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Kaoru Tachibana’s journey in becoming an adoptive parent has been a race against time involving layers of legal hurdles, stacks of bureaucratic paperwork and considerable soul-searching as she waited for her child with an empty baby bed.

Before she received notice this summer that she should be expecting to welcome a newborn in October, the 40-year-old office worker was on the verge of giving up on the prospect of becoming a mother. A prior match had fallen through earlier this year when the birth mother decided against giving her child away. Tachibana’s husband was also about to turn 52, several years beyond the age limit many private adoption agencies have set for aspiring parents.

“We had rented a baby bed in anticipation of welcoming a child the first time around. It had a six month lease, so we decided to call it quits if we didn’t hear back from our agency before that expired,” says Tachibana, who asked to be referred to by her maiden name to protect her child’s privacy. She currently lives in Okinawa with her husband and adopted baby girl.

“Needless to say, we are grateful to be able to welcome a child into our family,” she says. “I know it didn’t have to be us — she could have been adopted by others — but we’d like to do everything we can so she feels glad she came to us.”

Tachibana belongs to a small but slowly expanding pool of couples adopting children in Japan, a patriarchal society with an emphasis on blood ties where the vast majority of adoptees aren’t kids — in fact, most are men often recruited as heirs to family businesses.

While in many Western countries children who cannot be cared for by their parents for various reasons are adopted or live with foster parents, most of those children in Japan reside in institutions, a situation both the government and advocacy groups have been trying to rectify in recent years. Progress, however, has been slow.

Kaoru Tachibana’s journey in becoming an adoptive parent has been a race against time. | COURTESY OF KAORU TACHIBANA
Kaoru Tachibana’s journey in becoming an adoptive parent has been a race against time. | COURTESY OF KAORU TACHIBANA

Adoption obstacles

According to judicial statistics, in 2020 there were 693 cases of so-called “special” adoptions, compared to 711 the year before and 325 in 2010.

Unlike “regular” adoptions — a centuries-old practice designed for passing on family names and businesses — special adoptions, which went into effect in 1988, are aimed at providing a stable and permanent environment for children who are removed from their parents due to economic difficulties or history of abuse in the home.

Under the program, adoptees are registered as their adoptive parents’ legal child and ties are severed with their biological parents. A recent law revision has expanded the scope of the program, allowing children age 14 and younger to be eligible, compared to the previous age limit of 5. The government’s goal is to bring the number of annual cases up to 1,000 by 2022.

Meanwhile, the health ministry says there were 24,539 children living in 612 orphanages or similar facilities as of the end of March last year, of which 14.6% have been in the same institution for more than 10 years. There were also 2,760 infants residing in 144 so-called nyujiin, or baby homes.

That means as of 2019, only 7,492, or 21.5% of children who are unable to live with their birth parents were living with foster families or in family homes. That compares to 82% in the United States and 73% in the United Kingdom.

“There are various factors hampering the expansion of special adoptions and foster care in Japan, but a major reason is the lack of funding and a supportive system and social infrastructure,” says Hiroyasu Hayashi, a professor at Japan Women’s University in Tokyo and an expert on child welfare.

In Japan, special adoptions are handled either by municipal child guidance centers or private adoption agencies such as the one Tachibana used.

While there are more than 200 public guidance centers across the country, their knowledge regarding special adoptions varies by municipality. Staff are frequently transferred to different sections, hindering them from acquiring hands-on experience, Hayashi says. Many are also overburdened with other tasks, including dealing with a growing number of child abuse cases.

That means it could take years for applicants to be matched with a child. In addition, the nation’s child welfare system emphasizes the role of biological parents in child rearing, often creating substantial hurdles when acquiring their consent for special adoptions.

The law stipulates that only married couples can adopt children, and one needs to be at least 25 years old. | GETTY IMAGES
The law stipulates that only married couples can adopt children, and one needs to be at least 25 years old. | GETTY IMAGES

In Tachibana’s case, the couple initially contacted a local child guidance center in Okinawa after struggling with infertility.

“However, they told us our chances were low considering my husband’s age,” she says. “It seemed quite obvious that they weren’t keen on processing our application, so instead we decided to look for a private agency.”

There are currently 22 private bodies in Japan that handle special adoptions for a fee. Tachibana searched online but most were inundated with interested couples and she had difficulty reserving spaces for introductory seminars.

“Since both of us work full time, we had trouble shifting our schedule around to attend these meetings,” she says. “Meanwhile, time just passed.”

One day Tachibana happened to read a newspaper article about a newly launching outfit in Okinawa and contacted the organizer, who said her husband’s age wasn’t an issue. The couple signed up in late 2019 and soon underwent interviews and several rounds of training sessions before being included in the waiting list.

“Things went pretty quickly from there,” Tachibana recalls.

However, the process isn’t over yet. Her district’s family court needs to adjudicate the adoption before the child can be legally registered under the adoptive parents — a decision that will likely take around six months to be reached.

Sensitive subject

Adoption matching is a sensitive procedure that requires experience and thorough communication with both adopters and birth mothers.

Kumiko Suzuki, a consultant for Baby Smile, the special adoptions arm of Seikatsu Club Kazenomura, a Chiba Prefecture-based social welfare organization, says private adoption agencies typically ask aspiring parents to join an introductory session where they learn about the process and the core values each organization upholds. Once couples are satisfied with the agency, they will proceed to file an application, followed by an interview and a home visit. If all goes well, training commences.

“We usually conduct around five or six training sessions before including couples in our waiting list,” Suzuki says.

The law stipulates that only married couples can adopt children, and one needs to be at least 25 years old. Most private organizations also have an unofficial age limit in consideration of how a majority of special adoptions are of newborns. “In our case, it’s 46,” Suzuki says.

