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Sunday, Sept. 26, 2004

MEDIA MIX

Japan's abandoned kids live with the label


The murders of 4-year-old Kazuto Hayashi and his 3-year-old brother Hayato by an acquaintance of their father two weeks ago in Tochigi Prefecture has sparked outrage over Japan's insufficient child-welfare system. Though local police and child-welfare officials were aware the two boys were being beaten, they allowed them to be placed back in the environment where the abuse was taking place. It's a scenario that appears on the evening news with shocking regularity.

The media have held the authorities at least partly responsible for the boys' deaths, but they've been much more forgiving of the father himself. On Sept. 15, the day after Hayato's body was found in a river, Yasunari Kobayashi gave a press conference where he "apologized" to his two sons and expressed his "frustration and anger" at Akihiro Shimoyama, the man who confessed to the murders. However, based on accounts of the press conference, it appears no reporter asked him if he himself felt any responsibility for his sons' killings.

Given the particulars of the case, the reporters' reluctance to ask the hard questions is not much different from the reluctance of the police and child-welfare officials to hold the boys in protective custody after they determined they'd been abused. It was the father, after all, who ignored the welfare officials' request to have the boys stay with their grandmother and took them back to the apartment he shared with Shimoyama, who he knew had beaten the boys.

The media's timidity is in line with the general belief that the father, whatever his sins, possesses ultimate authority over his children. He also -- theoretically at least -- is hurt the most when his children suffer at the hands of others. The press cut him some slack by not showing his face on TV or wondering out loud in his presence why he didn't consider Shimoyama a danger to his sons.

This thinking leads to the inescapable conclusion that children will always be better off in the custody of their parents than anywhere else, which in turn explains why laws regarding child abuse are so weak and jidoyogoshitsu (child-welfare facilities) are considered breeding grounds of disappointment and frustration.

At present, about 30,000 children reside in Japanese welfare facilities. Though a few are orphans, the majority have been taken from their parents' care, mainly because of abuse, but also because their parents are too sick or too poor to raise them.

These children are thus both objects of pity and sources of embarrassment, a combination that automatically precludes their becoming constructive members of society.

Having been abandoned or taken away from their parents makes them damaged goods, and they grow up acutely aware of that label. The authorities would rather not think about them, and once they graduate, either from junior or senior high school, most are turned out with a 65,000 yen "independence allowance" (depending on the local government) and a hearty "Ganbatte!"

Not surprisingly, extremely few go to university, and most float down to the bottom of the job pool. Less than 10 percent of Japanese children raised in welfare facilities pursue any kind of higher learning or vocational program, mainly because they have no money.

Last year, the Mainichi Shimbun reported on a workshop where Japanese kids raised in state-run institutions discussed how they would "get on with their lives." The kids assumed they would be stuck bagging groceries or working part-time in family restaurants, the only kind of career choices they'd been encouraged to pursue. Reality turned out to be even worse. The article mentioned a rare facility in Fukuoka that went out of its way to help seven graduating residents find jobs. They succeeded in finding only two, one of which was in Hokkaido.

The vicious cycle is endless: Abandoned children grow up without any opportunity, thus forcing them to cling to the bottom rungs of a society which in turn supports the general opinion that they are damaged goods. Last Sunday, Fuji TV's documentary program "The Non-Fiction" profiled a young man who was abandoned by his mother when he was a baby. He was raised by foster parents who, though well-meaning and dedicated to his welfare, repeatedly told him he would "have to try harder" in life because he had been abandoned. The parents thought they were being realistic, but they were just reinforcing whatever feelings of inferiority he already possessed. Subsequently, he has gone from one low-paying job to another.

It's important to keep in mind that the young man's employment situation really isn't much different than that of many young men who were actually raised by their parents, but by making a big deal out of his being an abandoned child, the program made it seem as if that was the only cause of his problems.

At one point in the program, he even got to meet his biological mother, whose life, we were led to believe, had gone from bad to worse in the intervening years. Though it's impossible to say for sure, the young man probably had a more stable life with his foster parents than he would have had he remained with his mother. However, such a possibility was beyond the scope of the program, which was to profile someone who was a loser in life through no fault of his own but a loser nonetheless.

The administrative logic behind the Tochigi child-welfare officials' decision springs from the same sentiment: Taking the Kobayashi brothers away from their father might have made them damaged goods.

But damaged is better than dead.



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