One of Japan’s best-kept secrets is the extent to which many of its children are subjected to violence or other abuse inside their own homes. The results, announced this week, of a survey conducted earlier this year by the Tokyo-based Center for Child Abuse Prevention among 500 young mothers of children up to 6 years old indicate that abuse is more widespread than many had imagined, and it appears to be increasing. In the first-ever survey conducted among mothers who have not visited child- counseling centers, one in 10 were discovered to have abused their children by beating them or withholding necessary care.

The media give frequent coverage to Japan’s rapidly falling birthrate, and to both known and presumed reasons for its decline, but far less attention is paid to the violence being perpetrated against the fewer children that are being born, except in cases where the tragic outcome is death. The results of the recent survey, to which all of the women questioned responded, were conveyed to the Health and Welfare Ministry with a call from the center for more social assistance for mothers with young children. The ministry certainly is aware of the growing problem, since officials there announced at the start of this month that 15 children died from abuse in fiscal 1997 despite the help provided by counseling centers.

Part of the reason the issue has been neglected is that the whole concept of children’s rights is relatively new in Japan. Official tallying of child-abuse cases only began in 1990, and it was only in 1997 that the health ministry officially reminded local governments of the need to provide protection for seriously abused children. It was in that year that the number of reported cases reached 5,352 — nearly five times the 1,101 cases reported in 1990. Changing social attitudes that encourage relatives or family friends to report abuse may account for some of the increase. But so may the isolation that many young mothers feel in today’s smaller nuclear families.

One key finding of the survey needs to be more widely disseminated among government officials, as well as the public: The frequency of abuse was three times greater among women whose husbands either refuse or are unable, because of professional time constraints, to help out with child rearing or household chores. One out of five of the 500 mothers said they felt they had no one to whom they could turn for assistance or advice in child care. Sadly, there are numerous other cases in which the person inflicting the violence is the father, who may also physically abuse the mother. In a separate report recently issued by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, nearly one-third of the women surveyed reported being victims of domestic violence.

One male psychiatrist involved in analyzing the Tokyo survey warns that its results are preliminary and more research is needed to determine why some mothers engage in violence against their children. He may well be right, and more in-depth studies of the issue could perhaps help in finding solutions as well as in providing timely — and better — protection for children already being seriously abused.

Child-counseling centers can remove seriously abused children from a dangerous home environment and place them in a protection facility. In some cases, the parents react strongly and demand the child’s return, however. Although the law allows child-welfare officials to refuse such demands when they judge it to be prudent, they sometimes give in under pressure, despite concern over the possible outcome. In one case reported in 1997, a child died from violent abuse by both parents only 10 days after being returned home following the mother’s confirmation that her husband’s violence against them had ended.

Physical abuse of children is an issue of urgent nationwide public concern and one more aspect of the family breakdown that is reflected in increasing rates of juvenile crime and violence. It is no coincidence that so many mothers in the Tokyo survey mentioned absentee fathers and those who fail to share in child-rearing duties as a factor in their behavior.

The Health and Welfare Ministry has at least made a start with its publicity campaign featuring a celebrity male entertainer and his new baby and claiming, “Men who do not take part in child care cannot be called fathers.” That there is still a long way to go is indicated by the reaction of some men that the campaign represents government interference in personal affairs.

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