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Challenges can’t compare to the rewards of cross-cultural adoption in Japan

by Melodie Cook

Five years ago, my Japanese husband and I adopted a 3-year-old boy who had been placed in an orphanage when he was a month old. His birth mother, too young to care for him, had likely decided that giving him up was his only chance for a better life. After we first took him home, he would barely acknowledge our existence, and only in the last few months has he started to hold my hand of his own volition.

I’m lucky. One adoptive mom I spoke to told me that her 25-year-old son will only now let her pat him on the shoulder.

Although adoption is common in my country of origin, Canada, before we went through the process ourselves in Japan, I didn’t even know it was possible here and had never considered it to be an option. Many adoptive parents I’ve spoken with said the same. It seems like a very well-kept secret.

Children adopted in Japan face the same challenges as adopted kids anywhere, largely due to the trauma of having been separated from their birth parents. During pregnancy, the birth mother may have been through traumatic experiences — she may even have abused drugs or lived on the streets. Thus, it is common for adopted children to suffer from emotional, intellectual or physical disorders. They may also, like my son, need more time to form emotional bonds with all members of their adoptive families.

In addition, as with children of mixed-race parentage, children adopted in Japan may face issues of identity. If the child is Japanese and both parents are foreign, for example, the child may be treated a little bit coldly by compatriots.

While procedural challenges for foreign parents adopting children in Japan have been highlighted in a previous article (“Cultural and legal hurdles block path to child adoptions in Japan” by Charles Lewis, Sept. 30, 2013), the 13 families I communicated with for this article — in which one or both parents were foreign — revealed a number of cultural challenges and shared their strategies for dealing with them.

Challenges

The first challenge that foreign parents in Japan will face is persistent and pervasive misunderstandings about the nature of adoption.

Foreign adoptive parents are likely to have to explain what adoption is to some of the Japanese people they encounter. Sidney, an American father of six adopted and foster children and five biological children (I call him a “professional parent”), says that one of his adopted daughters was frustrated at school because her peers had trouble understanding the meaning of adoption, having never heard of it. They were completely mystified at her having foreign parents.

Canadian Victoria, who adopted her son two years ago, found that people had trouble accepting that her biological and adopted sons were “real” brothers. Ruth, an American who adopted her son four years ago, was repeatedly asked, “Why did you need to adopt if you already had children?”

Ruth’s Japanese mother-in-law still hasn’t accepted her adopted grandson as a family member because he’s “not blood,” and her sister-in-law has flatly stated that Japanese people simply don’t adopt other people’s children. Sophelia, an Australian, overheard one older woman at her son’s preschool say something about the blood of adopted children being “bad.”

In mixed-race couples, Japanese people may also assume the idea to adopt came from the foreign parent. Ruth gets slightly annoyed when people praise her husband as erai (great) for having gone along with the idea of adopting.

“What they don’t realize is that it’s a two-person decision,” she says. “It’s not his thing or my thing.”

All of these misunderstandings may stem from the fact that “adoption is still a taboo topic in Japan,” says Maud, an American mom who adopted her son seven years ago.

Although some mixed-race children (or haafu, half, as they’re commonly referred to in Japan) may look more like one parent than another, challenges can be compounded when foreign parents look completely different from their children. When my son was younger and we were shopping in a local grocery store, a stranger approached us and, after looking back and forth from his face to mine several times, said, “You can’t be his mother.”

Briton Marie-Claire, who adopted her daughter 10 years ago, had a similar experience: A stranger accosted her in a park and asked if she had really given birth to her child. Flabbergasted and not wanting her daughter to see her anger and discomfort, she laughed it off.

Foreign parents — adoptive or otherwise — may also have to deal with people making assumptions about the child’s identity.

Pat and her husband, both Americans, adopted their daughter in Japan 26 years ago. They expected to return to the States, so they gave her an English name. However, Pat’s family stayed here, and her daughter was often treated as a foreigner by others, which she resented. At her public junior high school, the teacher even asked how she was going to be able to eat a Japanese lunch.

