On the morning of July 30, a 14-year-old boy hanged himself at his home in the city of Nishi-Tokyo, a commuter hub northwest of downtown Tokyo. The teenager, a cheerful member of his junior high school’s tennis club, had decided that his life was simply not worth living.
This, however, was only part of the story — the teenager only did what he had been ordered to do by his abusive stepfather. After suffering a severe beating a day earlier, the stepfather reportedly told the teen “to go hang yourself within the next 24 hours.”
Municipal authorities told The Japan Times that the teenager had turned up to class with bruises on his face twice in a six-month period between November 2013 and April this year. The student even told teachers his stepfather had beaten him, and yet neither incident was reported to welfare officials.
The teen didn’t attend school at all after June 13, but, still, school administrators only communicated with his mother and stepfather without speaking directly to the student concerned.
“The school should have recognized the bruises as a sign of abuse,” says Tatsuhiko Uchida, an education official at the city of Nishi-Tokyo. “If it had acted accordingly, things may have turned out differently.”
The teenager’s suicide comes at a time when there appears to be a growing recognition of the scale of abuse that occurs nationwide.
“Most deaths connected to abuse can be prevented with proper intervention,” says Fujiko Yamada, a specialist in internal medicine and an expert on cases of child abuse. “The fact that children are dying from abuse means that there is something wrong with the system.”
Public discussion of child abuse has been taboo until fairly recently. The government only started to keep a record of the number of abuse cases handled by child consultation centers nationwide in 1990, and it took another decade to codify a law that would prevent abuse.
According to legislation passed in 2000, there are four categories of child abuse: physical, psychological, sexual or neglect. The same legislation also obliges a third party to report any signs of such abuse to welfare authorities.
In August, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry reported that 73,765 cases of abuse were handled by child consultation centers nationwide in fiscal 2013, a figure that topped 70,000 for the first time.
Although dismayed by the record number of cases, Japan Network for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect Chairman Tsuneo Yoshida said it was encouraging that more people were becoming aware of child abuse and reporting such cases. “The media says it’s ‘the worst’ situation but that is not necessarily the case because this means more children are being rescued,” Yoshida says. “It looks like people’s awareness toward child abuse is changing.”
Both Yoshida and Yamada agree that the statistics alone don’t reflect the number of actual cases of abuse, because unreported incidents such as the Nishi-Tokyo episode — while extreme — are not uncommon.
Nevertheless, the rise in the number of reported cases of abuse is quite shocking. Health ministry data shows that 1,101 cases of abuse were reported in the first nationwide tally in 1990, and the number has only grown exponentially since then.
Yoshida believes that communities were historically reluctant to get involved in a family’s affairs because of the household system that was in place at the time; absolute legal authority used to be given to the head of the household, a system that was abolished after the adoption of the Constitution in 1947.
However, an increase in media coverage over the past decade has made people more aware that child abuse is a crime and that they have a duty to report any suspicions they may have.
“Child abuse is often referred to as ‘murdering the soul,'” Yoshida says. “People are becoming less reluctant to report allegations of child abuse in other people’s homes because they are more aware that children’s lives depend on it.”
Pediatrician Henry Kempe wrote a paper titled “The Battered Child Syndrome” in 1962 that first defined and identified signs of child abuse. Medical experts, who are often the first to spot cases of abuse, look for telltale signs such as unusual bruises or burns, broken bones that have healed without treatment or patterns of abuse marks. Still, Yamada says some doctors elect not to report suspected cases of abuse and instead simply talk to the parents, believing they can convince them to stop hurting their children.
“We have to step away from the myth that all parents are good and admit that some are abusive,” says Yamada, who is also director of the nonprofit Child Maltreatment Prevention Network. “Most parents are good but we, as a society, need to learn to take initiative and intervene sometimes.”
The education ministry has also compiled a manual for school teachers to help them spot abuse, ranging from obvious external injuries to psychological signs such as violent behavior, the inability to build a stable relationship with an adult, or the hoarding of food or theft.
Yoshida, a professor of child welfare at Surugadai University in Saitama Prefecture, says schools, too, are sometimes reluctant to report signs of abuse to authorities. “Schools are essential (in the battle against child abuse) because they can confirm the safety of a child by his or her attendance,” Yoshida says. “The problem, however, is that they traditionally don’t like to let others intervene to resolve issues, be it bullying or child abuse.”
