Hearing Their Cries

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Former nursery school teacher Miyuki Horiuchi never dreamed she would resort to violence to discipline her young son. But when Yuji turned two, he started losing his temper and bursting into tears at a moment's notice. The tantrums came at the supermarket, in department stores, at the park. Nothing seemed to calm him down--except a slap on the bottom. When that no longer worked, his mother moved up to two slaps, then three. Soon the slaps and cuffs to the head became a daily routine. One time she kicked Yuji in the leg. Though wracked with guilt, she couldn't control herself. The more I hit him, the more he cried, says Horiuchi. And his crying made me even angrier. Fearing she might seriously injure the child, Horiuchi sought help. Her story is part of what experts warn is an alarming increase in child abuse in Japan. State-run counseling centers for children handled 5,352 cases in the year ending March '98, five times the caseload of 1990, according to Japan's health ministry. The real number could be four times that, children's rights activists say, since the government only counts cases reported to its counseling centers. Private surveys have turned up some shocking numbers. Nearly one in 10 Tokyo mothers beat or neglect their preschool children, according to a poll by Tokyo's Center for Child Abuse Prevention. The number of cases in which kids are seriously injured or even killed is on the rise, too, according to pediatrician Seiji Sakai, a member of the privately run center. Children are dying one by one in front of our eyes and nothing is being done about it, Sakai says. Nobody is taking responsibility.

In a country where children's rights are a new concept and parents are considered to have complete authority inside the home, child abuse has never been much of a public issue. But citizens' groups are now prodding the government to get more involved. The health ministry started keeping records of child-abuse cases only nine years ago and has never conducted a comprehensive survey of the problem. The police don't even keep statistics on the number of children who die from abuse at the hands of their parents. The government has earmarked a paltry $1.2 million for aid to battered children this year, not enough to properly fund even the state-run counseling centers--the only institutions with the authority to put battered children into protective custody. The centers also are woefully short of specialists: the latest yearly figures show at least 15 kids died at the hands of their parents after case workers failed to recognize warning signs, the health ministry concedes. In Japan there is no system to detect the abuse, laments Atsuko Shiina, a freelance journalist who runs a support group for abusive mothers seeking help.

In the past, Japanese tended to live in close communities where neighbors and other family members were the first to notice--and step in--when kids were mistreated. But urbanization, the disappearance of the extended family and the punishing office hours of Japan's salaried workers are taking their toll. Many young mothers live alone in cramped apartments with little contact with anyone but their children; in this claustrophobic atmosphere, some snap. Horiuchi's case is typical. Her husband, a journalist, usually gets home after 10 p.m. and leaves for work before breakfast. I'd like to chat with adults, especially at dinner, she says. Even if you love someone, if you stay with them 24 hours a day you'll get sick of them.

Many new mothers grew up in smaller families than did their parents, a reflection of Japan's falling birthrate. Unlike their mothers, they may not have had the chance to look after younger siblings or neighborhood kids. Without mothers and mothers-in-law around to offer guidance, they sometimes make alarmingly poor judgments. In May, a five-month old baby girl was found crying in a coin locker at a train station in Kawasaki. Her parents, both in their early 20s, had stashed the child while they went for a noodle dinner nearby. When they went to retrieve the child, they were surprised to find a crowd, including police, gathered around the locker. The father reportedly told the officers he thought the locker would be a warm, safe place to park the kid. It used to be that parents with mental problems or weirdos were behind such extreme cases, says Misako Tasaki, a psychologist at a child counseling center in Tokyo. These days it is ordinary people. Such stories have helped spawn a grassroots movement aimed at filling the gaps in the government's safety net. Journalist Shiina set up her group in 1995 after publishing a comic strip on child abuse that prompted a flood of letters from abusive mothers seeking help. After the 200th letter, she put together a list of pediatricians, psychiatrists and other experts, then hooked them up with the mothers.

Horiuchi says she is still on the mend. These days she meets with other mothers three times a week to share tips. A two-month course on child-rearing also helped, she says. So has moving into a bigger apartment and trying to rebuild her relationship with her son, holding him more and kissing him. She still occasionally loses her temper with Yuji--she recently hurled a toy at him--but things are getting better. Says Horiuchi: I feel he is lovely for the first time.