The national news has recently reported a number of stories about young children dying at the hands of their parents or guardians, either from neglect or direct physical violence. It’s hard to say if these tragedies constitute a trend since detailed child abuse statistics weren’t really available until 2005, when the welfare ministry starting compiling them in earnest.

On Sept. 17, the Asahi Shimbun ran an article reporting that 71 children died of abuse nationwide in 2014, including those who died in so-called family suicides. When murder-suicides are not counted, more than 60 percent of children killed by parents are less than 1 year old. In 2014, 15 died within 24 hours of being born.

Asahi’s research found that 90 percent of children who die of abuse are younger than 3 years old, and in 28 of the 39 cases it studied in 2014, the perpetrator was the biological mother. In 24 cases the reason given for the crime was that the child was the result of an unexpected pregnancy. Eighteen of these women said they did not seek medical care and many gave birth alone. Thirteen were not living with the father of the child and five didn’t know who the father was.

In his book “Kichiku no Ie” (“House of Brutality“), Kota Ishii explains that the Japan Pediatric Society assumes that official statistics about infant and toddler killings are the tip of the iceberg. The real number of child killings is probably three to five times higher, because doctors who evaluate the deaths of very young children in emergency situations are reluctant to accuse parents of abuse, even if they suspect as much. An expert on child development told the Asahi that it’s incumbent on social workers and teachers to be aware of this situation, because children who are the result of unexpected pregnancies are more likely to suffer abuse.

The welfare ministry is now formulating a plan to “support women who become pregnant but do not want to give birth,” part of which means dispatching social workers to “obstetricians’ offices and midwife facilities.” Some may think the welfare ministry’s plan refers to giving abortions, but in Japan the procedure is illegal. The reason they are performed so often is due to a loophole that allows women to terminate pregnancies because of financial difficulties. The irony is that national insurance doesn’t cover abortions, so women of poorer means, which describes the majority of parents who kill their children, can’t afford them and carry their babies to term — often in secret.

This year, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government assembled a children’s welfare advisory panel, which has recommended that these children be placed in foster care at younger ages so that they can bond more readily with their new families. Traditionally, social welfare staff ensured children stayed with their biological parents, but this attitude is changing due to greater awareness of the prevalence of parental abuse, especially in the case of unexpected pregnancies.

The central government is also trying to make adoptions easier. A different Asahi article, which ran on Dec. 3, reported that the ruling and opposition parties have agreed to pass a bill to “regulate” agents who mediate between expecting mothers who don’t want to keep their babies and couples who wish to adopt.

Currently, only public adoption services are subject to government control. Nonprofit organizations that act as go-betweens in such situations only need to “inform” their local governments that they are carrying out such activities. But in September, Chiba Prefecture ordered one such agent to cease activities after they discovered he received ¥2.25 million from a couple to move their name to the top of the list of people waiting to adopt. The bill compels adoption agents to “obtain permission” from authorities so as to prevent “improper business practices,” meaning trafficking.

The type of adoptions covered are those of newborns whose names can be immediately placed in a couple’s koseki (family register) upon birth, meaning the child becomes the “natural” offspring of the couple. Because of the stigma of non-blood relations inculcated by the koseki system, these types of “special adoptions,” which can be carried out until a child turns 6, vastly outnumber those involving older children, whose status in the koseki indicates they were adopted.

A recent installment of NHK’s news program “Close-up Gendai” addressed the Chiba case and the recent pattern of child killings. In one scene, the head of an Osaka NPO is waiting with an adopting couple at a train station for the mother to arrive with her newborn. There are tears, but the handover is completed in nine minutes.

This NPO, which launched two years ago, is famous for quick turnovers. Public adoption services take time. Staff ask penetrating, personal questions of both expectant mothers and adopting couples, and there are many meetings before anything is decided. In big cities, the waiting list can be 100 to 200 names long. A couple at the bottom won’t receive a baby for at least five years.

Most of the Osaka NPO’s screening work is done online, and they ask the couples matched with mothers to help defray the latter’s living and medical expenses until she gives birth. The Osaka government has complained about the NPO’s claim it will provide up to ¥2 million to mothers, because it makes it sound like a business. Nevertheless, it is the monetary aspect that appeals to mothers looking to give up their babies, since they often can’t afford prenatal care.

It’s not a solution that makes people comfortable. A professor of child welfare in the NHK studio watched the video of the train station transaction, and while initially encouraged by the NPO’s streamlined approach he found the informality of the exchange distressing. “Maybe it should be more complicated,” he commented.

A gynecologist sitting next to him added, “Every day I see women with unexpected pregnancies choosing either abortion or raising a child on welfare. If they know they can get ¥2 million, I’m afraid they’ll be persuaded to give their baby up too easily.”

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