Kumamoto’s “Baby Post” and the Right to Know One’s Parents


Since the “Stork’s Cradle” baby hatch was established at Jikei Hospital in Kumamoto 10 years ago, 130 children have been left there by parents who felt they could not raise the infants on their own. A journalist who has closely followed the story casts doubt on the claim that the hatch has been a lifesaver for unwanted children and points out that it violates the child’s right to know one’s biological parents.

Jikei Hospital stands in a quiet residential district of the city of Kumamoto. Go down a narrow path cutting through the hospital grounds, and you will find yourself in front of a small door.

This door, decorated with two storks carrying a baby basket, is the “Storks’ Cradle” baby hatch, famous in Japan as a social experiment in addressing the issue of abandoned infants. Jikei director Hasuda Taiji installed the “baby post” in May 2007, modeling it on a similar experiment launched in 1999 in Germany, which, at one time, had as many as 90 baby hatches around the country.

Addressing the Problem Before Birth

According to the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, 44 children were reported to have died of parental abuse in Japan in fiscal 2014 (excluding those killed by parents in murder-suicides), 8 higher than the year before. Among those victims, 27, or 61.4%, were infants under the age of one. Deaths attributed to child abuse in Japan have hovered around 50 per year for the past decade. It is clearly impossible to judge whether Jikei Hospital’s lone baby hatch has been effective in preventing infant deaths from such statistics alone.

Jikei offers the following justification for its Stork’s Cradle. A woman convicted of killing her baby who was subsequently interviewed while serving her sentence said that she had heard about the hospital’s baby hatch when she delivered her child but did not have enough money to go to Kumamoto and leave her baby there. “There are people who are suffering from extreme poverty,” the researcher who interviewed her asserted later. “If there had been a baby hatch nearby, her child may have been saved.”

I am not fully convinced that this argument holds water. Did the mother who had just given birth truly weigh the question in this way? Had she really thought to herself, “Shall I go to Kumamoto? Or, since I don’t have enough money, should I just kill my baby instead?”

One midwife had this to say based on her own experience working for a pregnancy telephone hotline. “There are some newborns who scream and cry uncontrollably right after birth,” she observes. “It’s easy to imagine a panicked young mother covering her baby’s mouth with her hand to try to make it stop. And even if that wasn’t how it happened, a baby born without proper medical attention can still suffocate if its face remains covered with amniotic fluid. If it’s not kept warm enough, a newborn can die of hypothermia.”

Is it not possible that, when the mother cited by Jikei Hospital was still struggling over what she should do, she killed her own child by accident? Is it not possible, too, that when the researcher then asked her why she had not taken her newborn to the Kumamoto baby hatch, she simply came up with her lack of money as an excuse?

Those questions may never be answered. But a much more fundamental issue is whether a baby hatch could have averted this tragedy. What the mother really needed—more than a ticket to Kumamoto—was someone she could turn to for help, someone to notice the dilemma she was in and to put her in touch with counseling or medical services.

There may also be parents who simply cannot control their emotions and who end up abusing their children, even if they have no intention to do so. It would seem farfetched to assume a baby hatch would prevent such children from being accidently killed by such parents.

Do Baby Hatches Really Save Lives?

Did the parents who left their children at Jikei Hospital’s Stork’s Cradle believe they were actually at risk of killing their children, even by accident? After all, getting to Jikei in Kumamoto would require level-headed planning and, in many cases, traveling by airplane or a series of Shinkansen bullet trains. People involved in the Stork’s Cradle project admit that, when the hospital or government agencies have been able to later make contact with the mothers of baby hatch infants, the women had various reasons for using the hatch, such as poverty, difficult living circumstances, unwed status, or fear of what society and the people around them would say if they kept the child. Yet, all of them said that they never once thought of killing their babies themselves.

One former counselor at a local government child guidance office notes that among the women who left their babies at Jikei Hospital’s baby hatch, “there were some who, if the baby hatch wasn’t there, might have come to the guidance office instead to explain why they couldn’t raise the child themselves or who probably would have chosen to raise their children, no matter how impoverished they were.” The counselor added, “I don’t believe any one of them would have actually killed her baby.”

Some may have used the Stork’s Cradle knowing that, because it had received “social recognition” through extensive media coverage, they would be able to avoid arrest. Jikei’s baby hatch was considered safe, with none of the mothers being prosecuted on charges of aggravated abandonment.

