On Christmas Day last year, a 17-year-old boy was sent to prison by the Saitama District Court for the murder of his maternal grandparents. Prosecutors demanded an indefinite sentence, but the court gave him 15 years after taking the boy’s “environment” into consideration.

The environment was certainly extraordinary. The boy’s parents divorced when he was in fourth grade, after which he lived with his mother and her boyfriend, moving from Saitama to Shizuoka Prefecture, where he attended school for two months and then stopped going. For extended periods of time they were homeless. When they had money they stayed in cheap hotels, but otherwise they slept in parks.

The youth was often beaten by the boyfriend and his mother did nothing to stop it. After she gave birth to a girl, the boyfriend disappeared and she would send her son to relatives to borrow money, telling them he needed it for school, even though he never went. When he turned 16 he got a job painting houses, but the mother spent much of the money he made at game arcades. Her demands became more insistent, and he was constantly taking advances on his wages. Their debts increased.

One day, the mother told him to go to her own parents and ask for money. He later told police that she said to bring back cash “even if you have to kill them.” The mother testified that she never told him that, but in any case, when the boy asked his grandfather for money the grandfather scolded him, and the boy responded by stabbing him and the grandmother to death. He left with ¥80,000 and an ATM card.

The boy’s lawyer argued that he was incapable of acting on his own and had been obeying his mother, and recommended supervision rather than imprisonment. One of the judges asked rhetorically why “no adult had tried to help” the boy during the years he was essentially “missing from society.” Nevertheless, he and his colleagues, including lay judges, decided to keep him out of society a bit longer.

When the case was reported on TV Asahi’s news show “Morning Bird,” the commentators were outraged. One said the real “criminal” in the case was the mother, who ended up with a prison term of four years for “theft.” Everyone agreed that the system must be strengthened to make sure such children don’t fall through the cracks. Schools, local governments and police should work together to locate these kids and save them from parents who would abuse and neglect them.

The authorities have been attempting to do that since April 2012, when the body of a baby boy was discovered in Osaka nine years after he had died and disappeared from their records. The case focused media attention on the possibility that there were many other children hidden from view.

Japanese people are monitored from birth by various bureaucratic functions, but these systems fail in some cases, mainly because there is no coordination among them. According to a report in the Oct. 1 Sankei Shimbun, by last May the welfare ministry estimated that at least 2,900 children were unaccounted for. The ministry arrived at the number after surveying schools for records of children who were registered in their districts but never attended, public health departments for records of registered infants who were never brought in for checkups and related local governments for residents who couldn’t be contacted.

Finding these children is more difficult than the authorities let on, according to another survey conducted by NHK, which aired a documentary in December that described the obstacles social workers in the field face when trying to locate missing children. Most of the obstacles are social or legal in nature: neighbors who are reluctant to report wayward kids, parents who won’t allow officials to enter their homes.

NHK sent questionnaires to 1,377 schools and welfare facilities nationwide and received 834 responses. Altogether, they reported that 1,039 missing children had been taken into public care, but that there are many more that haven’t been located. The “Morning Bird” commentators implied that the source of the kieta kodomotachi (disappearing children) issue is bad parents, but according to NHK’s findings the truth is more complicated. Though guardians are held responsible for preventing their children from attending school, their reasons are varied and not always abusive in nature.

There was one girl who, like the boy in Saitama, stopped going to classes when her parents divorced. The mother became mentally unstable so the girl took care of her. Her school did not actively check up on her, but in the end her aunt did and eventually brought the girl to live with her while making sure the mother got help.

When extended families were more closely knit this sort of intervention was common. The Japanese social welfare system counts on it, but NHK indicated that families rarely get involved in such situations now, and the authorities don’t have a clear idea of how far they can intervene themselves. In one scene a case worker apologized on camera to a young woman who had been imprisoned by her parents. He once visited her home to check on her because she never showed up for school, but her mother rebuffed his entreaties. He thought there was nothing he could do and left. Now he regrets that decision.

When this young woman’s case was reported 10 years ago, after she escaped home at the age of 18, some media outlets sympathized with the parents, who claimed the girl was developmentally disabled. At that time, such problems were blamed on “truants” (futōkō). Missing children were not yet a social issue as far as the media were concerned. Now that it is, the onus has shifted to parents, when, by rights, it should be on the system.

There was probably little the authorities could have done in the case of the Saitama youth, since he rarely had a fixed address, but his case dramatically illustrates the danger of not looking for these children. Though his lawyer plans to appeal, the boy has asked him to tell the world that “children like me shouldn’t be born.”

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