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The boy’s tormentors began brutally, burning him with cigarettes and whipping him with a fishing rod. Then, police say, they committed the unimaginable: They locked the boy in a room and tried to starve him to death. Compounding the horror, one of the attackers was the boy’s father.

The sheer barbarity of the case has gripped Japanese attention since a truck driver and his live-in girlfriend were arrested near the city of Osaka earlier this year for attempting to murder the man’s 15-year-old son.

The boy — who remains in a coma — is not alone. Japan’s child welfare centers were awash in a record 23,738 abuse cases in fiscal 2002, an astounding fourfold surge from the 5,000 cases reported in 1997.

The explosion in child abuse has alarmed child advocates, spurred government action to toughen laws, and challenged assumptions in a society that prides itself on its doting treatment of the young.

“We have this idea that Japanese culture is different, that we are people who take good care of our children — but that’s a mistake,” said Seiji Sakai, director of Center for Child Abuse Prevention in Tokyo.

Experts say Japan’s child abuse problem is still severely underreported and no one is sure of its dimensions. Specialists say that including instances of neglect and the still largely taboo issue of sexual abuse would greatly increase the official number of cases.

While a growing awareness of abuse has contributed greatly to the increasing reports of cases, specialists say instances of mistreatment are growing as well.

Child advocates are at pains to explain the causes for the upsurge, but they feel there are several social factors contributing to the trend.

The weak economy, which is finally in recovery after more than a decade in the doldrums, is widely blamed for putting more stress on Japanese families, saddling them with nerve-snapping money problems and worries about work.

Families are also in transition.

Divorce rates are at record highs, and the decline of the extended family and the long hours men spend at work have left the responsibilities — and burdens — of child care almost exclusively on mothers’ shoulders.

“People are increasingly worried about child-raising. They lack confidence,” said Jun Saimura, of the government-linked Japan Child and Family Research Institute. “People don’t know what to do and they want to run away.”

The government is moving to respond. A law was passed in 2000 that allows officials at public counseling centers to inspect homes where they suspect children are being abused, and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is working on a measure to give police greater powers to enter such homes.

Saimura, however, said the action so far has been too focused on reacting to abuse. More should be done to prevent abuse by providing more child-raising counseling and other support services for parents, he said.

The latest moves were too late for the boy in Osaka.

Police painted a picture of horrifying abuse: The boy’s father and girlfriend started with beatings and other mistreatment, then confined him in his room and denied him food starting in August.

The girlfriend, Natsuyo Kawaguchi, 38, called authorities when the boy — still unidentified — fell into a coma in November, weighing just 24 kg, authorities say. She and the boy’s father, Yasunobu Karasuno, 40, were arrested Jan. 25.

Media reports filled in the grisly details of abuse, which started in June 2002 against both the boy and his younger brother. They were subject to burnings and whippings with a fishing rod and were forced to sit upright on the floor all day, the reports said. The victim’s younger brother fled the house before the starvation began.

According to local media, classmates noticed the older boy had lost weight before he stopped going to school. A teacher tried to visit but was turned away by the father; a children’s counselor spoke to the girlfriend, but never saw the boy, reports said.

The chilling case is one of many to receive prominent play recently in Japan’s newspapers. A woman and her boyfriend, for example, were reportedly arrested in late February for allegedly beating her 3-year-old daughter to death with a toaster.

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