This does not mean that the Stork’s Cradle has been trouble-free. In one case, a three-year-old child who was left in the hatch on the very first day it opened had lost its mother in a traffic accident. The insurance money that should have gone to the child was instead embezzled by a relative who was the infant’s under-aged guardian. It took four years before the relative, driven by guilt, confessed to the crime, but this had been overlooked for all those years.

The fact that some 10% of the children left at Jikei have disabilities has also created problems. In practice, it has proven almost impossible to place any of these children with adoptive parents, and there is a good chance that they will live out their entire lives in institutions.

Germany Changes Its Mind

Jikei Hospital’s Stork’s Cradle is modeled on the German babywiege system of baby hatches. In 2009, though, the German Ethics Council, an advisory council on ethical issues, analyzed the data collected to date and dismissed the possibility that the babywiege system was saving infant lives. The council recommended that “existing baby drops and facilities for anonymous birth be abolished,” asserting that there was no known case where it could be concluded that the child would have been killed if no baby hatch had been vailable. The council said that “experience to date suggests that women at risk of killing or abandoning their newborn babies are not reached by the availability of these facilities.” The council also took special note of the threat that baby hatches could “violate the right of the children concerned to a knowledge of their origins,” criticizing this as both a potential major disadvantage in their future life and a violation of fundamental human rights.

In the place of the baby hatches, the council recommended the introduction of a system whereby women would provide their real names to consultative organizations but would then be able to deliver their children anonymously in proper medical facilities.

The Kumamoto municipal government has established an advisory group composed of specialists on child welfare, doctors, lawyers and other experts to examine and validate the current operation of Stork’s Cradle. Arguing that anonymity is making it easier for mothers to abandon their children and that it “cannot accept the maintenance on anonymity in perpetuity,” the committee has strongly demanded contact with the parents of the abandoned children. However, the panel has no legal force, and Jikei has refused to compromise, asserting that anonymity is essential.

The Insecurity of “Not Knowing Your Parentage”

The mothers who left their babies in the Stork’s Cradle may have been able to extricate themselves for a pressing problem. However, according to Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work and the author of The Gifts of Imperfection, when people do not give voice to their feelings of shame, those feelings only deepen. She reports that keeping a secret like the one that the mothers of abandoned children must bear can lead to depression, drug or alcohol dependency, and other mental health issues. In the end, even those women who do leave their babies in a safe baby hatch may find that they suffer more in the end than if they had raised their children themselves.

I am not unsympathetic to the desire to wipe away the reality of an unwanted pregnancy. Yet, what then becomes of the children who must live their lives knowing that they were an unwanted child? I have interviewed one of the children who were left at Jikei Hospital and who is now in his teens. “It’s really unsettling not to know who your parents are,” he told me. “I want them to tell me the reason they left me there.”

Japan has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 7 of which clearly states that a child has “as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.” Yet the children entrusted to a baby hatch, just like the Japanese war orphans separated from their parents at the end of World War II, may continue to search all their life, deep into their old age, for their roots.

The children left at Jikei Hospital do not know their date of birth. Since their parents are also unknown, they cannot enroll in Japan’s national health insurance program. Without knowing any of the circumstances leading to the state they find themselves in, it is they who are burdened with all of the responsibilities that were abandoned with them by an unknown parent. If these children’s lives were truly “saved,” then why must they resign themselves to being forever placed at such a disadvantage?

Nurses at Jikei Hospital say that in the beginning they could only cry on seeing the babies left in the Stork’s Cradle. “More than feeling glad that a child’s life had been saved,” one nurse recalls today, “I only felt sorrow that this child’s mother had disappeared forever.”

Most media coverage of the Stork’s Cradle focuses on how it works to save young lives. But I have deep doubts that the 130 children who were placed in the baby hatch actually owe their lives to the hospital’s decision. The hospital’s desire to rescue young human lives may be noble and well-intentioned, but this does not mean we should not reexamine its claims more critically. It is the responsibility of journalism, I believe, to continue always to seek the truth without preconceptions, even in the face of limited information.

(Originally published in Japanese on July 22, 2017. Banner photo: The door of the only baby hatch in Japan, the Stork’s Cradle, at Jikei Hospital in the city of Kumamoto. Behind the door is a baby bed where newborns can be placed. Courtesy of Morimoto Nobuyo.)

welfare children single mothers abuse