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Cultural and legal hurdles block path to child adoptions in Japan

Successful attempts to adopt kids are rare as tens of thousands grow up in institutions

by Charles Lewis

In a famous Japanese folktale, a childless couple adopts a baby boy sent to them from heaven in a peach they find floating in a river. Years later, the young Momotaro embarks on a great adventure, befriending animals and vanquishing demons before returning home to live happily ever after with his adoptive mother and father.

If only things were as simple in the real world.

Tens of thousands of minors live in children’s homes in Japan, but cultural and legal issues keep most of these youngsters needing caring homes from being united with couples who want a child to love.

A Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare survey shows that 29,399 children were living in orphanages in 2012. But while more than 7,000 couples applied to adopt or become foster parents every year between 2006 and 2010, only 309 children were adopted in fiscal 2010, according to ministry figures.

The adoption of adults, usually for financial or business reasons, is relatively common, and has been since the Edo Period. But a number of factors, including a cumbersome process, lack of awareness and the need for the consent of a child’s legal guardian keep the number of child adoptions low.

“We met lots of couples hoping to adopt after we started the adoption process,” says Tom Frederic, an American living in Kanto who is adopting a 2-year-old with his Japanese wife, Kanoko. “The problem was there were not enough children because a child’s guardian — usually the mother — has to agree to the adoption.”

There are 589 children’s homes (jidōyōgoshisetsu) registered in Japan. The facilities are funded by prefectures or the central government and may be run by private or public institutions.

Over 83 percent of the children aged up to 18 living in these institutions actually have a legal guardian but have been given away by parents unable to care for them or removed from their homes by the state due to abuse or neglect. Health ministry figures from 2011 indicate that more than 45 percent of the children in these institutions have been neglected or abused.

Efforts are made to return as many children as possible to their homes.

“Everyone hopes as many children as possible can go back to their real parents,” says Tomohiro Matsumoto, a third-generation director of a children’s home in Kanagawa Prefecture. “But successful cases are the minority — it is often difficult when children go back, and there are many problems.

“Even though they are not permitted to live with their children, parents that remain legal guardians retain a great deal of control over their children’s lives, and this creates many difficulties for us. We have to get approval from guardians for many things — like going to the beach, for example, in case there is an accident, or deciding what high school a child will go to.”

Even when a guardian does agree to adoption, there is a cultural and legal obstacle to consider — the koseki, Japan’s family registry system, which serves as birth certificate, death certificate and marriage license, among other things, for Japanese households.

If a child under the age of 6 is adopted (up to 8 if the child began living with the adoptive parents before he turned 6), he/she would be listed on the koseki as a child of that family, and the date the adoption was finalized under 817-2 of the Civil Code would be added.

If the child is adopted at a later age, the names of the child’s real parents would be listed on the koseki and the child could possibly have legal obligations to them. People’s koseki can be accessed by bill collectors if the biological parents have delinquent loans and by lawyers if they are involved in court cases.

In addition, koseki are required for various procedures such as applying for a passport or getting married. During such procedures, certain parties would have access to an individual’s family record and be able to establish whether that person was adopted. Family members mentioned on the koseki have such access by law.

Childless couples often want to adopt babies, but few are available.

“Even if a pregnancy is unwanted, mothers often want to keep their babies,” Matsumoto says. “Things are fine at first, but when the child gets a little older, usually around 5 or 6, the mother may want to give him up if he becomes more difficult to care for or behavior problems or disabilities become evident. Or the child may be taken away if abuse or neglect is detected.”

Some private groups charge a fee to act as intermediaries between women who want to give up their babies for adoption and adoptive parents, but there is often a waiting list. These groups are required to register with the welfare ministry, but conditions vary.

Some couples are unwilling to adopt because of overly high expectations.

“Parents hoping to adopt often want a ‘good’ child,” Matsumoto explains. “But the reality is that these children have flaws like all human beings. Some of the children are scarred by what they’ve been through, and those with behavior problems or disabilities and can be hard to handle.”

Foster care — where a child goes to live with a family without being adopted — is more common than adoption, but numbers are still low. Only 3,611 children were living in foster homes in 2008, according to the welfare ministry.

Reasons few children are in foster care include, again, difficulties in obtaining the agreement of legal guardians, as well as worries about legal responsibilities on the part of potential foster parents and a general lack of awareness of the system among the public.

Adoption procedures vary by prefecture and even city, and the process can be bureaucratic and time-consuming. Tom and Kanoko have put a lot of time and effort into adopting but are glad they stuck with it.

“After applying at the Child Guidance Center to adopt, we had to pass background checks, they checked our work history, income level, our place of birth and we had to have the approval of our parents. Once we were cleared, we were required to attend classes together,” Tom says.

