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Adopting a child from Japan: one U.S. couple’s story

by Ryan Masaaki Yokota

For most parents in the United States, their first encounter with their child occurs at birth in an American hospital setting. For Jonathon and Mari, however, that first precious moment with their lively baby boy came at a Tokyo hotel when he was 11 days old.

Mari, a Japanese citizen living in Chicago with her American husband, related with tears in her eyes how she felt when they first met their son.

“We had knots in our stomachs. We were so nervous and we wondered to ourselves, ‘What are we doing?’ The adoption agency staff said they were downstairs and coming up. And when the elevator door opened, we just cried and cried.”

Entering into their lives with an abruptness similar to that experienced by parents at childbirth, the new addition to their family is one of only a handful of children adopted from Japan into the U.S. each year.

According to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, only 21 children, all below the age of 6, were adopted into the country from Japan in 2012. By comparison, there were 2,697 adoptions from China and 627 adoptions from South Korea in the same year. In the period from 1999 to 2012, there were a total of only 483 adoptions to the U.S. from Japan.

In Japan, the practice of adopting adults has a long history, usually involving the adoption of a husband into a wife’s family line (muko yōshi) in order to continue the wife’s lineage in the event that no male heirs are available. Even today, adult adoptions continue as a corporate practice to keep the leadership of companies “in the family” or to sustain artistic lineages.

Adult adoptions comprise the overwhelming majority of adoptions in Japan, with those of children unrelated by blood remaining a relative rarity. According to court statistics, of the total of 83,505 adoptions approved in 2004, only 1,330 — 1.5 percent — were of children.

Mari and Jonathon adopted their child through a process called “special adoption,” which in form is similar to the American style of adoption, except for the fact that it is limited to children under 6 years of age. For those 6 and older, thorny legal issues can arise as birth mothers continue to have parental rights over the adopted child, regardless of why the child was placed in state care in the first place.

Other issues that complicate childhood adoption in Japan include the purity of family bloodlines, a concern that Mari and Jonathon encountered when they announced their decision to adopt.

As Mari explains, while her siblings accepted their decision, her parents at first were too upset to even offer them a response.

Eventually, Mari says, “My father said, ‘How can you know what kind of blood he came from?’ “

Mari’s father, being more traditional in outlook, raised other concerns too, saying, “You don’t know what class he’s from.”

Despite their initial reticence about having an adopted grandson, Mari’s parents eventually came to terms with the decision as they got to know the child in the initial days after Mari and Jonathon gained custody of him.

“They call him on Skype and they send gifts and want to talk to him,” Jonathon says. “So once we adopted him, somehow there was no problem at all.”

Mari and Jonathon’s decision to adopt did not come easily, but arose through a growing realization that they had postponed having a child until the point where natural conception had become less feasible due to age.

Jonathon had left his hometown roots in the Midwest to work in Japan. He met Mari 20 years ago at the English language school in the Kanto region where they both worked.

Though they had initially considered the possibility of adopting from the U.S. or even from another country, such as South Korea, two major concerns sealed their decision to adopt from Japan.

The first was the possibility that they might eventually return to Japan to live. Due to this concern, they were much more interested in adopting an Asian child, who they thought might blend more easily into Japanese society. Related to this was the issue of citizenship.

“Children can only get Japanese citizenship if they are born Japanese,” Jonathon explains. “So if we adopted from anywhere else — for example, from the U.S. — the child wouldn’t be able to get Japanese citizenship.”

The second concern relates to current thinking that favors teaching adopted children about their ethnic heritage.

“We wanted to make sure that whatever child we adopt, that the child learns the original culture and language,” Mari explains. “It would have been very difficult for us to teach Korean. So, it’s much easier if I can teach the Japanese language and culture. Jonathon speaks Japanese and knows about Japan too.”

The adoption process was a complicated one, involving three different agencies: a local agency that conducted the “home study” program that certifies prospective families for foster care according to Illinois Department of Children and Family Services standards; a U.S. adoption agency that served as the liaison with an agency in Japan and with the home study agency; and the Japanese agency itself.

Home study involved an arduous process of parenting classes, background checks, reviews of family circumstances and assessments of family finances, after which Mari and Jonathon were certified as eligible to become foster parents in Illinois.

The next stage involved getting pre-clearance from U.S. immigration authorities in the event that they received a referral for an adoptive child. On getting the green light, they registered with the U.S. adoption agency.

About a year after Mari and Jonathon received immigration clearance, their liaison agency contacted them and they were given only one week to travel to Tokyo and take custody of their child.

They stayed in Tokyo for four weeks, working with the Japanese adoption agency to clear the extensive paperwork needed to bring the child back to the U.S.

Upon returning to Chicago, and following six months as foster parents under the supervision of their home study agency, they finalized the adoption process in Illinois courts, and later amended Mari’s family record in Japan to reflect this.

All told, the process lasted over two years, taking an emotional toll on the couple and their families. It was also a financial drain for the pair, who had to pay for everything from government and agency fees to airfares and accommodation. The couple declined to disclose the total cost of the whole process, saying that they did not want to put a price on their child. They did say, however, that the whole experience was worth it.

“Every night I go to see his face before going to bed and every night I feel like this is amazing!” Mari says. “We are really fortunate to have him.”

Mari and Jonathon were able to hear a little bit about the birth mother’s circumstances, and they are pursuing a policy of open adoption, meaning that they hope that their child will eventually get to know his biological mother as well.

“We would like to meet her and have a good connection with her,” Mari says. “I feel like she is family too and I want him to have a relationship with her. But it sounds like she wants to hide it at this moment, though I’m sure it will probably change. So we keep asking our adoption agency.”

Despite having been given up by his birth mother for adoption, the couple hope that people will treat their boy like any other child.

“One thing is that though my parents totally changed their mind about the adoption, there was still a thing where the child was considered to be kawaisō (a ‘poor thing’),” Mari says. “My mother proudly told me that she wishes my son’s happiness the most of all of her grandchildren because he came from such a difficult environment. I told her not to think of him as somebody who should be pitied. It’s us who are the lucky ones.”

Jonathon adds: “We hear that here too. People say, ‘Oh it’s so great that you’re adopting. There are so many kids in the world that need a family.’ And it’s kind of like you’re doing it for charity or something. But it’s the other way around. It’s like you’re suddenly being given a gift.”

Names have been changed to protect the family’s privacy. Ryan Masaaki Yokota is a Ph.D. candidate in Japanese history at the University of Chicago. His current research focuses on postwar Okinawan nationalism, including issues of independence, autonomy and indigenousness. He is also a cofounder of the Nikkei Chicago website (www.nikkeichicago.com). Comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Jeffrey

    Pretty much the same story was told in “Yokohama Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as
    Outsiders in Japan”
    by Leslie Helm.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    Such a pity the Japan Times can not bring itself to criticize the monumental self-serving bureaucracy that keeps Japan’s child adoption rate a tiny fraction of that of Western countries while tens of thousands of children rot away in its prison like children’s homes, damaged for good.