Why is no one intervening? String of brutal crimes against Japanese children triggers fears that home is no longer safe
Babies are being killed and discarded and toddlers abused, but support services are still afraid to get involved in family affairs, says rights campaigner
Japan’s youth are now less safe at home than they are out in public, a veteran campaigner for children’s rights has said, challenging the country’s reputation as a protective and nurturing environment of youngsters.
Fujiko Yamada, who set up the Child Maltreatment Prevention Centre 20 years ago, said an almost constant stream of horrific headlines suggested an alarming shift in Japanese society, that crimes against the most vulnerable are becoming increasingly commonplace and, therefore, less shocking.
“Outside the home, children today are arguably more safe than when they are with their families, which is very different to how things were in the past,” she said.
“In the past, the father was the undisputed head of the household; he made all the decisions and dealt with any problems that cropped up within the family,” she said. “Traditionally, that meant the police, the courts and so on had very little say on what went on within the family unit.
“Families have changed a lot in a short space of time and they are virtually unrecognisable to how they used to be, but authorities are still reluctant to get involved when families have problems,” she said. “There is an old-fashioned mindset about intervening.
And that is when it becomes more dangerous for children.”
On Tuesday, Tokyo police discovered the body of a newborn child stuffed in a coin-operated locker on a street in the Kabukicho district of Tokyo. An employee of the company that operated the lockers called police after noticing an unpleasant smell coming from one of the units.
Meanwhile, police in Kagoshima found a baby boy, still with his umbilical cord attached, in a cardboard box in a public toilet.
And earlier this week, police in the city of Fujisawa, south of Tokyo, arrested an unemployed 32-year-old man on suspicion he poured boiling water on the arms of the three-year-old son of his girlfriend. Welfare workers have also found burn marks from cigarettes on the boy’s back and are questioning both the man and the boy’s mother.
On May 12, a couple from Kagawa Prefecture were arrested for starving their son, 13, over a period of 10 months. Admitted to hospital, the boy weighed 32kg and was hardly able to walk. The parents had been questioned previously about child abuse but released without charge.
“Child abuse is not something that only happens in Japan, but we are hearing about cases here more now because of media coverage,” said Yamada, who launched her organisation after the shocking murder of a 21-day-old baby by its mother in 1997.
Yamada says the troubling trend of violence against children can be linked in part to a number of other societal issues, such as financial hardship, a rise in single parent homes and the general breakdown of the family unit.
“There are lots of families that have low incomes or where the parents are unemployed. There is a growing number of single parents who may be struggling. The breakdown of the family unit, where grandparents would be around to help new mothers, is also a problem. People are becoming more and more isolated from society.”
Yamada said the situation is worsened by a lack of coordination between police, social services, hospitals, schools and other support services – who are often worried about being accused of interfering in family affairs. But she remains hopeful.
“I believe – I hope – Japan is slowly changing,” she said. “There have been some changes to the laws on child welfare and measures to prevent child abuse, while family courts have been given more powers and responsibilities to act.”
She hopes the changes will mean fewer and fewer of the headlines that she says give her chills.