About 40,000 children in Japan need new homes due to neglect or the absence of biological parents, but just 500 find adopted parents each year owing to cultural practices and legal restrictions.

The vast majority of these children are placed in institutions or care homes where, according to rights groups, they are “deprived of the chance for life in a caring family setting.”

Adoptions should become more commonly accepted in Japanese society and the interests of children prioritized, said Hiroe Makiyama, a lawmaker who sponsored a bill regulating agencies that connect potential adoptive parents with kids in need of a new home.

“Now the trend in Japan is that people get married later in their life and therefore many have difficulty having natural children,” the opposition Democratic Party member said in an interview.

“Many seek to have medical help – it’s costly and it’s a burden physically. For these reasons an option might be to adopt, but it’s just not the trend here.”

Advocates hope awareness campaigns and recent legal changes favoring home-like environments will help Japan join other developed countries in marching away from institutionalization.

Official statistics indicate most of the children in need are placed in institutions, while a minority – 4,731 children – are living with foster parents.

A further 1,172 children are in a so-called foster family group, where a larger number of children live in the same home.

Few of the children in alternative care are afforded the certainty of being permanently adopted by a new family. The number of such placements, known as special adoptions, has risen to 544 in 2015 from 474 in 2013.

Still, this is “an extremely low level relative to the United States and Europe,” according to the Nippon Foundation, which is working to promote adoption.

Japan adoption graph
A graph showing the number of special adoptions in Japan between 2005 and 2015 denoting when a child is permanently placed into a new family. Note: The graph follows the Japanese imperial date system so the final column, Heisei era 27 is 2015. Source: Judicial statistics

When asked why the rate was so low in Japan, Nippon Foundation program director Eriko Takahashi said adoption had been used for things like creating an heir to continue a family line, but was not well-recognized as a child welfare measure.

“Other factors may be the context of a culture that places importance on blood relations and the society-wide attitude that parents should raise their own children without exception,” Takahashi said in an email.

No dreams

Human Rights Watch detailed a range of problems with the system in a report titled “Without Dreams: Children in Alternative Care in Japan.”

The title is taken from a 15-year-old resident of an Osaka institution who told researchers she did not have any dreams for the future.

Deficiencies in the system include poor physical conditions in institutions, overly large numbers of occupants, cases of abuse by caregivers and children, and insufficient reporting mechanisms for victims.

A lack of support after people left the centers also harmed their future employment and educational prospects, said the report published in 2014.

“At the root of many of these problems is a long-standing predisposition of Japan’s child guidance centers – which determine the placement of children needing such care – towards institutionalizing children rather than placing them in adoption or foster care,” it argued.

Lawmaker Makiyama added that the child guidance centers were understaffed.

On top of that, she said, “matchmaking” of children with prospective adoptive parents is hampered because information collected by local governments and external placement agencies is not shared effectively.

“So it’s hard to do matchmaking,” Makiyama said.

“Within the local offices nationwide they don’t share the information. So there might be a Hokkaido-based eligible parent who doesn’t mind adopting somebody from Okinawa, but it’s hard for them to connect because there’s a barrier between each city office and institution.”

Making the system work

Human Rights Watch said over-institutionalization was especially problematic for infants, who face potential developmental and psychological damage if they have inadequate time to bond with parents or caregivers.

Just 15 percent of the 2,032 children under the age of 2 who required alternative care in 2011 were placed into foster parent care, the report said, while the remaining 85 percent were placed in infant care institutions.

Experts agree that foster parents — who temporarily look after children in need without necessarily permanently adopting them — need better training, support and monitoring to improve the chances of success.

A quarter of foster care placements do not work out, Human Rights Watch noted, while warning that abuse was a problem.

With this in mind, the Nippon Foundation runs foster parent support seminars. It also promotes adoption through its “Happy Yurikago Project”, named after the Japanese word for cradle, “to enable as many babies and children as possible to live in a warm family setting.”

The foundation’s survey of 170 adoptive families last year found 70 percent of the adopted children said they were satisfied with themselves — much higher than the 46.5 percent level of self-approval found among the general population in a 2011 poll by the cabinet office.

Children_at_sporting_event_in_School_in_Japan
Children at a school sporting event in Japan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The favorable results did not surprise Makiyama, one of several Japanese politicians who traveled to the United Kingdom on a study tour last year to gain a better understanding of the international push to end institutionalization.

“I think that children after they are raised by their adopted parents — they realize when they’re in their adulthood how much love and how much sacrifice that person made for that child,” she said.

Modernization

Legislators have taken steps to modernize Japan’s legal framework over the past year, including amending the Child Welfare Act last June to promote the raising of children in home-like settings.

Kanae Doi, the Japan director of Human Rights Watch, said this signaled progress since the publication of the group’s Without Dreams report.

“The Child Welfare Act is a very important basic act for child welfare administration, so I think there is big progress [in this regard],” she said in a phone interview.

“However, the next step should be how to implement this law. Here I haven’t seen the progress I expect. Much more needs to be done in order to ensure that all the children have the love they need from their family.”

Doi called for reforms to the financing system for alternative care.

From the perspective of the institutions, she explained, “there is an incentive for them to institutionalize kids because they are subsidized by the government based on the number of kids in the institution so it is against their financial interest to get the kids out of their institutions.”

Takahashi, of the Nippon Foundation, said: “What we need now is to improve the general public’s understanding of adoption, and training in order to implement adoptions to be carried out by child guidance centers and private adoption agencies.

“Also, when it comes to birth parents who, despite being unable to raise children or having no intention to raise children, are nonetheless opposed to adoption, we need to develop laws by which administrative bodies put priority on the benefit to the children and set limits on parental authority so that they can proceed with adoption.”

Adoption agencies

Months after the Child Welfare Act changed, the National Diet passed another bill to ensure adoption agencies that receive proper approvals are eligible for government funding.

Some adoption agencies, such as an Osaka-based service with an online bulletin board, have attracted controversy for the speed with which they make a match.

But under the law that passed in December, organizations must consider the best interests of the child and must not make a profit. Makiyama, one of the proponents of the bill, said it aimed to eliminate any bad agencies.

Child guidance centers, non-profit agencies, doctors and the school education system all should “chip in to change our system and enhance the adoption system,” she said.

The former lawyer and television director said she brought an important perspective to the Diet as she had spent more than 10 years living in the US and Europe and had attended an international school.

Many of her friends were adopted or had adopted children themselves.

“I understand both worlds so this is one of the things I think I should highlight,” Makiyama said.

“[Adoption] should be a common understanding among teenagers and the older generation and it shouldn’t be something that should be frowned upon.

“Adopted children should not be discriminated against. It should just be a regular thing to do, a more comfortable thing to do, just as it is in the US or Europe.

“And at the same time we should make sure that children are not placed in families who are looking to abuse them or sell them or do something nasty to them. We have to have a good aftercare system to make sure that they were placed in families with love.”