In the wake of recent fatal child abuse cases, the government has begun exploring amendments to the laws on child welfare and prevention of abuse to prohibit corporal punishment by parents. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has separately proposed a local ordinance banning the physical punishment of children as part of efforts to fight child abuse — though it provides for no penalties. The banning of corporal punishment may have symbolic meaning in the effort to deter the abuse of children in the name of discipline. But to ensure the end of fatal child abuse, such a step must be accompanied by concerted efforts to boost the numbers and skills of officials responsible for children’s welfare.

In a number of abuse cases, including the death of a 10-year-old girl in Noda, Chiba Prefecture, last month, the legal guardians of the victims have tried to justify their actions by saying they meant to discipline misbehaving children.

Article 820 of the Civil Code says that “a person who exercises parental authority holds the right, and bears the duty, to care for and educate the child” for the interest of the child, and Article 822 says such a person “may discipline the child to the extent necessary” for the child’s custody and education. Many have pointed out that this provision allowing parents to “discipline” their children leads people to condone corporal punishment in the name of discipline. Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Takumi Nemoto said that in the efforts to prohibit corporal punishment, questions vis-a-vis the right to discipline under the Civil Code need to be resolved.

Some lawmakers in the ruling coalition call for removing the Civil Code provisions that allow parents to discipline their children — although revising the Civil Code itself is deemed to be off the table for now because it would be too time-consuming. It is indeed unclear whether this debate will result in an actual amendment of the Civil Code. A past attempt to revise the language on parental discipline was aborted in the face of opposition that such a measure could be misconstrued as rejecting any form of discipline for children. Other questions would also likely emerge in legally prohibiting corporal punishment, such as whether a clear line can be drawn between discipline and physical punishment.

At the same time, the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which Japan is a party, calls on the signatory states to “take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment … while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.” According to an international NGO working on children’s rights, more than 50 countries around the world have introduced legal measures banning corporal punishment, and such measures, even though they often lack specifics on what acts are prohibited, are said to have changed people’s attitude condoning the physical punishment of children by parents.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government says its proposed ordinance prohibits corporal punishment, including verbal abuse, since such forms of punishment can escalate into abuse of children — or even constitute physical abuse themselves. The draft ordinance also prohibits acts by guardians that inflict bodily or mental pain on children as “punishment that damages the dignity” of the children — irrespective of whether the children are in fact feeling pain.

Prohibiting corporal punishment, even without any penalty for offenders, will still send a message that parents should not abuse their children in the name of discipline. But that alone would not be sufficient. Such a step needs to be backed up by sustained efforts to beef up the manpower and skills of staff at child welfare centers — who are tasked with handling an ever-growing number of child abuse cases — so that they can respond more adequately to each individual cases.

The government plans to increase the number of child welfare officers by roughly 2,000 by 2022 and has decided to front-load the measure by deploying some 1,000 new officers in fiscal 2019. People familiar with the problem of over-stretched manpower at child welfare centers, however, point out that it will take at least several years before such officers gain enough experience and expertise to be able to handle the complicated and diverse situations behind child abuse cases.

The recent death of the 10-year-old girl in Noda shed light on the inadequate response to her case by the local child welfare center staff. To improve the skills of child welfare officers, the government reportedly plans to require people to gain more experience and expertise in dealing with abuse cases before they’re promoted to that position. Efforts need to continue to not just increase their numbers but also improve their qualifications.

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