Family Matters: Promoting Special Adoptions in Japan for the Good of Children


The Japanese government is looking to address rising incidents of child abuse by increasing use of the so-called special adoption system for young children. A new law to go into effect in April 2018 will promote adoptions and closer regulation of private adoption services. Authorities and experts are discussing changes to existing laws concerning adoption but it is essential to bolster social work for the system to function in the best way possible.

Japan is an outlier where child adoption is concerned. In most countries it is the norm that children who for whatever reason cannot be cared for by their birth parents are adopted or live with foster parents. But in Japan, the majority of such children reside in institutions. The government has recently been focusing attention on so-called special adoptions, and authorities are near concluding the first-ever revisions to the 30-year-old system.

Special Adoption Gives Adoptees the Same Status as Natural Children

The special adoption system went into effect in 1988 following revision of the Japanese Civil Code in 1987. Unlike regular adoption, where the adoptee is shown as “adopted son/daughter” in the family register, under the special adoption system an adoptee is registered as a couple’s natural child and all links with the child’s birth parents are severed with the intention of providing the child a stable, permanent family life. Special adoption is also separate from the foster care system, where children in need of care are placed temporarily with a foster family. In recognition of the importance of establishing stable ties with adoptive parents, special adoptions are limited to children under the age of six. There is also a probationary period of six months or more, and the adoption must be approved by a family court.

According to the Family Bureau of the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, the number of special adoptions has been gradually increasing, reaching 538 in 2016. However, viewed against the fact that around 3,000 young children are placed in institutions every year and that nearly 26,000 children already live in child welfare facilities, the number of special adoptions remains extremely low. In Western countries, adoptions number in the thousands or tens of thousands yearly.

Birth Parents Reluctant to Relinquish Rights

Why is there such a discrepancy between Japan and other countries when it comes to adoptions? Low public awareness of the special adoption system is one factor. More central to the issue, though, is the reluctance of authorities to become actively involved in adoptions. The truth is that child guidance centers, which handle children’s issues, are overburdened by a growing number of child abuse cases. In addition, Japan’s child welfare system prioritizes the role of biological parents in rearing a child, making it difficult for authorities to actively promote special adoption, which severs ties with the child’s birth parents. According to one child guidance center official, many birth parents are reluctant to relinquish parental rights even if they are unable to care for their offspring.

Another factor complicating the issue is that birth parents must agree to a special adoption and can withdraw their consent at any time during the process. It can also be difficult to contact parents. This uncertainty naturally makes many couples hesitant to apply to adopt a child. According to a welfare ministry survey, child guidance centers reported that the necessity of obtaining the birth parents’ consent was a hurdle in 70% of special adoption cases.

First System Overhaul Aims to Double Special Adoptions

Looking to address adoption and other child welfare issues, authorities revised the Child Welfare Act in 2016 to strengthen the functions of child guidance centers in preventing child abuse and bolster their role in providing advice and support for adoptions.

The welfare ministry as part of a new plan released in the summer of 2017 set a target for doubling the number of special adoptions to over 1,000 within the next five years. In June 2017, a ministry expert committee released a report on promoting the use of special adoption, which sets out specific steps for amending related provisions in the civil code, such as raising the age ceiling above six and limiting the right of birth parents to withdraw consent to adoption. If implemented, it would be the first major overhaul of the system since its inception.

However, it is not simply a matter of lowering the barriers to special adoption. The proposed changes raise many difficult concerns, first of which is that increasing the age ceiling must take into consideration the system’s original intent. Also, the proposed revisions blur the distinctions between special adoption and regular adoption. These and other issues need to be carefully discussed, and it will take time before changes to the system bring results.

Preventing Abuse in the First Year of Life: Infant Adoptions

Behind the push for more special adoptions is the worsening problem of child abuse.

About half of all deaths due to abuse are children under one-year-old, often newborns. In many cases perpetrators are young, unmarried mothers. Faced with an unplanned pregnancy, no one to approach for advice, and the pregnancy too far along for termination, these women out of desperation take dire measures to escape their situation.

Many young lives could be saved if a better system was in place to give advice to women during pregnancy and to mediate adoption if the mother is unable to care for the child. Up to now private adoption agencies have filled this mediation role.

