More than Just Monsters

The Social Factors Behind Parental Child Abuse in Japan

In March 2018, a five-year-old girl died after prolonged neglect and abuse at the hands of her parents, who kept her on minuscule portions of food and beat her as punishment for bad behavior.

In June, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department published a notebook containing a pencil-written message from the girl to her parents, begging them for forgiveness and promising to be better behaved in the future. This letter of remorse created a public sensation.

Soon after the harrowing contents of the letter were released, people began to flock to the girl’s former home in the Meguro district of Tokyo to offer prayers and flowers. News of her tragic death prompted widespread calls for more to be done to prevent child abuse, stirring the government to pass several important emergency countermeasures. New rules now allow welfare workers to enter a family home to check on the safety of a child if they have not been able to do so through an appointment at a Child Guidance Center, and guidelines for sharing information with the police have been made clear. The government will also increase the number of child welfare officers employed in child guidance center by 60% by 2022, from 3200 to 5200.

Of course, improving measures to save children from abuse is important and worthwhile. But it will not be enough on its own. We also need a framework to support parents who struggle to cope with the burden of bringing up children. These young parents often find themselves in the position of refugees from mainstream society, isolated without help or support.

Stronger laws to prevent child abuse

Child abuse first became a major topic in Japan in the 1990s. In 1990, child guidance centers started to keep statistics on cases of child abuse and private groups for preventing cruelty to children were established in Osaka in 1990 and in Tokyo the following year. Part of the reason for these measures was the momentum toward approving the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Japan duly ratified in 1994.

In November 2000, the Child Abuse Prevention Law came into force. Previously, it was not easy for public authorities to intervene in cases of domestic violence and child abuse within the family. This law made it possible for a child who was being abused at home to be taken into a care facility for temporary protection even without the parents’ consent. Revisions to the law in 2004 placed a new obligation on local authorities to work to prevent child abuse, and further amendments in 2007 gave child guidance centers greater powers of intervention.

In 1990, the first year in which records were kept, Child Guidance Centers responded to 1,101 cases of child abuse. By 2017, this figure had risen to more than 130,000. Part of the reason for this dramatic increase is an improved understanding of the issues, as a result of government advice and publicity in the years since 1990 to raise awareness of child abuse in society.

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