Despite the understaffing and overcrowding, the atmosphere at the Kibo no Ie (House of Hope) residential home for children lives up to its name: It is a place of optimism, a place of warmth.
Caregivers at this aging building in eastern Tokyo smile cheerfully as they usher a visitor inside. Meanwhile, laughing children scurry back and forth, revealing not a hint of the pain that has defined their entire lives.
Their laughter must not come easily. Nowadays, some 60 percent of the 40-odd children living here have experienced abuse, an increase of more than six times over the past decade, said the director, Kazuo Fukushima. The situation, he points out wearily, is much the same for the more than 30,000 other kids living in the 558 children’s homes nationwide.
“We’re struggling to give abused children the care they need,” he said.
To create the most nurturing environment possible for the kids, aged 3 to 18, Kibo no Ie has used charitable contributions to build off-site group homes designed for small groups of children. Caregivers, like the ideal “parents” they try to be, are present around the clock. The children call them “Big Brother” and “Big Sister.”
But Fukushima is the first to acknowledge there are some things Kibo no Ie cannot provide, however hard it tries.
“A child — particularly a small one — grows up better in a one-on-one relationship than in a group setting. That’s common sense,” said Fukushima.
“But in Japan,” he continued, “only about 9 percent of children requiring state care are entrusted to foster parents. This contrasts markedly with the treatment of needy children in America or Europe.”
In 2001 in the United States, for example, about 127,000 children were adopted.
Japanese wards of the system, however, are stranded.
One reason is that few couples volunteer as foster or adoptive parents, and singles are usually deemed ineligible.
According to government figures, fewer than 8,000 couples are registered as foster families, and of those, fewer than half actually prove capable of shouldering the demands.
“In Japan, hardly anybody — if anybody at all — steps up when a child is put up for adoption,” said Junichi Shoji, a leading expert on child abuse in Japan who works at the Japan Child and Family Research Institute, in Tokyo.
“And when they do,” he noted, “they want a child from zero to 1 year of age. Nobody wants a 5- or 6-year-old.”
The reluctance in Japan has a cultural basis, said Jun Saimura, head of social-work research who also works at the Japan Child and Family Research Institute.
“In Japan, blood ties are seen as highly important. Thus, people who want to claim as their own a child not connected by blood are presumably few and far between compared with other countries,” he said.
To be sure, child-guidance centers, the public agencies charged with overseeing the welfare of children, assess many children as developmentally unsuitable for foster care, said Azuma Sato, an official at the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s Equal Employment, Children and Families Bureau.
But most vexing for would-be foster parents is that even when a suitable match is found, biological parents can, and often do, suddenly grow jealous and move to get their children back — a prerogative strongly backed by law except in extreme cases.
Foreign observers of the Japanese child-welfare system are surprised that even known abusers can wield such power over the lives of their children, but scholars say such authority has a long history.
In his book “Children of the Japanese State,” Oxford University lecturer on Japanese social anthropology Roger Goodman notes the practice of “mabiki,” common in the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868), in which parents resorted to infanticide not only to cope with poverty but also sometimes simply to ensure a higher quality of life for children allowed to live.
In a separate phenomenon still occurring in the present age, despondent parents sometimes kill their children before taking their own lives, a murder-suicide custom known as “oyako-shinju” (parent-child double suicide). Rather than murder, the death of the child, who is not a willing suicide, is viewed even today by some as an act of mercy, because the victim is spared from having to live without the parent.
Of course, traditional values that grant parents such free reign over their children’s lives are quickly changing. But vestiges remain, experts said.
“There is still a deeply rooted sense in Japan that a child is the property of its parents,” said the research institute’s Saimura.
For the children at Kibo no Ie lucky enough to have parents who mend their ways and take them back, that may not be such a bad thing.
For the rest, an intimate and close-knit family remains something to hope for, but forever elusive.