One such agency is Florence, an NPO in Tokyo involved in various social welfare work, including running small-scale daycare facilities open to sick children. It also offers advice to women with unplanned pregnancies, and if special adoption is the best alternative for a particular situation, serves as a mediator. Florence screens prospective adoptive parents, including conducting interviews and home visits, and requires couples to attend training sessions. According to a manager at Florence, it is vital to start the mediation process early on. “It’s more difficult to find an adoptive family after a child has been in an institution, so adoption at birth is imperative. It’s also easier to ascertain the birth mother’s intentions by offering advice during pregnancy.”

The practice of infant adoption, known as the Aichi system, has been in existence for over 30 years. It was first offered through Aichi Prefecture child guidance centers and the prefecture’s association of obstetricians and gynecologists. The system never spread to child guidance centers in other parts of Japan, but recently 23 private sector groups, including hospitals and NPOs, have become involved, and today one-third of infant adoptions are mediated by such organizations.

Adoption Mediation Act Goes Into Effect in April 2018

Many of these groups are motivated out of a desire to protect children from abuse and to ensure the best outcome for both birth and adoptive parents. But the government up to now has taken a hands-off approach to adoption mediation and there are no laws on the books dealing with the issue. Although the Child Welfare Act bans profit-making by adoption agencies, the rules governing the activities of these organizations are hazy at best.

In March 2017, the operator of a for-profit adoption agency in Chiba Prefecture was arrested and later found guilty of collecting ¥2.25 million from a prospective adoptive couple and handing over a baby whose mother had not given her final consent. The court ordered the agency to suspend its operations throughout Japan, marking the first such case nationwide.

In a separate case, an NPO in Osaka providing social welfare support to parents and children raised eyebrows when it offered on its website compensation of up to ¥2 million to mothers willing to give their baby up for adoption. The money, to be paid by the adoptive parents, was ostensibly to cover the birth mother’s delivery fees and living costs during pregnancy, but many people saw it as tantamount to human trafficking. Municipal authorities quickly stepped in and asserted administrative guidance measures on the operator.

While these incidents were unfolding, the government passed long-awaited legislation protecting children who are adopted through private adoption agencies. Among the provisions slated to go into effect from April are fines for agencies mediating adoptions without a permit and government subsidies for registered agencies. The new law aims to promote proper mediation measures for special adoptions by private agencies and includes provisions under which child guidance centers and agencies cooperate in arranging adoptions.

Proper Social Work Necessary to Prevent Casual Matching

In response to the new law, the Osaka NPO has amended the information on its website and is in the process of obtaining a permit to operate. Sakaguchi Genta, the agency’s head, is confident that the new legal guidelines will make it easier to operate. “The law will weed out shady operators, leaving only legitimate agencies,” he says.

In the case of Sakaguchi’s agency, though, the ¥2 million offer was not the only issue of concern. Florence and other agencies are careful not to rush the matching process. The entire procedure can take up to six months and includes multiple meetings with the prospective adoptive parents and the birth mothers as well as coordination with authorities and the maternity clinic. Online matching, on the other hand, is a much faster, but a far more hands-off process. Workers at other adoption agencies, though, have raised concerns about matching over the Internet, emphasizing that the goal is not to ensure an adoption but to make the mother feel secure in giving birth. In their view it is vital to weave social welfare measures into the process to support the mother during the decision process and ensure the best outcome for her and her baby, something they feel is difficult to accomplish online.

The case of a Yokohama resident who gave birth in April 2017 and was planning to have the child adopted through Sakaguchi’s organization illustrates the difficult choice birth mothers face. The women did not know who the baby’s father was and was concerned she would be unable to raise the child alone. Around the fourth or fifth month of her pregnancy she learned about special adoption and had decided to give her baby up to an adoptive couple. However, she had a change of heart about two weeks before giving birth. With the help of her parents, she returned the money she received during her pregnancy.

“Some women who give up their babies for adoption think it is for the best, while others regret it their whole lives,” she explains. “I would probably have been among the latter.” She says the love she feels for her daughter is something she has never experienced before. Although she ultimately decided against giving up her child, she is glad she learned about special adoption and that there are couples ready to love an adopted child as their own flesh and blood. She also expresses gratitude for the support she received during her pregnancy.

The role of special adoption is to save young lives and help ensure a happy future for both birth and adoptive parents. Although the process needs to be improved to increase the number of special adoptions, quick, casual matching simply to make an adoption happen must be avoided at all cost. The hope now is that the new legislation will work as intended and help the process develop in a sound way, with emphasis on social work and the intentions of the birth parents.

(Originally published in Japanese on March 1, 2018. Banner photo: © Pixta)

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