Beware Japan’s old problems posing in new packaging


Much of what the mainstream media in Japan (and elsewhere) seems to do is reformat press releases. But when these are government announcements describing “new” problems and proposing solutions, they should be taken with a grain of salt.

Example: In October, a Kyodo wire service story appeared on the front page of this paper bearing a shocking headline: “Poverty, isolation push Japan’s child abuse cases to record high.”

The article cites an official survey, and government sources do paint a similar picture: The header topping a 2011 Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare Web page plainly states, “Child abuse is increasing.” Both web page and article have graphs showing a frighteningly steep surge in incidents — from a mere thousand in 1990 to 55,000 in 2010, and almost 89,000 in 2014!

This is quite a feat given the increase is occurring when Japan is famously experiencing a declining child population. Reading more closely, you discover that what is actually increasing is the number of incidents of somebody consulting with child welfare authorities about incidents of possible abuse. The ministry has also been conducting PR campaigns encouraging people to anonymously report anything that might be a sign of possible abuse or neglect. Earlier this year my daughter had to wait outside our apartment for 20 minutes because her school sent her home early without telling us, and the door was locked. If a neighbor had seen her sitting outside and reported it — even if the authorities had decided it was nothing to worry about — it would probably have been recorded as an “incident” and thus be reflected in the “increasing” child abuse narrative.

Moreover, as the Kyodo article acknowledges, the supposed increase is attributable in part to a broadening of the definition of child abuse. If you start at a base of almost zero incidents (because you have not previously kept systematic records), broadly advertise a reporting/consultation system and then expand the scope of what constitutes abuse, then a sharp “increase” is virtually assured.

The truly cynical might attribute this to an effort to maintain child-related budgets when there are fewer and fewer children. I won’t: Child abuse actually does occur and is a serious problem that should receive ample attention and public resources. However, whether it is actually increasing seems highly debatable. In footnotes, the ministry’s home page notes that “50-60 children die as the result of child abuse every year,” which is reflected in other statistics. Such deaths are unforgivable tragedies, but their frequency is constant, despite a supposed overall increase in abuse.

The problem with the official narrative about problems like child abuse is that they seem to require distorted explanations. The “sudden increase” characterization requires that child abuse be a recent phenomenon with “new” causes. Official sources attribute the “surge” in abuse to things such as increased poverty and social isolation, the breakdown of extended families — even the safely vague “decline in community child-rearing capabilities.” Yet none of these sound like particularly recent phenomena for Japanese society. While the welfare ministry at least concedes that increased awareness and its own PR campaign are factors in the increased reporting, it persists in conflating that with actual child abuse.

Taking the “child abuse is increasing” narrative at face value requires that you accept the initial plots on the dramatic graphs, which indicate the problem was almost nonexistent before 1990. It also necessitates forgetting a lot of things: that Japan had its first child abuse prevention statute in 1933; that corporal punishment — arguably a form of child abuse — was once widely practiced in Japanese schools; and that there are still people today who think that corporate punishment has educational value. (The latter crowd may include the new education minister, though shortly after being appointed, Hirose Hase seems to have suddenly been overcome by remorse about the abusive things he did to pupils when he was a schoolteacher.) You would also have to ignore the provisions in Japan’s Civil Code that specifically allow parents to “discipline” their children — and the fact that “the law should not interfere in the family” was once a basic principle underlying the legal system in general.

Put simply, it seems pretty implausible that child abuse — particularly as it is currently defined — happened less in the past. More likely the government simply didn’t consider it to be much of a problem.

Child abuse is a domestic problem. Given that the rest of the world provides a convenient source of supposedly “new” problems, the foreign media should be particularly skeptical of official narratives about “new” and “increasing” social ills in Japan.

Take money laundering. Japan didn’t have a comprehensive statute specifically targeting money laundering until 2007. (Earlier laws addressed the problem in the narrow context of drug trafficking and organized crime.) According to the Japan Financial Intelligence Center (JFIC) — the police agency overseeing the nation’s anti-laundering efforts — the problem is one of Internationalization, of Organized Crime! And the Drug Trade! And Terrorism! As an official perspective it may be legitimate, if the resulting policies largely involve dutifully falling in line with America’s Wars on Drugs, Terror and Cash. (Oh, you hadn’t heard about that last one?) Of course, JFIC’s latest annual report contains a graph showing a dramatic increase in “suspicious transaction reports” — the money-laundering equivalent of a “consultation about possible child abuse.” At least the JFIC doesn’t simplistically equate increased reporting with increased money laundering.

For money laundering to actually be a new, globalization-related problem, you need to accept that Japan’s infamous yakuza never had problems disposing of mountains of ill-gotten cash, and that dirty money did not cause any social problems until the Rest of The World intruded. Perhaps that was the case; using large wads of cash for payment was once the norm and credit card transactions the exception, and not too long ago you could open a postal savings account in the name of your pet and your bonus could be invested in safely anonymous bearer bonds (that paid interest — remember that?). Still, it seems implausible.

