It’s an unfortunate fact that child abuse is an issue that every country has to manage. In the United States and Japan teachers are often counseled, trained, and given reading literature about the warning signs of abuse. Does a student smell funny every day at school? Do they steal from other students? Do you see a mysterious bruise? Self-deprecation, communication problems, problems eating, uniforms ill taken care of…The list goes on and on.
It’s well known that child abuse affects how students behave in the classroom. Abused children will be living with far more stress than their sheltered classmates. Friends of mine in the American school system who are teachers keep snacks and fruit inside their desk for students who come in starving because their students can only get the government provided lunches in the cafeteria. Without them providing breakfast (usually out of pocket), these students would behave badly and not pay attention in class. The abuse and neglect of parents causes strain on students.
Where I lived in Kentucky, Child Protective Services (CPS) could be called by school counselors and/or nurses if they suspected child abuse. A friend of mine in elementary school got the CPS called on her uncle because he regularly refused to give her breakfast before school (I believe he was a baby sitter, not a full time guardian, so the case got dropped). My mother actually feared that she’d get called in because my brother regularly played kickball and soccer, so his shins were bruised a lot in his elementary school days. CPS held an air of authority, even if most people sneered at the idea of putting kids in the foster care system, the fact remains that most states have a semi-functioning system in place that keeps track of kids and their parents.
In Japan, children are rarely taken out of their homes. It’s common knowledge that unless the abuse is considered “life threatening,” children are expected to stay with their families until they reach maturity (if they make it). Up until the 1980’s, most parents in Japan were under the impression that child abuse “just didn’t happen.” People like Atsuko Shiina brought the issue to national attention with her research books. Most Japanese people believed that families as a structural unit shouldn’t be meddled with by the government, as family ties are considered strong in this collectivist culture. Unless it’s a marriage or death certificate, the government should mind it’s own business.
But then in 1994, “Japan’s signed in at the U.N. Convention of the Rights of the Child to help the public understand, Shiina explains, that ‘children are not their parents’ private property.’ Even so, passage of a Child Abuse Prevention Law took until 2000.” And now, Japan’s government made a point in the past few years to start getting better about keeping track of child welfare and taking more kids into protective custody.
Japan Times reported in September of 2015 that child abuse reports were at a “record high,” but that record is shaky at best:
The police referred a record 17,224 suspected child abuse victims under the age of 18 to child consultation centers across the country in the first six months of this year.
That is the highest number since specific statistics started to be compiled in 2011 and a rise of 32 percent from the year before. Clearly, the police are doing a better job of investigating cases of abuse and of taking more action…
…The most disturbing part of these statistics is that child abuse may not be actually increasing; it has just been hidden. In another survey from the Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry for fiscal year 2012, the total number of reports about child abuse made to child social welfare services reached 46,468.
As a teacher in the Japanese school system, I must follow the Child Abuse Prevention Law. Teachers, medical practitioners and child welfare officers are obligated to keep an eye out to detect and report abuse. Yet, as someone who doesn’t understand Japanese fluently yet, being able to uncover abuse is a big challenge for me. I have to trust that the Japanese homeroom teachers and the guidance counselors are doing their utmost for the students.
It’s not easy. Students will keep secrets from the teachers about their living situation, often out of shame. They will lie, dodge questions, and even try to get out of coming to school because they don’t want anyone to know. For elementary and junior high, education is mandatory, so that’s where the abuse gets discovered the most often. High school isn’t necessary, high school students drop out all the time, and they can get lost in the system.
Ishikawa Yuki discussed in her recent article “Japan’s Crisis of Missing and Abused Children” that part of the problem comes from municipalities deleting residency information, “Japan’s legal code allows local governments to expunge resident certificates from files if it is determined that a person no longer lives within the municipality. As a result, if a child’s resident information is no longer extant, he or she is left out of official figures.” Essentially, the local governments have a legal way to sweep the problem of child abuse under the rug so they don’t have to deal with it. Although I want to believe that most police would do something if they could, the traditionally lax methods with child abuse and thoughts on child welfare make me nervous.
In addition to that, unlike CPS in the United States, the Japan’s child guidance offices have some systematic failings according to Ishikawa:
Japan’s child guidance offices rely on a shockingly antiquated child abuse information system to share knowledge concerning missing and abused children. Even now information on top-priority cases, such as instances of extreme child abuse and children suffering in abject living conditions, is sent by fax machine. Moreover, there is no information database, nor is the filing system for managing received faxes adequate.
In addition, child guidance offices gravely lack the personnel and mechanisms needed to investigate cases in ways comparable to police departments. Enlisting the help of law enforcement agencies, then, would seem to be essential. However, many staff members told me requesting police to investigate a missing child can be problematic. This is in part because it requires careful attention to protecting personal information and the need to determine whether or not a crime has been committed. In light of these demands, the police in many situations will turn down requests.
Needless to say, if a child is getting abused or neglected at home, their education suffers. Child abuse often results in physical and psychological developmental delays. When the education suffers, unfortunately, the rest of a child’s life in Japan can get derailed. Passing tests, getting into the best high schools/ universities, all that matters when they finally want to have full time careers.
Unlike in the United States, homeroom teachers bear the full responsibility of reporting possible abuse, because they’re the ones in charge of the student’s academic progress. Teachers in Japan have students regularly see the guidance counselors at school, usually to discuss the possibility of bullying but they also cover home life issues. Technically, guidance counselors should report abuse, but most schools tend to make the homeroom teacher file all those reports. Regular teachers should also keep an eye out and report to the homeroom teacher if they suspect something is wrong. I’ve done my fair share of discussing problems with homeroom teachers, but so far none yet covering abuse. I both hope and dread that I never have to, because statistically speaking at some point I’ve taught an abused child and never knew it.
Right now, I worry that odds are someone in my class is getting abused, someone is falling through the cracks, and I’m not noticing it. I want my students to have a bright future. Besides educational issues, there are of course personal ones as well. If unaddressed, abused children can suffer from alcoholism/substance abuse, depression, domestic abuse/violence, suicidal thoughts, and even attempts of suicide when they grow up.
A home should be a place where children feel safe, loved, and nurtured. If not someone should be doing something to change their environment so they can have a better life, or at the very least get a fighting chance at a better future. Even though the Japanese government has put forth more effort lately, I don’t believe it’s quite done enough. More funding should go towards the child welfare sector, as well as changing the law to prevent children from getting their residency records deleted from the system. I want my students and all other children in Japan to live without pain or fear.
If you have a topic about Japan that you’d like me to write about please tell me in the comment section below!