Couples looking to start a family naturally want their own children. But amid the recent debate over whether to legalize surrogate births in Japan, one question has largely been overlooked: What about adoption?

Without a doubt, there are many children without parents who need loving families, but adoption of unrelated children is rare in Japan, partly because of doubts that placing them in an unfamiliar home environment is better than raising them in a public welfare facility.

Temporary foster care, in which families agree to care for a child for a few weeks or even several years without becoming the legal parents, is not common either.

Child welfare specialists argue there must be a change in the mind-set of parents — a desire to act in the best interests of children — if adoption is to take root.

The desire for a biological connection to one’s child that leads parents to opt for surrogacy is understandable, experts say, but adoption is another option.

The Civil Law recognizes two kinds of adoption. One is of a child under 6 years old by a married couple over 25. In this scenario, the foster parents take in a child with the consent of the child’s biological parents. The adoptive parents can register the child as their own, granting the child the same rights that their biological offspring would have. In such cases, the names of the biological parents do not appear on the family registry.

In the case of children age 6 and older, anyone over age 20 may adopt, but the names of the adoptee’s biological parents are included in the family registration. And the adoptive parents or the child, once an adult, have the right to dissolve the legal relationship.

Adoption is less common in Japan than in some Western countries. In 2004, family courts recognized only 322 adoptions of children under 6, according to official statistics. There were also 998 children over age 6 adopted the same year.

By contrast, in 2004, 5,360 children in England and Wales found new families. In Germany the figure was 5,064. And as many as 1.6 million children under 18 found new homes in the United States.

Many factors can affect adoption rates, including legal differences and cultural notions of family. But a big reason for the small number in Japan is that there are few children considered good candidates for would-be parents.

“Most couples want healthy babies and they want to raise them as if they were their own, but we tell them their chances are slim,” said Harumi Takahashi at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health, which deals with adoptions and foster parenting.

Currently, some 30,000 children under 18 are living in welfare facilities around the country. They may have suffered abuse; their parents may be too ill or financially unable to care for them; their parents may be in prison or may have simply given them up. Some children are placed in foster care temporarily and eventually reunited with their parents.

But of course, not all the children waiting for permanent homes are “desirable”: many are older, some have disabilities.

Another limiting factor is the reluctance of many biological parents to give up their parental rights even though they cannot raise their children, said Takahashi. With the exception of orphans, the biological parents must give their consent for adoption to be possible.

As of the end of March, only 29 children were under the care of registered foster parents who were expected to complete adoption procedures in Tokyo. About 120 couples are on a waiting list, Takahashi said.

Adoption of kids from overseas is meanwhile practically unheard of in Japan. In the United States, by contrast, 13 percent of adopted children were born in another country. In Germany, such children make up nearly a third of the total.

Cultural norms about what constitutes a family also play a big part. ”

Westerners say they want to adopt a child, it is because they are blessed with such capability and want to do so for the sake of the child,” said Kuniko Omori, general director of International Social Service Japan, a welfare organization headquartered in Geneva that offers advice for people seeking to adopt internationally.

Age or disability hardly matters to adoptive parents in the West, Omori said. “In the mind-set of many Japanese, there is still the sense that they want to adopt the child to carry on the family line.”

In prewar Japan, adoption, particularly among relatives, was a common way of maintaining the family name, business and fortune. This remains the case today.

A prominent example is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s younger brother, Nobuo Kishi, an Upper House member of the Liberal Democratic Party who was adopted by the family of his grandfather, the late Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. LDP lawmaker Seiko Noda was born Seiko Shima but was adopted by her grandfather, Uichi Noda, who was also an LDP Diet member, to take his family name.

Both Takahashi and Omori said they warn couples that it is against a child’s interests to be placed in a home where the parents want a child simply to keep the family name alive, and that their chances of being selected as foster parents are low if that is their motivation.

Omori said Japanese tend to think that biological parents should raise children and look down on those who can’t.

Aoyama Gakuin University professor Junichi Shoji’s experiences as a foster parent substantiates Omori’s view.

“Some people praise me for doing it, and some view it as an odd thing to do to take care of other people’s children,” said Shoji, who specializes in child welfare issues. He has been a foster parent to several children since 1983 and adopted one by mutual agreement when the child turned 18.

Adoption at a young age does help solidify the legal status and living conditions of the child, Shoji said. Looking at the reality of Japan, however, Shoji thinks foster parenting would be the best way to support children. But there are never enough registered foster parents, he said.

Takahashi of the metropolitan government shares that concern. “There are many children who need protection, but living in groups is not in the best interest of children,” she said. “We need more people to register as foster parents so that we can choose the best family for the child to be raised in.”

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