National / Social Issues

Online agency seeks to streamline adoption in Japan

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

From a baby expected to be born in October in Osaka Prefecture to one in Tokyo with a due date in July, information of upcoming childbirths is listed on a website run by an Osaka-based nonprofit adoption agency urging prospective parents-to-be to register online.

Named Internet Akachan Post, which literally means internet baby mailbox, the controversial streamlined online matching system was launched last September with the aim of facilitating 3,000 adoptions a year — about six times the number of children adopted in Japan annually.

Founder Genta Sakaguchi, 40, a former owner of an online secondhand PC shop, said the existing adoption process was slow and needed more business-like efficiency. Adoptions usually took months or years to complete.

But by foregoing most of the screening process conducted by other NPOs, including training sessions and multiple interviews and consultations, in its fastest case a couple received a newborn child just two weeks after their registration, Sakaguchi said.

He said the process was simple: Anybody could register on the website as a prospective parent for a monthly fee of ¥3,000. Then, when they saw information on a baby they wanted to adopt, they pressed the “apply” button, he said.

The parents-to-be were then scored and ranked based on their personal data, such as assets and income. Looking at the information, the biological parents then made their choice, Sakaguchi said. Interviews were conducted only after adoptive parents were selected.

“So far, the response has been great; it’s been exactly what I wanted it to be,” Sakaguchi said during a recent interview in Tokyo. “There are so many people who want to adopt a child.”

His group currently has around 150 members who want to be parents, he said.

The NPO’s efficiency-oriented system, however, has sparked criticism over the potential danger of placing a child in the hands of unprepared or unqualified couples. Adoption experts say careful screening is crucial in order to select the best prospective parents so each child lives in a stable home.

“It’s not simply about ‘matching’ the wishes of prospective parents and biological mothers, it requires careful judgment,” said Chiaki Shirai, head of the Japan Adoption Agencies Association and a professor at Shizuoka University. “They must make choices from the children’s points of view. Mediators should choose prospective parents from a pool of people who have already been properly screened and interviewed.”

Shirai added, “I question if they can fully assess those people’s ability to raise a child via the online matching system.”

The Child Welfare Law bans adoption agencies from operating for profit. But there are otherwise few legal regulations on how adoptions are facilitated and instead it is up to each adoption agency to decide its mediation procedures.

“We have to create some kind of system to raise the level of mediators who lack the ability to perform the job,” Shirai said.

In Japan, child consultation centers are tasked with organizing adoptions for children in need.

But due to increasing child abuse cases and difficulties in gaining consent from biological parents, the centers often have no time to deal with adoptions, experts said.

According to the welfare ministry, child adoptions increased to 544 in 2015 from 325 in 2010. But compared with the U.S. or European countries, the number is still extremely low.

Data compiled by the ministry showed 119,514 children were adopted in 2012 in the U.S., 4,734 in the U.K. in 2011, and 3,805 in Germany in 2014.

Of the 544 cases in Japan, about 40 percent were mediated by NPOs. As of March, 22 NPOs, including Sakaguchi’s agency, were registered with local governments to mediate child adoptions, according to the welfare ministry.

Hideo Ohaga, head of Inochi wo Tsunagu Yurikago, a Saitama-based nonprofit adoption agency, said with fewer than 20 staff, it could only mediate a maximum of 35 cases a year.

“The important thing is to see prospective parents’ personalities. And that’s not easy to do. It takes time and effort,” said Ohaga, 66, who has mediated adoptions for nearly 20 years. “It’s not something that can be converted into scores and ranked. Every case is different. There are cases we must not try to speed up, and instead proceed carefully, spending lots of time on consultation.”

To become a candidate for adopting a child at Ohaga’s agency, people must take a study session and then submit an essay on reasons why they want a child. About 240 couples participate in the study session every year, but around 40 percent usually drop out before reaching the four-hour-long interview stage, Ohaga said.

“Adoptions affect children’s lives greatly. If we fail to make the right choice, it cannot be undone,” said Ohaga, who has raised six adopted or fostered children himself.

Hiroyasu Hayashi, a professor at Japan Women’s University in Tokyo and an expert on adoptions, said screenings such as those conducted by Ohaga’s group were crucial in getting prospective parents ready to raise a child.

“Decent adoption mediators screen people who wish to adopt a child via training sessions and interviews,” Hayashi said. By going through the process of repeatedly questioning why they want to adopt a child, those who are not ready realize they are not capable of doing that, he added.

“Placing a child with people who merely raised their hands defeats the purpose of looking after the best interests of the children,” Hayashi said.

But the easy accessibility of online adoption agencies has become something of a last resort for people who were rejected by other agencies because of the strict screening process.

A 39-year-old Chiba Prefecture woman and her 46-year-old husband are one couple who sought to adopt a child after failing to conceive naturally. But after going through the process of submitting detailed documents, such as the layout of their house and medical examination reports, to several agencies and attending hours of training sessions, the couple’s names were never put on a list of candidates for adopting a child, the woman said.

Although none of the agencies gave them a reason, she said it was probably due to her husband’s age. Many agencies set an age cap at 45 for adoptive parents, in line with the welfare ministry’s recommendation for people to foster children.

After all the doors were shut, they found the online adoption agency, she said.

“Everything was so easy and smooth. To tell you the truth, I questioned myself whether it’s OK for things to move forward that easily,” she said.

After putting forward a request 10 times, they were finally chosen and welcomed a 1-month-old boy into their lives in July last year, she said.

“I know the agency has been criticized,” Tanaka said, “But for us, we would never have been able to welcome a child if Sakaguchi’s organization did not exist. And we are thankful for that.”