Fellow American Jane’s three children were adopted in Japan 27, 25 and 21 years ago. In stark contrast to Pat’s daughter’s frustrations, Jane’s daughter feels that because she looks Japanese, people don’t appreciate the cross-cultural background she grew up with. She sometimes wishes she were haafu so that people could see it.

Large administrative challenges face parents who adopt stateless children. Sidney, whose first son was mukokuseki (stateless) until his family won a hard-fought battle for citizenship, explains: “If a child is abandoned at a supermarket or department store and a clerk finds them, they will automatically give that child Japanese citizenship. But if the police are suspicious that the mother was a foreigner, then they can withhold citizenship.” In such a case, it’s up to the adoptive parents to apply for citizenship and handle all the questions to satisfy the police.

Foreign parents, like any parents with adopted children, also often have to learn to deal with mental health issues. Jane, who has one daughter suffering from schizophrenia and a son with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), says that in both these cases, their problems were likely caused in some way by factors during the birth mothers’ pregnancies. The challenge for foreign parents is finding appropriate care.

Caroline, an American, adopted her Japanese daughter 12 years ago, when she was living in a rural area. When her daughter began exhibiting behavioral issues, she took her to a large hospital in the prefecture. However, she found the doctors there didn’t really know much about attachment disorders and adoption in general. Instead, “they were looking at what we did to her” rather than asking themselves, “This is a kid from a hard place, what are her needs?”

Caroline said she found Japan to be unprepared as a society for attachment and trauma treatment for children and, likely due to a lack of information, no one told her and her husband how critical early intervention was. In the end, Caroline and her family have temporarily relocated to the United States in pursuit of better treatment, which she feels her daughter is now receiving.

Sophelia and her husband, Australians who are in the process of finalizing the adoption of their 8-year-old son, also see a cultural difference in how children are assessed (or not) in Japan.

“In Australia, he’d have play therapy,” she says. “He’d have been diagnosed as dyslexic and be given support for it at school. We’ve spoken to six different professionals, none of whom had heard of dyslexia. They tried to organize counseling, because we can’t speak Japanese fluently. Every time it was a psychological assessment. They didn’t know what they were looking for.”

To overcome this challenge, Sophelia has been supplementing her son’s schoolwork with worksheets. She has also talked to his teachers so they know about his background.

Strategies

The adoptive parents I spoke to offered many recommendations to help smooth the process of adoption and make the raising of adopted children in Japan easier. First, Victoria recommends that prospective adoptive parents in Japan be patient, because things don’t happen quickly and there may not be as much transparency from the authorities as you have come to expect in Western countries. Sidney seconds this, and also recommends that adoptive parents cooperate with local administrative bodies, keeping in mind that officials may be learning about processes at the same time as parents are.

Many parents urge new adoptive mothers and fathers to be open and discuss all issues with their adopted children. Pat cautions, however, “Be very aware of self-identity issues that are bound to arise, no matter how often and openly you talk to your child about his or her life story.”

Being open also includes speaking candidly about adoption with Japanese people. One adoptive parent recommended using adoption as a way to build cultural bridges and share ideas about love and bonding between parents and children. This parent says the idea that “you could choose to love a child that you didn’t give birth to” turned out to be a real eye-opener for some Japanese people.

Depending on the situation, teachers and neighbors might also need to be told that children are adopted. Because her daughter had trouble at school when she was younger, Pat wishes that she’d been more proactive about talking to teachers before the school year started. Briton David, prior to adopting his now 6-year-old daughter, made a card with his daughter’s picture on it and distributed it to their neighbors. After she arrived, he and his wife took her around to meet them, too.

Jane recommends keeping family traditions: “Like old-country immigrants, we do a big Christmas.” Maud and I, both Jewish, celebrate festivals such as Hanukkah with our families.

Many parents said that a sense of humor and an ability to let things go are indispensable. David, who has also been asked “Is that your child?” on many occasions, says that non-Japanese have to let small annoyances slide or they could end up tarnishing their experience of living in Japan. I find it fun to respond with shocked disbelief when people tell me that my son looks nothing like me: “Are you serious? I think he looks exactly like me!” Jane takes pride in her family being unique in Japan, she says: “We’re unusual; we don’t fit the mold, so we might as well all not fit in together!”

