama:

児童養護施設に入所している子どもも一般家庭の子ども同様にテレビは見る。児童養護施設に入所している子どもも学校に通っている。ドラマでは、児童養護施設の一つであるグループホームに入ったこどもたちが、施設長からペットショップの犬のように扱われ、「もらい手」を見つけるために、泣き方をうまくなれ、と指示され、うまく泣けないと朝ご飯を食べさせてもらえないシーンが出てくる. あるいは、養子や里親を探す夫婦のところに「お試し期間」として引き取られて様子を見るシーンも登場する。….日頃、施設から通学していることはあまり口にしたくない多感な子どもたちにとって酷なことではないか。あるいは「お前のところも、ペットショップみたいに、新しい親を探して、お試し期間とかやったりするのか?」とも言われるだろう。それがどれほど残酷なことか。

Children entering child care institutions also watch TV, just like children with families. Children entering child care institutions also go to school. In the drama, the children who entered the group home, which is a type of child care institution, are treated by the facility chief like dogs in a pet shop. He instructed them that their manner of crying needs to be better in order to find a "recipient" [a foster parent or family]. In this scene, if the children don't cry well, they don't get to eat breakfast. A scene also appears where a picture of the child is taken for couples looking for an adopted child or a foster parent, as a sort of "trial period.".... Isn't this harsh for sensitive children who don't want to talk about going to school from a [child care] institution? Will those children be asked, "Is your institution also like a pet shop? Are you looking for a new parent, or in a trial period?" How cruel is that?

(JP) Link: A Protest to Nittere’s "Tomorrow, Mama Won’t Be Here." A "Lack of Imagination" and "Harmfulness" in Regards to Institutionalized Children


I also watched this drama, and while some aspects of the drama's portrayal of alternative child care did correlate with reports I'd read during my thesis research, the overall message was too emotional to warrant further change. There was no call to action, something the network could've easily implemented in their ad campaign. Mizushima ends his piece with a heartfelt plea:


If this is a drama for the children’s sake, then I want you to broadcast in such a way that no children will be hurt.

Mizushima strikes a sensitive chord here, because it's true — Nippon TV had a chance to campaign and spread awareness for actual children living in group homes and institutions. Instead, they conducted half-assed research and exaggerated other aspects of the drama to compensate. The child actors played upon Japan’s thirst for kawaii, and missed an opportunity to promote awareness for the type of children they were portraying. If the media won't be forthcoming about serious social problems, how will people be able to judge for themselves what’s true and what isn’t about children growing up in institutions?

A Continuous Lack of Support

In 2017 the Japanese government pledged to increase the number of children in foster care in an attempt to end the country's reliance on child care institutions. However, child guidance centers and foster parents say this cannot happen without support networks for foster parents. Most of the organizations that do provide support are small and grassroots-led. Parental rights trump those of the child's, even when there is evidence to suggest the child is being abused or neglected by their parents.

Some people are also reluctant to adopt a child who isn't blood-related. Some Japanese are very dedicated towards maintaining blood relations and honoring ancestors. They put a lot of weight on the power of blood — even associating blood type with certain personality traits. If a couple is unsure of a child’s origins or heritage, they will probably pull the plug on adoption or fostering, leaving the child once again in limbo.

There's an old Japanese proverb that goes 子で子にならぬ時鳥 (こでこにならぬほととぎす; ko de ko ni naranu hototogisu). No matter how much love and care a foster parent invests in a foster child’s upbringing, that child never was or never will be that parent's biological child. It's a cultural mindset like this that hinders progress. Despite pledges to implement better reforms in alternative child care, Japan continues to fail foster children, foster parents, child care institution staff, and the children who have no other choice but to live in an institution.

It's an incredibly sad predicament, especially given Japan's status as a first-world country. Instead of hyper-focusing on the country's declining birth rate, perhaps the government should divert resources to the children already here and in desperate need of a healthy, stable family life.


Brasor, Philip. Trite TV drama about children’s home misses a chance to edify and entertain. The Japan Times, Mar 1, 2014. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/03/01/national/media-national/trite-tv-drama-about-childrens-home-misses-a-chance-to-edify-and-entertain/#.XAW_1-KNzIV. Accessed Dec 1, 2018.

Hayes, Peter, and Toshie Habu. Adoption in Japan: Comparing Policies for Children in Need. London; New York: Routledge, 2006. Print. Accessed Nov 27, 2018.

Kadonaga, Tomoko, and Mark W. Fraser. "Child maltreatment in Japan." Journal of Social Work 0.0 (2014): 1-21. Web. Accessed Nov 26, 2018.

Alyssa Pearl Fusek is a freelance Japan and mental health content writer living in Chico, California with her partner and one cat. She graduated in 2015 from Willamette University with a B.A. in Japanese Studies and continues to improve her Japanese language skills. She is also a published poet and fiction writer. You can check out her freelance writing work at The Japanese Pearl.