National / Politics

Japan's Cabinet OKs amendment that bans corporal punishment after spate of tragic cases

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

The Cabinet approved an amendment Tuesday banning parents from inflicting corporal punishment upon their own children, an effort intended to curb child abuse at home in light of recent high-profile cases where children were fatally mistreated in the name of discipline.

If passed by the ongoing regular Diet session, the amendment would take effect in April next year.

The ban on physical punishment would not only apply to parents but also to foster parents and welfare workers. The government is also eyeing a revision to the parental right to discipline guaranteed by the Civil Code within two years, amid long-standing criticism that the statute has been interpreted by some parents as giving a green light to corporal punishment that borders on abuse.

Experts by and large hail the ban as a step forward in a country where physical punishment against children at home has long been tolerated as a means of discipline. But at the same time, they say the ban, which comes with no penalties, is a largely symbolic move. While it helps steer parents away from such violence, it would fall short of eradicating child abuse cases across the board, they say.

The ban is the main pillar of a package of amendments, greenlighted by the government on Tuesday, to the child abuse prevention law and related legislation, including imposing a five-year plan on the central government to finance efforts to boost the number of child welfare institutions in major cities.

Amendments also include obligating school and welfare center officials to keep their knowledge of child abuse confidential, following a nationwide outcry over the information mishandling that is seen to have played a part in the death of 10-year-old Mia Kurihara in the city of Noda, Chiba Prefecture, in January. In that case, city education board officials were roundly criticized for succumbing to pressure from her father, Yuichiro, to give him a copy of a school questionnaire where Mia, who was assured her answers would remain private, detailed the abuse that it is alleged was inflicted by him.

Experts say the ban on corporal punishment by parents and other guardians will help spread the idea that exerting physical force on children can no longer be justified as a form of discipline.

“It will definitely encourage relatives, friends and school teachers to step in and chide parents for physically punishing their kids, under the logic that what those parents are doing is now officially illegal,” Saori Nambu, an associate professor at Nippon Sport Science University who is an expert on corporal punishment and child abuse issues, said.

But a ban without a penalty clause won’t provide enough deterrence to stop the most persistent abusers from harming children, Masao Maruyama, a professor of criminal law studies and child abuse at Nanzan University, points out.

The amendment “has no effect on parents capable of some of the most extreme child abuse instances we’ve seen in recent months. It is instead meant to dissuade more typical parents with no such proclivity from ever crossing the line,” Maruyama said, adding abusive parents can face imprisonment or a fine under existing laws for offenses such as assault, parental abandonment and murder.

The amendment approved Tuesday doesn’t spell out what parental conduct will be recognized as corporal punishment, with the government reportedly planning to put together a guideline setting out more details.

Nambu from Nippon Sport Science University, for one, says outlawing parents from physically restraining children who are about to put their lives in jeopardy — such as toppling a child on a tricycle in a desperate bid to stop them from wheeling toward a street — would be unreasonable. The likeliest scenario, she said, is for the government to settle for the adoption of “case-by-case” judgments that leave room for the justification of physical force under critical circumstances.

In Japan, where “causing trouble for others” is considered a taboo, corporal punishment has long been portrayed as a defensible measure to “thoroughly discipline” children, Nambu says.

A 2017 survey by the international nongovernmental organization Save the Children, for example, showed nearly 60 percent of Japanese adults maintain a tolerant attitude toward physical punishment, although the majority of those who responded so also said they only condone it when “there is no other option.”

While school officials are already forbidden from physically punishing pupils per the school education law, the ban on such punishment at home is likely to elicit much stronger resistance from the public, Nambu said.

“Not all kids are innocent — some of them are really difficult and dead set against following adult instructions. … Unlike teachers, who merely oversee the kids temporarily, parents are in a position to bear ultimate responsibility for their discipline and often have no one to seek help from,” Nambu said. “Now, they are essentially being deprived of the last-ditch resort that is physical punishment and still asked to discipline kids properly. I could certainly understand if some parents are upset.”

The key, then, is for the government to establish more infrastructure designed to reduce the burden on parents, such as stepping up child-rearing consultation systems for them, she said.

The days when physical punishment was justified as a necessary evil are gone, the associate professor said.

“Times have changed and the human rights of children are very much cherished today. In an age like this, children who suffer from violence when no other kids around them do will only grow less confident in themselves and possibly be more rebellious toward parents who inflict such harm. It’s a vicious cycle.”

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5