This philosophy has probably stood Jane in good stead. Not having the many resources available to her now when she started her family 27 years ago, she feels that mistakes were made. For example, due to pressures at work, she felt she couldn’t quit her job to stay home and care for her daughter right after her placement. Years later, her daughter was badly bullied in junior high school, and Jane regrets not having pulled her out. In addition, information on ADHD was not readily available in Japan 25 years ago, and Jane says she is “full of regrets for all the things we didn’t know and should have done.” However, she tries to take it all in stride as part of the parenting process, saying, “You have your down days and your up days when you can handle it and you can’t handle it.”

Many adoptive parents mentioned the importance of finding a community of similar families. One of the first things I did after adopting was start an online network called Adoption in Japan on Yahoo Groups. I advertised it in the Married in Japan group as well as with the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese, and began meeting and making friends with a number of families like mine.

Sidney explains that his children have a wide range of friends from different circles, so they’re not “depending on their school friends completely.” One of his adopted daughters is now attending a school with a large number of mixed-race students.

Almost everyone I spoke to said that before adopting they read widely on the subject, and that since adopting, they continue to stay informed as they cope with adoption-related problems and anticipate future challenges. Because Japan seems to have some catching up to do in this area, and as most literature is written in English, English-speaking foreign parents may have an advantage in that they can get information on cutting-edge research on adoption relatively quickly and easily.

Rewards of adoption

Sidney, who adopted his first child 20 years ago, believes the future looks bright for Japan. While in the past, members of the foreign community were the most active in finding and giving homes to needy children in Japan, more and more Japanese are now lobbying for good laws at the grass-roots level.

Marie-Claire says that in spite of the many obstacles she has faced while raising her Japanese adopted daughter, it’s one of the most rewarding things she has ever done. This is echoed by Pat, who says that she and her husband “can’t imagine how much poorer our lives would be without our two daughters.” Adds Victoria: “It’s the best gift we have ever received. Our son is an angel.”

Jane recently celebrated the marriage of her daughter, and Sidney’s oldest biological daughter will be getting married soon, so all his adopted and foster children will be attending the wedding.

“We’re gonna have six Japanese kids and then my wife and I, so I said, ‘Tell your friends we’re adopted!’ Our family picture’s gonna be interesting!”

Parents asked that their surnames not be published to protect their families’ privacy. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Mark Makino

    Interesting article. Adoption may, like the husband taking the wife’s family name upon marriage, be one of those phenomenon that everyone insists is much rarer than it actually is. The reasons for this insistence on the incompatibility of adoption with Japanese culture may be due to plain unfamiliarity or a learned antipathy. The quotes from people interviewed seem to indicate that both perspectives exist in Japan.

    • Jameika

      You’re probably right. Perceptions are more important than reality. If everyone *thinks* that it is rare, then it will be treated as such. Most people believe what they believe so strongly, that even being confronted with contradictory information will not change their opinions.

      The fact that different viewpoints exist, as you say, though, means that there are differences. The solution is for people to start talking about them.

  • Scott Durand

    A really inspiring article. The stories of the various adoptive children and their families prove that Japan can do change, but it will be person by person, experience by experience.

  • Melodie Cook

    Thanks for your kind and supportive comments! Yes, Keke, private and public adoptions both have their own hurdles. Maybe I’ll write about that in the future!

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    Clearly a very inspiring article by the excellent work done by these parents. However, it really is a damning indictment of Japan and Japanese culture. Yet another example of Japan’s seeming inability to adapt to the 21st (or even the 20th!) century!

  • Chels

    Thank you for the wonderful article! If anyone is interested in Japan and adoption, I highly recommend the book Yokohama Yankee. In addition to delving into his family’s long (and at times chaotic) history in Yokohama and beyond, the author discusses his and his wife’s experiences adopting two young children in Japan. It’s a moving book, and would be the perfect read for those who are curious about cross-cultural adoption.