“Attending the classes was a challenge and it took us a while,” Kanoko adds. “We had to attend four lectures and then three hands-on classes where we took care of babies. The classes are only held twice a year and if you miss one you have to wait until the next time to take it again.”

Tom continues: “Next came volunteering at an orphanage for 80 hours — 10 days, 8 hours each day. Fathers were not required to attend, which I though was rather sexist, but I went anyway. We changed diapers, helped the kids eat and did whatever was required.”

After finishing the classes, Tom and Kanoko became certified and waited to be matched with a child.

“They asked for preferences, we said anything would do, but it still took about four months. Finally we got a call saying they had found us a match and we went in for a meeting where they showed us a picture of a baby boy. I wanted to shout ‘Of course!’ when they asked if we wanted him.”

“We were so excited,” says Kanoko. “I wanted to say yes as soon as they asked us if we wanted to adopt, but I thought I should wait, so we went home, and I called them the next day and said we wanted to adopt the boy.”

“Then we went to the orphanage where Kenji lived and met him,” Tom says. “We went a couple of times a week for four months, doing things like when we were volunteering.

“During this time our son came to our house first for a day visit, then an overnight visit and then a weekend visit; the Child Guidance Center also inspected the house. After that, he started living with us. They still come for visits once every month or two.”

The new addition to the Frederic family has brought them great joy.

“We are very happy,” Tom says. “Other couples who saw us with our son at the adoption office were so surprised we got a baby.”

“We’re almost done,” Kanoko says. “The only thing left now is to go to court and finalize the adoption.”

Tom says he was treated well as a foreigner during the adoption process.

“I didn’t have any sense of discrimination from officials because I was a foreigner. They didn’t seem to care at all and they treated me like anybody else. I think having permanent residency was a plus.”

Asked if she had any advice about adoption for international couples living in Japan, Kanoko says: “Go for it!”


Should adoptive parents pay or be paid?

An article titled “Who should be charged for the costs of special adoptions?” (Dare ga futan subeki ka? Tokubetsu yōshiengumi no kosuto) in the Globe section of the Asahi Shimbun on Aug. 13 asked college professors about the adoption situation in various countries. “Special adoption” is the term used to describe adoptions between parties that are not related by blood.

The newspaper reported that in Germany, both governmental and private organizations work to unite mothers who have agreed to give up their babies for adoption with couples hoping to adopt. Private organizations receive funding from the government and are regulated. Also, in the U.K., the government works with private adoption agencies, and while those wishing to adopt are not required to pay for adoptions, they are carefully screened.

In South Korea there is a strong emphasis on orphans being raised by families instead of in institutions. Adoption agencies are not permitted to receive payment from adoptive parents but the government pays them the equivalent of ¥240,000 for each adoption.

The United States has over 2,000 licensed private adoption agencies in addition to publicly run children’s homes, unlicensed and unregulated agencies and even individuals arranging adoptions. The price of an adoption ranges from ¥500,000 to over ¥4 million at private adoption agencies.

Changes are afoot in the adoption scene in Japan, where it is prohibited to profit from adoptions under the Child Welfare Law.

In response to concerns about private agencies asking for donations of up to ¥2 million to arrange adoptions, a new organization called Anshin Haha to Ko no Sanfujinka Renraku Kyogikai (The Liaison Council of Obstetricians and Gynecologists For the Safety of Mothers and Babies) was set up last month by Koji Samejima, director of the Samejima Bonding Clinic in Saitama Prefecture, who has 20 years of experience in arranging adoptions.

Twenty hospitals and clinics, including Samejima Bonding Clinic, where the head office will be located, have agreed to participate in the organization. The new liaison council will provide consultations for women with unintended pregnancies and, if they agree to give their babies up for adoption, will introduce them to a nearby hospital or clinic that belongs to the group.

Couples wishing to adopt a baby through the new organization are required to submit an application, undergo screening and receive training at a child counseling center.

After confirming that the birth mother is still willing to go ahead with the adoption, an adoptive mother selected by the council will stay for several days at the hospital where the baby is born, where she will hold the baby on a birthing table to simulate the experience of giving birth and learn child-rearing skills from a birthing assistant and nurse who helped deliver the baby.

Hospitals and clinics belonging to the council will only receive actual costs from the adoptive family such as hospitalization fees.

All names are pseudonyms. Send all your comments on these issues and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.
Anshin Haha to Ko no Sanfujinka Renraku Kyogikai homepage: anshin-hahatoko.jp. Those interested in adoption in general are urged to contact their local Child Guidance Center.