In 2012, 66,701 cases of suspected child abuse were reported to child consultation centers nationwide. Physical violence comprised 35 percent of all cases, while neglect accounted for 29 percent, psychological abuse 33.6 percent and sexual abuse 2.2 percent. According to National Police Agency statistics, 482 arrests were made in 2013 that were related to child abuse allegations. Physical violence accounted for 70 percent of these cases, while sexual assault made up almost 22 percent. Of those arrested, 77 percent were either fathers or father figures.
“That’s the thing about parents — you can’t choose them,” says Keiko Shindo, head of Survivors and Allies for Education on Incest Abuse. “There were so many times in my life when I wished I had different parents. Society has a fixed image of what families and parents should be like, and we [victims of child abuse] suffered because our reality was so different from that.”
Survivors and Allies for Education on Incest Abuse is a support group for female victims of incest. Founded in 2013, the group hosts sessions twice a month in which around six to eight victims gather in order to “just talk, listen.”
The group is looking to educate the public and share information on incest by streaming videos of members talking about their past. The women talk openly about the sexual abuse they were forced to endure by their fathers, stepfathers, siblings and so on without hiding their faces.
Shindo said the members of the group had mixed emotions about revealing their identities but, in the end, agreed that it was necessary as a part of their healing process as well as a means to reach out to other victims suffering in silence.
“We have spent our whole lives hiding the truth, suppressing our anger and our conflicted emotions,” Shindo says. “We needed a place to speak the truth.”
Shindo was sexually abused as a child, first by her older brother and later by her father. The molestation began when she was just 3 years old, and it continued throughout her junior high school days. In her case, authorities never intervened — the rapes finally stopped after she confided in her mother.
Shindo is now 45 years old. She has found a supportive husband with whom she runs a restaurant in Tokyo. She regularly meets other survivors of sexual abuse and, together, they are trying to rebuild their lives. However, the abuse she suffered as a child has affected her so deeply she has decided that she will refrain from having any children for fear of what she might do to them. She sees a psychiatrist twice a month, is on medication for post-traumatic stress disorder and has been struggling with alcoholism.
Although Shindo has reconciled with her brother, her relationship with her mother is still strained and seeing her mother reminds the Tokyo resident of her past. Her mother has also opposed Shindo’s activities with the support group because she thinks others may find out about the family’s secret.
Shindo’s father, meanwhile, has had a couple of close shaves with death over the past few years, barely surviving a heart attack last summer. “They say everyone is eventually able to forgive, but I don’t think that’s true,” Shindo says. “There were times when I wanted to kill my father … but now I am just waiting for him to die.”
About 1,500 cases of sexual abuse are reported every year, but Yamada, who has handled hundreds of abuse cases during her career, believes the actual number is at least twice that.
“People want to pretend that sexual abuse doesn’t exist here,” Yamada says. “Japanese people say that there is no sexual molestation because we have well-grounded morals toward sex but that is a gross misunderstanding.”
Yamada says Japan is decades behind other countries in codifying legislation to prevent parents from abusing their children. What’s more, measures to protect children against sexual abuse are virtually nonexistent. In addition, there is a lack of coordination between the institutions that could help to detect cases of abuse — welfare centers, police, schools and hospitals — and this is putting children’s lives in danger. Health ministry statistics show that at least one child dies every week in Japan as a result of child abuse.
From Sept. 14 , Japan is hosting the 20th International Congress on Child Abuse and Neglect in Nagoya. More than 2,000 people from all over the world are expected to gather at the event, which is being hosted in the country for the first time. Jointly organized by the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect and the Japanese Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, the four-day conference will hold a series of speeches and symposiums to raise awareness against child abuse.
Yamada, secretary-general of the conference’s executive committee, said she hopes the event will be a turning point for Japan to catch up to the rest of the world over measures to prevent child abuse.
“The cooperation between multiple organizations in Japan is not working and that is why so many important lives are being lost,” Yamada says. “Japan is a smart country that can catch up quickly. It needs to take this opportunity to turn it into a child-centered society.”
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