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It is a sad commentary on today’s adults that the physical and psychological abuse of children is a growing and increasingly troubling phenomenon in Japan more than half a year after the Diet enacted a law prohibiting chronically abusive parents from meeting or corresponding with offspring they have victimized. Early this month, the Health and Welfare Ministry indicated that the number of child abuse cases reported to counseling centers in fiscal 1999 rose to 11,631, an increase of 70 percent from the previous year. The ministry noted a particular rise in cases of infants being abused.

Ministry officials are right that part of the reason for the apparent increase lies in greater public awareness of the problem and of a willingness to report suspected abuse. Perhaps that also accounts for the fact that the number of children dying due to physical abuse in the home despite the intervention of child welfare authorities fell to five last year, down from eight in fiscal 1998 and 15 in fiscal 1999. That any deaths at all occurred despite official efforts to prevent them is deeply troubling, however. The number of reported cases of abuse has grown 10-fold since 1990, and the number in which welfare officials temporarily separated children from abusive parents reached 4,319 in fiscal 1999, more than double the total in fiscal 1998.

One aspect of the problem of child abuse that is only beginning to receive sufficient attention is the fact that parents are by no means the only abusers. Japan finally is confronting the reality that some caregivers and teachers, men and women in positions of particular responsibility for the welfare of children, are guilty of violating the trust placed in them by their young charges, the youngsters’ parents and by society in general.

This week a special research group composed of medical and education experts announced plans to conduct a survey of day-care centers and similar facilities nationwide in an attempt to learn the extent of any possible abuse of toddlers left in their care. This follows news that the 29-year-old woman operator of an unauthorized child nursery in Yamato, Kanagawa Prefecture pleaded guilty in a hearing before the Yokohama District Court to fatally injuring a 2-year-old boy entrusted to her facility. She also admitted hurting another child, although she denied responsibility for the death of one more and for injuring three others. The woman opened her nursery in February 1999 and the police charge that 31 of the 63 children left in its care were subjected to violence or other forms of abuse.

The facility’s name, Smile Mom Yamato Room, was more than misleading: It was a virtual provocation as complaints about injuries to children left in its care continued to mount. Local government officials inspected the nursery four times from July 1999 following complaints, yet they found nothing amiss. Operations were suspended following the owner’s arrest in June, so the Kanagawa Prefectural Government’s plan to order its closure amounts to a mere formality. Unless a system is established that is based, not on trust, but on the ability to detect actual conditions is established, it is unclear how much abuse the coming nationwide survey will find.

The law enacted this spring may make it easier to deal with cases of abusive parents since 60 percent of the instances reported last year involved the mothers of the victims. However, the central government’s stated intention of using the new law to “crack down” on child abuse sounds more like a public relations undertaking than an attempt to find genuine solutions to a problem that grows worse each passing year. The law does not address abuse in day-care centers or in schools or the insufficient number of trained social workers able to implement it. The law is an improvement, but it fails to remedy the government’s slowness in increasing the number of reliable, authorized child-care facilities that working mothers need. Kanagawa Prefecture alone has some 600 unauthorized nurseries and the total nationwide is surely in the tens of thousands.

The public should not have to rely on media reports of sensational cases to become fully aware of child abuse. All the attention being given to the question of incompetent teachers does not address the fact that many defenseless children in the nation’s public schools also are being subjected to psychological and physical abuse. The number of teachers who required disciplining for any reason increased by 50 percent in the 10 years up to 1998. Those involved in indecent behavior with pupils increased more than fourfold; those who inflicted serious corporal punishment more than doubled.

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