Early on the morning of April 15 last year, the president of a Kumamoto hospital with Japan’s first baby hatch was relieved to hear the facility could continue after a major earthquake had just struck.
It was a day after the prefecture was hit by a quake measuring a maximum 7 on the Japanese seismic scale and Taiji Hasuda was told by a senior official at Jikei Hospital that its electrical equipment was working, meaning women could give birth and undergo treatment.
In addition, the baby hatch, or Konotori no Yurikago (Storks’ Cradle), was functional.
The facility, which takes in babies who cannot be cared for by their parents, will mark its 10th anniversary next month after obstetrician Hasuda set up the baby hatch in 2007. Since its opening, 125 babies had been left as of March, according to the hospital.
The baby hatch is in a separate red brick building at the hospital. If someone drops off a baby in the incubator, an alarm alerts staff at the nurses station on the second floor.
It was around 2003 when Hasuda found out about such a facility in Germany, prompting him to visit the country the following year.
As he was mulling where to set up a baby hatch in Japan and studying the economics, as well as whether installing such a facility could be seen as helping people abandon their children, there was a spate of newborns abandoned in Kumamoto.
There were women who risked their lives to give birth on their own but ended up getting arrested after abandoning their children.
“I could no longer be a bystander,” 81-year-old Hasuda recalled, making the decision to open the baby hatch.
In 2006, when Hasuda was on his way to clear legal issues after repeated negotiations with local governments and police, news of his plan triggered angry phone calls, including from people who said, “It will encourage abandoning children” and “children cannot find out about their origin.”
“I wonder if it is proper to set up something where babies can be left anonymously. I’m quite resistant (to the idea),” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters in February 2007.
But Hasuda was undeterred, knowing that many pregnant women felt pushed into a corner.
One woman already had several children and was poor because her husband was sick. Her husband’s parents had threatened to kill her baby if she fell pregnant again, but she did anyway.
Another woman grew up in a single-father family. Unable to tell her father that she was pregnant out of wedlock, she went into labor. She even tried to refuse an ambulance sent by a hospital.
“This woman went as far as to think it is OK for her to die,” Hasuda said.
There was also a woman who confessed that she thought she “had to bury her child in a field” because the child was the result of adultery, according to Hasuda.
Along with the baby hatch, the hospital set up a national phone line to offer pregnancy counseling. It received around 5,400 calls in fiscal 2015 and more than 6,500 in fiscal 2016.
“Women who left their babies in the cradle gave birth at home or in a car and brought them here to save their lives,” Hasuda said. “They are not taking an easy path to abandon their children. The top priority is to save lives.”
Hasuda said all children had a right to live.
Under the law, foster parents of children whose mothers have agreed to give up parental rights can become parents on the family register if they adopt the children when they are newborns and if courts give their consent. But children who were left in the baby hatch are not eligible for the foster parents program, as their parents cannot be identified.
A child depends on parents and parents think their child is the cutest thing in the world, Hasuda said, adding that a child who is adopted as a newborn baby shows no psychological effects nor do they try to test parental love.
Hasuda said he believed adopted children could grow up without problems if they were loved from an early age, expressing hope that children who were left in the baby hatch should also find foster parents.
Hasuda described the baby hatch as representing a transitional period.
“Such facilities have spread across the world but there is no baby hatch in France, because women are allowed to give birth anonymously in a hospital,” Hasuda said.
He said he hoped the government, which was dealing with a falling birthrate in Japan, would offer assistance to suffering mothers and children. He said a baby hatch would be unnecessary if women could safely deliver babies who could then be adopted by foster parents.
Echoing his view, a maternity center in Kobe’s Kita Ward plans to open a baby hatch offering a 24-hour counseling service as early as September. “I would like to inherit the spirit of Kumamoto,” said Ikuko Nagahara, 59, the head of the maternity center.
At a hearing on March 3, officials from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare asked the center about its workforce, security and funding. Though the ministry did not say whether it would approve the facility, an official at a nonprofit organization that was helping fund the plan said they felt reluctance from the government.
When the earthquake hit Kumamoto, Jikei Hospital had insufficient food stocks. After it called for assistance on television, it received more than 800 goods.
The hospital distributed food to nearby evacuation centers and offered outdoor meals for around 480 people.