Disaster Highlights Plight of Japanese Orphans

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Athit Perawongmetha / Getty Images

An infant earthquake victim rests at an evacuation center on March 27, 2011 in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan.

When concerned foreigners began contacting Japanese agencies about adopting children orphaned by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, they were told, "No, thank you. We can take care of our own." Though Japanese families occasionally adopt males to continue the family line, adoption is relatively rare here. Relative wealth, good social services and a shrinking population generally keep the numbers of orphans low.

In the aftermath of the disaster, however, there are growing concerns that the country is not, in fact, caring for its own. About 200 children lost both parents and an additional 1,200 lost one parent to the earthquake or tsunami. Most of the orphans are now living with relatives, but with unemployment at 90% in some areas orphanages may become the only option. It is very difficult, though, to get kids out of these welfare institutions and into permanent homes.

The problem is twofold. Many Japanese still consider adoption shameful, and children, when grown, are expected to take care of their elders. If a family is struggling financially or a guardian is deemed to be abusive, it may have to put a child into an orphanage, but refuse to put the child up for adoption. "Although they grow up in a facility, it's expected they'll take care of their parents or relatives once they leave," explains Sarah Gordon of adoption agency Ai No Kesshin (Loving Decisions), located in Shizuoka west of Tokyo. "People here have very strong feelings about bloodlines." This means few children are available for full, legal adoption. In 2009, only 10% of the 37,600-plus children under 18 living in welfare institutions were adopted or taken in by foster families, government statistics show. Many facilities are overcrowded as the reported number of child abuse cases has increased since a a child abuse prevention law was enacted in 2000.

For American Leza Lowitz and her Japanese husband Shogo Oketani, it was a joyous day when they were finally able to bring home their adopted 2-year-old son Yuto. The waiting for an available child had been difficult. Although the couple were solid parental candidates as Tokyo homeowners in a long-term marriage, and adoption in their respective families, they were both in their mid-40s and considered low priority. "We said we'd take any child available. It was a huge leap of faith," said Lowitz. "Yuto was an unusual case and the orphanage was very eager to find him a family." The only child available out of 100 in one orphanage, he'd already been adopted once and brought back when things didn't work out.

"Since there are so many children in orphanages who can't be legally adopted out, the adoption system [in Japan] needs to change," says Lowitz. "It's not serving the children or the society." She cites the need for counseling birth parents considering an orphanage or adoption for their child, and also a statute of limitations on legal parental claim. Now, unless a parent relinquishes their rights as legal guardian, a child cannot be adopted even if they live in a welfare facility long-term. "The reality is that very few take them back or even visit. It's just heartbreaking."

Kids living in orphanages are sometimes called "throw away children." In Japanese society the social stigma of not having a family can be crippling, especially when its time to leave the facility, usually at age 15-18. "When I was growing up in orphanages I sensed the staff was fulfilling their responsibilities but I didn't feel protected or loved," reveals Sayuri Watai, 27, founder of a support organization run by and for 'graduates' of childhood welfare facilities. Leaving child welfare facilities can be overwhelming, she says. "When I had to leave the orphanage I was all alone. I had no one to turn to," she reveals.

Improving privacy and promoting temporary foster care programs might help ease the heart-ache. One major reason adoption rates are low is the lack of confidentiality in the Japanese family registry, called koseki. One form, requested by some employers and even potential spouses, lists information on all marriages, divorces, deaths, births and adoptions. A child listed as adopted out of the family is potentially embarrassing, as it may be seen as a sign the child was unplanned or unwanted. "The koseki system is handy because all records are kept in one place, but the lack of privacy is a problem," says Gordon.

Fostering, a short-term alternative to adopting, was only recently promoted in Japan. With the government's "Child Rearing Vision" established in January last year the aim is to increase the percentage of children with foster families from 6% in 2000 to 16% in 2014. In Tokyo the number of registered foster families has doubled from 215 in 1998 to 445 in 2010. A program called "Hotto Family" has been the focus. "Compared with other industrialized countries, Japan's foster home care system is not well established," says Toshinari Suetake with the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. "But efforts are being made to change this."

Until the system does change, there are organizations and individuals offering some help. Tokyo-based, NPO Ashinaga (named for the novel "Daddy-Long-Legs"), provides school scholarships, living expenses and counseling for orphans and children of single-parent households. (UNICEF defines 'orphan' as a child who has lost one or both parents.) From the disaster-affected Tohoku region, the group has received over 1,100 applications for assistance. They'll be able to fulfill these thanks to a recent surge in donations of 1.7 billion yen (US$21 million).

One exceptional donor is telecommunications billionaire Masayoshi Son, president and CEO of Softbank Corp., who announced in May that he will donate 10 billion yen (US$125 million) of his personal fortune to disaster relief efforts. Four billion yen ($50 million) of that will be aid to orphans. The focus will be on offering the children scholarships and support for overseas education. Son added that he will also be donating to orphan relief efforts his entire 108 million yen (US$1.3 million) annual salary until the day he retires.

Other recent efforts include the Candle Fund, an NGO founded by Rie Sasaki-Herman. The aim is financial and emotional support for mothers, children and orphans of the disaster. "So far, the focus in the Tohoku region has been on adults," says Sasaki-Herman. "Now it is the voice of children that needs to be heard."