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


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.

Reluctance to Use Public Services

In all three cases, the parents themselves suffered violence or neglect as children, and grew up in isolation. As adults, they continued to face numerous difficulties and struggled to build a stable position for themselves in society. And in all cases, they chose to keep these difficulties a secret. Even if they had used public services while things were going relatively smoothly, once problems arose they would (or could) no longer turn to them for help.

Including the recent case in Meguro, the mothers were all in their teens or slightly older when they gave birth. These were women who had missed out on the kind of education and upbringing that might have equipped them to find a place in adult society. They had tried to find a place for themselves by marrying and starting a family at a young age. But women like this are at a high risk of falling into serious poverty if their marriages collapse and they start working to support themselves with children in tow.

Part of the reason why the mother in Osaka was driven to work in the sex industry is the reality of contemporary society, where it is difficult for a woman to earn enough money to bring up a child on her own. Many women, including single mothers, work in the sex industry because it is hard for them to earn a steady income in other lines of work. But although the barrier to entry is low, women working in the sex industry have no rights as workers and are treated as mere merchandise. In the process, they sometimes lose the ability to give their children the care and attention they need. And there is often a strong stigma attached to the idea of receiving public assistance as a single mother. They probably also feel psychological pressure to hide the fact they are not capable of fulfilling their roles as mothers.

Simply lashing out at these people as “evil” monsters does not solve anything. The reality is that they lacked the time and the money to bring up their children properly, and missed out on the essential support they needed from public services.

Building a Support Network for Young Parents

This is not the first time that a spate of child abuse cases has scandalized the public and dominated the news. In the early 1970s, the public imagination was captivated and horrified in equal measure by the “coin locker baby” incidents, in which newborn babies were abandoned in railway station coin lockers. According to a survey carried out by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare in 1973, as many as 251 children under the age of three had died as a result of violent abuse or neglect. In most cases, the people responsible were blood relatives of the victims. The total number of children abused in this way was many times larger than the equivalent figure today.

In fact, between 2005 and 2014, pregnant women and new mothers in the 23 municipalities of central Tokyo were three times more likely to die from suicide than from illness or disease. Pregnancy can drive socially disadvantaged women to despair—this basic fact has not changed since the days of the coin locker babies. If the mother dies alone, it is suicide; if she takes her baby with her, it is considered a joint suicide (shinjū); if the mother does not die but the baby does, it is considered a case of child abuse. Most often, the children who die from child abuse are less than one year old.

Since the case in Meguro earlier this year, steps have been taken to strengthen the Child Guidance Centers and the services they can provide. This is an important move. But the most effective policy the government could take would be to do more to help young people become more integrated into society, equipping them to meet people and feel confident about asking for help, and put a framework in place so that bringing up a child is no longer the responsibility of the parents alone but also the responsibility of the wider society. When parents feel excluded by society, their frustration and desperation can sometimes lead them to use horrendous violence against children, the most vulnerable members of that society.

In 2016, the Child Welfare Law was revised to prioritize the rights and best interests of the child. In 2017, the Ministry of Welfare published a vision for childcare and a new society, outlining the process by which it will work to make the ideals of child welfare a reality.

Part of the vision includes plans to increase the number of foster parents and make more use of the “special adoption system,” to reduce the number of children placed in institutions. This aspect of the plan was widely reported. But the vision also includes plans to build “comprehensive child and family support centers” around the country, strengthening the role of social workers, and joining forces with doctors, volunteers, and other resources in the community to create a comprehensive network of support that will help families to bring up their children.

The idea that bringing up children is the responsibility of the family is deeply rooted in Japanese society. Many parents have internalized this way of thinking, which makes it difficult for them to ask for help when difficulties arise.

Bringing up children is an endeavor that requires the support of society as a whole. If more people come to accept this idea, in the long run it will surely make horrific incidents of this kind less likely in the future, and reduce the number of children losing their lives in such tragic circumstances.

(Originally published in Japanese on August 31, 2018. Banner photo: A person leaves flowers in front of the apartment building where Funato Yua died after suffering neglect and abuse at the hands of her parents. Photograph taken June 8, 2018. © Tamaki Tatsurō, Mainichi Shimbun/Aflo.)

children poverty single mothers abuse