Meanwhile, agencies connect with prospective birth mothers through myriad channels, including online inquiries, references from municipal welfare centers and midwives at hospitals.

Expecting mothers are naturally torn between whether to keep their babies or to give them away.

“We need to be extremely careful so as not to persuade them into offering their child up for adoption. Our job is not to coerce, but to inform them of possible options,” Suzuki says. “Whatever conclusion the mother reaches needs to be made through her own volition, or else there’s a higher chance she might regret her choice or even reverse her decision.”

Social stigma

Behind the push for special adoptions is an alarming growth in child abuse cases in recent years.

In fiscal 2020, those topped 200,000 for the first time since records began in 1990, according to the health ministry. Meanwhile, excluding cases in which children were killed due to murder-suicides by parents, deaths in fiscal 2019 came to 57. Of the children, 28 were aged under 1, including 11 less than 1 month old.

Perpetrators are often young, unmarried mothers who are financially strained and have no one to approach for advice. Facing an unwanted pregnancy beyond a period of termination, some resort to drastic measures. Of the aforementioned 57, for example, 30 were killed by their birth mother. And this month, a 23-year-old woman was arrested for throwing her newborn to death from the second floor of a building in Chiba.

Kaori Nakajima, head of nonprofit organization Piccolare | COURTESY OF PICCOLARE
Kaori Nakajima, head of nonprofit organization Piccolare | COURTESY OF PICCOLARE

In 2015, Kaori Nakajima launched a hotline called Ninshin SOS Tokyo to help women and girls who are unsure or are in trouble of what to do with their pregnancy.

The initiative, which is now part of a nonprofit Nakajima started called Piccolare, has talked to more than 6,600 people to date from across the country, three-quarters of whom are those in their teens and 20s. A majority of the consultations involve so-called ninshin katto, or pregnancy conflicts, where women are worried over contraceptive failure or the possibility of being impregnated.

“Initially, I assumed we would primarily be introducing people to hospitals, but that wasn’t the case,” Nakajima says. “These women come from various backgrounds and often suffer from economic hardships, abuse or domestic violence, which necessitates us to work with various parties including the police, judiciary and welfare services.”

Many of the women who reach out to Piccolare have consulted other institutions before, Nakajima says, and have been scarred by past experiences stemming from their upbringing.

“One root of the issue is the lack of adequate sex education in the Japanese school system. Many nations offer comprehensive sex education based on UNESCO’s guidance, but Japan doesn’t,” Nakajima says, a situation that has helped create an environment of shame regarding sexual health topics. “Another factor is how pregnancy and childbirth-related medical expenses can be costly since they aren’t covered by health insurance.”

Abortions are also expensive, Nakajima says, one reason why Piccolare submitted a request to the health ministry last month that called for morning-after pills to be made available over the counter. Japan is currently the only G7 country that requires a prescription for emergency contraceptives, which can cost anywhere from ¥8,000 to ¥20,000 in addition to doctor consultation fees.

“That means those most in need, who are also often the most economically challenged, don’t have access to the necessary care or medication,” Nakajima says.

Last year, Piccolare launched their first shelter for pregnant mothers who may be at risk of homelessness.

“The idea is to provide a place where mothers can call home and return anytime,” Nakajima says. After an initial crowdfunding run, the project is currently open to donations for a second home.

And for pregnant mothers contemplating the best path forward, giving their child up for special adoptions or foster care is always a solution, Nakajima says.

“There’s a tendency in Japanese society to view special adoptions as an escape route for unfortunate children, when in fact there should be a consensus among us that it can be the best answer offering happiness for all parties involved,” she says.

Growing acceptance

It’s been a little over a year since Aiko and her husband adopted a baby boy, a life-changing event that opened their eyes to both the possibilities and problems surrounding special adoptions in Japan.

Like Tachibana, Aiko signed up with a private adoption agency after five years of infertility treatment, and the couple took turns taking paternal and maternal leaves from their work after the newborn arrived.

“I was nervous about how my workplace and friends would react to our decision, but my worries proved unfounded — they were in fact very accepting and understanding,” says Aiko, a 41-year-old emergency medicine physician based in Tokyo. She asked to be referred to by only her first name to protect her child’s privacy.

Members of project Home, an initiative to provide shelter for pregnant mothers who may be at risk of homelessness | COURTESY OF PICCOLARE
Members of project Home, an initiative to provide shelter for pregnant mothers who may be at risk of homelessness | COURTESY OF PICCOLARE

Her adoption agency has also been supportive throughout the endeavor, inviting the couple to a network of adoptive parents and offering them tips on when and how to tell their child that he was adopted.

Instead, Aiko found that the municipal offices she dealt with had little or no clue regarding how to process special adoptions.

“I struggled with each and every legal and bureaucratic paperwork I had to submit because officials had no experience in handling such cases,” she says. “It was reflective of how there’s still a long way to go for special adoptions to gain mass acceptance in Japanese society.”

According to reports, the government plans to cover fertility treatment under the nation’s public health insurance program from next April, and will simultaneously beef up offering information about special adoptions and foster care to those seeking treatment.

“That’s the right step forward. There are many couples out there resorting to infertility treatment and many mothers struggling with unwanted pregnancies, but I feel there’s a lack of shared knowledge regarding special adoptions,” Aiko says. “These options may not always be the best solution, but I think we should be accepting of more diverse family structures.”

Aiko recently attended a Christmas event with her child and other adoptive families hosted by her agency. She hopes that her boy can grow up in a community where his background isn’t an anomaly, but something naturally accepted.

“Japanese culture tends to prioritize blood ties and those who aren’t biologically related to their family are often left feeling alienated,” she says. “As an adoptive parent, I believe it’s my duty to ease some of that psychological resistance by sharing my own family’s experience.”

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