Japan’s Crisis of Missing and Abused Children


As Japan grapples with the social implications of its desperately low birthrate, the welfare of children is also in jeopardy. Of note is a sharp increase in child abuse. In 2014, child guidance offices reported providing support in approximately 89,000 cases nationwide, a startling 80-fold increase from 1990 when figures were initially compiled. But even as the issue garners greater media attention, with news broadcasts and dailies offering up an endless stream of heart-rending stories, lurking just below the surface is the seldom-reported matter of missing children.

Japan’s education ministry has conducted its annual Basic School Survey to aid in administration of the nation’s education system. Along with enrollment figures and other data, in 1961 the survey started to record Japanese nationals of elementary and junior high school age who for over a year have not lived at the address listed on their official resident registry and whose whereabouts are unknown. Over more than a half century the survey has recorded around 24,000 children as missing. The obvious question for many is what became of these youngsters? In most cases their fates remain a mystery.

Homeless at Eleven

The eight years I have covered the issue of missing children have starkly illustrated to me the deep problems facing youth who fall off society’s radar. While education is a major concern—when children go missing they stop attending school or never enroll—children also become disconnected from Japan’s medical and welfare systems and are unable to take advantage of various government support programs.

The government provides social welfare based on resident records filed at municipal offices. These services include basic programs such as national health insurance, child allowance, schooling support, and public assistance. For children whose whereabouts are unknown, however, the lack of up-to-date information means authorities are unable to track their situation and accurately gauge whether or not they need assistance.

The best way to illustrate the shortcomings of the system is with an actual case. In 2008 I covered the story of an 11-year-old boy who went missing. Now 19, at the time he was living homeless with his mother and stepfather. The family stayed in love hotels when the stepfather, a day laborer, found work and slept in parks or under public structures on days when there were no jobs.

Meals were scarce. For sustenance the boy would steal bottles of milk from delivery-service boxes outside of homes or snatch items from baskets of unattended bicycles outside supermarkets. His hair was mussed, his clothes dirty, and his body was marked with bruises suffered at the hands of his parents.

Although the youth did not attend school and suffered from poverty and domestic abuse, he fell outside the scope of the Basic School Survey, and subsequently was not included in the tally of missing children.

No Record of Residence

So how did the boy fall so easily through the cracks? The Basic School Survey only counts children whose whereabouts are unknown as missing if their resident certificates are on file with local authorities. However, 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.

This was the boy’s fate. Authorities in the municipality where he was registered could find no proof of residence, which is not surprising as he was homeless and constantly on the move. But deleting resident records, such as with the boy, removes an important mechanism for tracking whether a child is missing or not. These youngsters, who already face constant danger from their harsh living conditions, are in effect swept under the rug by the government and left to fend for themselves.

The boy eventually resurfaced when he was 14. He had been homeless for two and a half years when his mother, in labor with her second child, showed up at a hospital in a city in the Kantō region in eastern Japan. With the new baby in tow, the family began accepting welfare payments and settled in a tiny room at a cheap lodging house.

The boy met with a counselor from the child guidance office, who arranged for him to attend school. Just as life finally appeared to be heading in a positive direction, however, the family disappeared from the lodging house and returned to the streets after the boy’s mother began expressing displeasure at their cramped living conditions.

City officials and the local child guidance office were naturally aware of the youth’s desperate situation. But after he went missing authorities were unable to track him down and prevent him from becoming homeless again. At first glance the story appears to be the result of bureaucratic negligence. In reality, though, the young man’s case, which is by no means an isolated incident, illustrates the limits of the current child welfare system.

Systematic Shortcomings

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.

Even when law enforcement moves on a case, it can often be too late. For example, in 2014 the skeletal remains of a young boy were discovered in an apartment in Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture. The boy, who was five at the time he died, had been expected to start at a local elementary school but never appeared and was considered missing. School administration, the board of education, and the local child guidance office looked in to the matter but were unable to confirm the boy’s whereabouts. Authorities eventually lost track of the case and by the time police were called in to investigate, eight years had already passed.

Outside the System

Japan’s siloed administration system has changed little over the years. In 2012 a four-year-old girl in Aichi Prefecture died from neglect while her parents kept her seven-year-old brother locked up at home. There were signs something was amiss when the brother failed to enroll at a local school. Although the boy still lived in the city, school administration reported him missing after they were unable to verify his whereabouts. This was even despite the father appearing at city hall to pick up child allowances for both children.

Conceivably, red flags would have immediately gone up if school administration and the board of education had been more risk-aware and shared information with other municipal offices. In this and every similar story I cover, I’m mortified by the thought that coherent action by authorities would have saved a young life.

In closing, I want to point to the dubiousness of the Basic School Survey’s count of approximately 24,000 missing children. As I illustrated with the case of the homeless boy, this number overlooks many children and cannot be considered to reflect how many have actually gone missing.

With resident registration erased, children are cut off from education, medical, and welfare services, increasing their risk of suffering poverty and abuse. Sadly, it is impossible under current assessment methods and administrative systems to track down children whose whereabouts are unknown to learn if they are healthy and happy or have suffered a sinister fate.

Japan’s missing children have no say in the matter. They are at the mercy of their parents and guardians as well as a society that all too readily turns its back. Their plight cries out for an up-to-date system capable of locating and helping them. In reporting on the nation’s vanished children, I hope to open the eyes of as many people as I can to this situation.

(Originally published in Japanese on January 28, 2016.)
▼Further reading
Child Poverty, the Grim Legacy of Denial The Plight of Japan’s Single Mothers

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