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More than Just Monsters: The Social Factors Behind Parental Child Abuse in Japan

Sugiyama Haru [Profile]


When a five-year-old girl died from parental abuse earlier this year, the heart-rending note she left behind mobilized public sympathy and stirred the government to pass a raft of emergency measures. But if we truly want to get to the root of the problem, we need to understand the social factors that sometimes drive young parents to neglect and abuse their own children.

In March 2018, a five-year-old girl died after prolonged neglect and abuse at the hands of her parents, who kept her on minuscule portions of food and beat her as punishment for “bad behavior.” In June, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department published a notebook containing a pencil-written message from the girl to her parents, begging them for forgiveness and promising to be better behaved in the future. This “letter of remorse” created a public sensation.

Soon after the harrowing contents of the letter were released, people began to flock to the girl’s former home in the Meguro district of Tokyo to offer prayers and flowers. News of her tragic death prompted widespread calls for more to be done to prevent child abuse, stirring the government to pass several important emergency countermeasures. New rules now allow welfare workers to enter a family home to check on the safety of a child if they have not been able to do so through an appointment at a Child Guidance Center, and guidelines for sharing information with the police have been made clearer. The government will also increase the number of child welfare officers employed in Child Guidance Centers by 60% by 2022, from 3200 (in 2017) to 5200.

Of course, improving measures to save children from abuse is important and worthwhile. But it will not be enough on its own. We also need a framework to support parents who struggle to cope with the burden of bringing up children. These young parents often find themselves in the position of refugees from mainstream society, isolated without help or support.

Stronger Laws to Prevent Child Abuse

Child abuse first became a major topic in Japan in the 1990s. In 1990, Child Guidance Centers started to keep statistics on cases of child abuse, and private groups for preventing cruelty to children were established in Osaka in 1990 and in Tokyo the following year. Part of the reason for these measures was the momentum toward approving the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Japan duly ratified in 1994.

In November 2000, the Child Abuse Prevention Law came into force. Previously, it was not easy for public authorities to intervene in cases of domestic violence and child abuse within the family. This law made it possible for a child who was being abused at home to be taken into a care facility for “temporary protection” even without the parents’ consent. Revisions to the law in 2004 placed a new obligation on local authorities to work to prevent child abuse, and further amendments in 2007 gave Child Guidance Centers greater powers of intervention.

In 1990, the first year in which records were kept, Child Guidance Centers responded to 1,101 cases of child abuse. By 2017, this figure had risen to more than 130,000. Part of the reason for this dramatic increase is an improved understanding of the issues, as a result of government advice and publicity in the years since 1990 to raise awareness of child abuse in society. In 2003, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare started to release public figures of the number of children who died as the result of abuse. The number of cases has fluctuated between 50 and 100 cases a year, most of them involving children who died at the hands of their own parents or guardians.

Since the current legislation on child abuse came into effect in 2000, I have reported on three cases of abuse. I believe that looking at the characteristics of these three cases can help us get a better understanding of the background to abuse and how parents can sometimes be driven to commit such terrible crimes against their own children.

The Girl Who Died in a Cardboard Box

The first case I reported on happened in 2000, in the town of Taketoyo-chō in Aichi Prefecture. A three-year-old girl was put in a cardboard box and starved to death. She was the first daughter of a stay-at-home mother who was 18 when the girl was born. The mother found it impossible to talk to her husband about the stresses of bringing up her child—he had strict old-fashioned views and believed that housework and childcare were a woman’s responsibility. Her relationships with her mother and mother-in-law were also poor. When she became pregnant again, she drew up a budget and tried to find a way to balance the household finances after her second child was born. Around this time, her first daughter was diagnosed with a suspected developmental disability, and a health worker advised her to take the child to a language learning center run by the local government. The mother chose not to follow this advice, reluctant to spend the extra ¥50 it would cost for her daughter’s snack lunch.

The child’s father was the same age as the mother, and worked as a regular employee for a subsidiary of a major steel company, but his take-home pay was just ¥130,000 a month after tax. He was apparently a dedicated worker, with Asperger’s tendencies. On one occasion, he violently shook his daughter, then ten months old, causing a wound to her head. She received medical treatment, but began to show signs of learning difficulties after she was discharged from the hospital. The parents also had a son, who was developing regularly. They doted on the boy, and started to act coldly toward their daughter. The father’s only social network centered entirely on his job, and he spent most of his time at home playing video games.

The mother was anxious about the family’s difficult economic circumstances, but couldn’t bring herself to contact the relevant authorities. She started to lose her ability to think straight. Isolated and without support, she developed an addiction to shopping, buying an expensive futon on hire purchase and then failing to make the payments on her loan.

The parents subconsciously began to turn their frustration and anger on their daughter, and when she showed signs of disobedience they shut her up in a cardboard box. The daughter became malnourished and eventually died.

Isolation and Poverty

The next case happened in Nishi Ward, Osaka in 2010, when a three-year-old girl and a one-year-old boy died after being left alone for 50 days in the dormitory quarters attached to a fūzoku establishment providing erotic massage and sexual services. The mother was 23 at the time and had grown up in Mie Prefecture. She married when she was 20 and gave birth to her children soon after. When she was a stay-at-home mother, she had taken advantage of all the public welfare assistance available in the town where she lived. Following a divorce, she moved away with her children, first to Nagoya, where she worked in a “cabaret” bar, and then to Osaka, when she found her job in the fūzoku establishment. She now had no one she could turn to for support, either family or local government services.

The third case happened in 2014, when the bones of a five-year-old boy were discovered buried under piles of trash in a small apartment in Atsugi in Kanagawa Prefecture. Seven years and four months had passed since the boy’s death. The father, who was 37 at the time, worked as a long-distance truck driver, and had mild intellectual disabilities. His wife had a poor relationship with her family and had moved in with the truck driver while she was still a teenager, becoming pregnant soon after. She left when the child was three years old. The father told no one that his wife had left, and for two years continued to work and raise the boy on his own.

The father had enrolled at a two-year vocational college after graduating from high school, but—faced with a three-hour commute each way—soon dropped out and started working part-time jobs. He eventually changed jobs to try and learn a trade but his income remained unstable. His family support network was also weak. This was the situation when he met his wife, then 17. The couple borrowed money from their families and took out loans from consumer credit agencies. This led to the breakdown of these relationships, and the couple became isolated.

Even after he managed to find a full-time position as a truck driver, the husband’s take-home pay was between ¥230,000 and ¥250,000 a month, and he was forced to work long shifts six days a week. The couple struggled to pay off their loans, and with the husband unable to afford time off to help look after the child, the relationship suffered. To supplement their income, the wife started leaving the child at home and working shifts at a local convenience store, but ended up providing sexual services for cash. Eventually, she took off, leaving her husband and child behind. The husband, fearful of losing his job, continued to work long shifts and rarely took time off. For two years after his wife left, he continued to bring up the child alone. Eventually, exhausted, he neglected the child to the point of death.

  • [2018.09.14]

Born in Tokyo in 1958. Worked as a magazine editor after graduating from Waseda University’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences and has since worked as a freelance investigative reporter. Works include Negurekuto—ikuji hōki, Mana-chan wa naze shindaka (Neglect: What Caused Little Mana’s Death?), which received the Shōgakukan Nonfiction Prize  and Imin kanryū—Nambei kara kaettekuru Nikkeijintachi (Completing the Immigration circle: The Return of Ethnic Japanese from Latin America).

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