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High profile case highlights the delicate issue of foster care in Japan

by Philip Brasor

On Aug. 20, police arrested voice actress Shizuka Suzuike at her home in Suginami Ward, Tokyo, on suspicion of causing injuries that led to the death of 3-year-old Miyuki Watanabe in August 2010. At the time of her death, Miyuki had been in Suzuike’s foster care for almost a year. The suspect denies abusing the girl, claiming she fell down a flight of stairs. After a long investigation the police decided that Miyuki’s extensive injuries could not be explained by a fall.

Stories about the tragic deaths of children engender two types of media response. The mainstream press offers up the bare facts, while the weeklies, tabloids and morning TV news shows go deep in order to exploit any residual melodrama. According to the tabloid narrative, mostly speculative, Suzuike was a successful working mother who wanted to contribute something to society, and so she became a foster parent. But she wasn’t prepared for the special challenges of a child who was raised in an institution, and eventually she snapped.

This story presumes the suspect’s guilt, and the weeklies and morning news shows filled out their coverage with incidental information that would support this view: Interviews with neighbors who found Suzuike’s explanation inadequate; excerpts from her blog in which she refers to Miyuki not by name but as satogo (foster child) and decides that the girl has a “dark side”; her busy professional life and sideline pursuit of a doctorate in economics. These elements form a picture of a woman who thought she could do everything.

Schadenfreude is an integral component of tabloid journalism, but even the most cynical reporters must have realized that Miyuki’s death demanded a broader exploration. The producers of Fuji TV’s morning show “Toku Da Ne” managed to tie its report to the larger issue of foster care in Japan, and with each layer of analysis, the matter became not only more complex, but also more resilient to the kind of reductive thinking that characterizes tabloid journalism. “Toku Da Ne” isn’t equipped to explain the matrix of social and clinical factors that formed the backdrop to Miyuki’s death, but its effort to do so was illuminating in its own way.

When such issues are covered in the mainstream press, blame is usually directed at institutions, in this case the child welfare system. A representative of a nonprofit group wrote a letter to the Tokyo Shimbun pointing out that the real problem revealed by the tragedy is that foster parents aren’t properly made to understand their role. Taking care of a foster child “is much more difficult than anyone can imagine,” but admitting as much appears to be the same as admitting it can’t be done. Foster parents are afraid to report their difficulties to the child welfare offices that facilitate foster family transactions, because that don’t want to be seen as failures. Social workers are required to visit foster homes regularly and monitor cases, but if the foster parent is reluctant to reveal problems, there is little the social worker can do.

Suzuike’s frustration was not communicated to her social worker but to her blog, where she fretted over Miyuki’s habit of putting on a “zombie face.” Such behavior is not unusual, according to an article in the Asahi Shimbun. A common trait of children brought up in institutions, even when they’re only two years old, is tameshi kōdō, the constant “checking” of adult responses. The idea is to test the assigned guardian to see how far he or she is willing to go to accept the child. This testing often manifests itself as extreme behavior — selfishness, tantrums, talking loudly. In worst cases, it leads to infantilism, such as defecating on the floor or wetting the bed. Experts always say that potential foster parents must be made aware of these likely developments before they take children into their homes.

Receiving qualification to be a foster parent is time-consuming but relatively easy, likely owing to the fact that the number of children in welfare facilities is increasing. Applicants must undergo classroom instruction and practical training, and then visit regularly with a foster child for up to three months before that child moves in. During this period, there are many opportunities to make the guardian understand what he or she is getting into, but according to one specialist interviewed in the weekly Aera, foster parents rarely absorb this intelligence because many have already raised their own children. Taking care of a foster child demands an entirely different mindset. Experts agree that foster parents should be considered professional care givers, not “parents.” It’s why they receive up to ¥130,000 a month from local governments, an aspect of the process that, in the popular imagination at least, renders foster care a mercenary endeavor. But money clarifies the relationship.

On “Toku Da Ne,” one commentator, the fashion critic Piko, conjectured that Suzuike may have been affected by news stories about “Hollywood celebrities” who adopt disadvantaged children. Adoption is the acceptance of a child completely into the guardian’s life. Foster care is stewardship, and while the relationship could turn into one that is loving and lifelong, the premise is that the arrangement is temporary. These two modes of responsibility require unique sets of emotional preparation, but in Japan, where adopting children in the Western sense is extremely rare and cloaked in morbid secrecy, the distinction is blurred. Legally and psychologically it is hard for many Japanese people to raise children not related to them by blood, because socially it is still considered strange. It’s why children who are alone, whether because their parents are dead or because they’ve been removed from their parents’ care, are the objects of pity and fear and always will be as long as the media, mainstream or tabloid, only covers their situation as it pertains to a tragedy.

Philip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com.