And there is this aspect: If you were going to think of a strictly domestic Japanese business with a long history of having tremendous potential for turning masses of anonymous bank notes of criminal provenance into legitimate business profits and/or cash winnings, you might think of pachinko parlors. But you would be wrong! The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the international organization overseeing the international anti-laundering effort, requires casinos in member countries to be subject to anti-laundering regulations, but according to FATF’s most recent country report, Japan has no casinos and exchanging balls or tokens won at pachinko for money or prizes “is prohibited by law.” Good one, FATF!

Coincidentally, along with overseeing anti-laundering regulations, the police also regulate pachinko parlors and the unrelated (don’t laugh!) businesses conveniently located nearby that pay cash for “used” prizes (See? It’s not an exchange), so maybe it’s all OK. Or maybe the new/foreign-origin characterization allows part of the status quo to reign in a way that is convenient to relevant stakeholders.

Perhaps it is just easier for government institutions to frame things like child abuse or money laundering as “new” problems, rather than ones they have been neglecting for decades or possibly even facilitating, whether due to limited resources or prevailing social attitudes about the underlying causes. (Inexplicably, the now-broad definition of child abuse still doesn’t cover forcing young schoolchildren to form human pyramids for the amusement of parents and teachers.) Perhaps it is also more satisfying for the old people who ignored such problems in the past to attribute them to all the terrible failings of “young people today.” Such a characterization is also probably convenient for conservative responses framed in terms of “fixing” a society led astray from its traditional values.

Another example: Before taking effect last year, the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction was also described by an obedient press as addressing a new problem: more failed international marriages resulting in Japanese women unilaterally bringing children “home” from abroad. In reality, the treaty has nothing to do with nationality or marriage, and foreign pressure on Japan to join reflected a serious domestic problem: the inability (or unwillingness) of courts here to do anything when one parent skipped out with the kids. The fact that the first instances of children being returned to and from Japan under the Hague both involved all-Japanese families was barely mentioned; perhaps the “new problem of foreign origin” rationale had served its purpose.

Governmental framing of issues does not just distort the way they are socialized, but may also affect the policy response. Take the stricter traffic rules applied to cyclists since June. An article in this paper at the time attributed the change to “growing” bicycle usage triggering “a rise in fatal accidents caused by reckless cyclists.” This is consistent with the general press portrayal of bicycle accidents as a “new” and “increasing” problem. In fact, compared to 10 years ago, fatal traffic accidents of all types have declined. Those involving bicycles just haven’t decreased as much as others. The only way to make this seem like an increase (and thus a “new” problem) was to describe the ratio of fatal accidents as “surging,” which the press duly did.

The response was amendments to the Road Traffic Safety Act establishing a greater range of cycling no-nos and subjecting cyclists (including older children — because, of course, it helps the problem to be “new” if it involves young people) to a regime of fines similar to that already applicable to drivers of motor vehicles. Fines can be avoided by cyclists receiving remedial training at a certified driving school, just as offending car drivers have to if they want to keep their licenses — even though licensing requirements do not apply to cyclists.

This may seem like a reasonable response, and maybe it is, until you consider a seemingly unrelated problem: the decline in young people owning cars and obtaining driver’s licenses. Not only would this make it harder for traffic cops to meet their quotas, but certified driving schools must be run by people having “suitable knowledge and experience” about road safety, a description that conveniently applies to many retired cops. Fewer young people driving would mean declining revenues for such institutions, which would likely be a “new” and real problem for police stakeholders. Going after cyclists more aggressively would help take up the slack. Interestingly, Japanese people are apparently numb to a regime where fines that would otherwise be paid into public coffers are effectively diverted to a business regulated by the people issuing the fines.

Safe cycling is a worthy goal, so this cynical perspective may be unwarranted. But if social problems were described more honestly by the government, people might be less skeptical about its true motives.

Colin P.A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. The views expressed are those of the author alone. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

As originally published, the section of this article dealing with the Hague convention contained the statement: “The fact that the first instances of children being returned to and from Japan under the Hague both involved all-Japanese families was barely mentioned.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs contacted The Japan Times asserting that this was factually inaccurate, since prior to the judicial returns referenced in the statement, several returns from Japan had already been achieved through other means in cases in cases involving foreign parents. The author believes that the surrounding context of the statement makes it clear that judicial returns are what is being referenced, but for clarity the statement has been changed to “the first instance of children being ordered returned” in the online version. The author is grateful to the MOFA for making this point clear, and is happy to acknowledge their efforts to achieve amicable resolutions of Hague cases outside the judicial process. In no way did the article intend to suggest that all-Japanese families were somehow being favored in any part of Japan’s Hague implementation process.

  • kyushuphil

    I love para #8 here.

    In it, we have a most charming contrast, for this is where we begin with the proposition that “corporal punishment — arguably a form of child abuse — was once widely practiced in Japanese schools,” and end the same sentence with the parallel “that there are still people today who think that corporate punishment has educational value.”

    My only query — is “corporate punishment” the soul-destroying fate to have to work in those depersonalized, hierarchy-enslaved, patriarchy-preserving, money-and-number-addicted places?

    Or is “corporate punishment” an attempt to end, penalize the now-systematically soul-destroying, such as returning more humanities to Japanese schools, featuring essay writing more in an attempt to get people to see themselves and others better, in larger contexts?