“Family Homes”: A Burgeoning Approach to Foster Care in Japan

Society Family Economy

Japan has seen a precipitous rise in incidences of neglect, child abuse, school absenteeism, and child suicide as society struggles with the impacts of economic change and population decline. As more children face adverse living environments, the “family home” model offers an alternative to traditional foster care.

There are some 42,000 children in Japan who are unable to live with their birth parents and are raised in alternative care like foster homes or publicly operated facilities. In 2016, Japan revised its Child Welfare Act to bolster the ratio of family-based care out of the understanding that it is better for foster children to live in a stable environment that replicate household settings with nurturing, responsive caregivers. Among the approaches receiving attention are privately run foster group homes known as “family homes” that provide family-based care for up to six children. Below we look at two family homes and consider changes to Japan’s approach to foster care.

A Place to Call Home

Yokota Takashi and Yokota Wakako started their journey as foster parents 15 years ago. In that time, they have cared for around 30 children, raising them alongside their own five children, who are now between the ages of 13 and 29. Applying their experience, the couple opened the Adachi Family Home in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, three years ago. They currently care for four foster children, the youngest of whom is a third grader in elementary school and the oldest a first-year junior high student.

As a foster parent, Wakako emphasizes the importance of building a supportive network. “We’d never have been able to make it this far without assistance from other foster care providers, parents and guardians, the child guidance office, and the like.” The Yokotas’ home, which doubles as a local church for the Shintō-based religion Tenrikyō, is a hub of activity. The spacious garden and church facilities host events ranging from foster parent association get-togethers to rehearsals for children’s theatrical performances. Among the regular visitors are local volunteers who come to help with schoolwork or to look after younger children. In this safe, supportive environment, children are able to develop important social skills as they interact with their peer and others around them.

Children attend a summer event put on by the foster parent association. Memorable experiences like these play an important role in the healthy development of children in foster care. (Courtesy of Minami Hanamizuki Kai)
Children attend a summer event put on by the foster parent association. Memorable experiences like these play an important role in the healthy development of children in foster care. (Courtesy of Minami Hanamizuki Kai)

One of the children living with the Yokotas is a boy who first came to the family as an eight-month-old infant. Now in the first year of junior high school, he has grown up alongside the couple’s other children, the nearest of whom, their daughter, is only a year older. Since he was a little boy, he has dealt with a developmental disorder that makes it hard for him to control his emotions. When he entered the challenging social environment of elementary school, Takashi and Wakako made every effort to support him in his education, including walking him to and from school all six years and patiently picking up his books and materials when he would fling them aside in frustration. During one especially rough period in the third grade, they sat alongside him in class for emotional support.

Wakako says that at times, when overwhelmed at his situation, her foster son has taken his frustration out on his foster parents. Once when he was still small, he asked plaintively why she had given birth to their daughter but not to him. Overcome by emotions, he had bit her on the hand, drawing blood.

Recognizing what drives such outbursts, Wakako says that “children want to hear you say that you’ll be with them always.” Following the biting incident, she consoled her foster son telling him, “I would love to be your birth mother. But you are a lucky boy because you have two moms who love you dearly.” Soothing and reassuring him in this manner, the child eventually felt at ease.

The Yokotas’ oldest son Hiroto was inspired by his experience as a foster brother to study psychology at graduate school and now helps his parents run the Adachi Family Home. Noting the challenges of dealing with his foster brother’s temper, he says that “even after learning what causes him to act the way he does, it’s still frustrating dealing with outbursts.” Rather than creating a divide, though, he says that it has made him feel closer to the boy. “He may say things that get under my skin, but that’s what brothers do. Our job as a family is to smother him with love.”

Yokota Hiroto, right, with his parents. (© Gotō Eri)
Yokota Hiroto, right, with his parents. (© Gotō Eri)

Building Trust

Many children in foster care have health, behavioral, emotional, and developmental issues that can lead them to be shuffled from one home to the next. The first high-school aged child the Yokotas accepted, a boy, was one such case. Neglected by his mother, he was unpredictable and prone to lashing out, sometimes violently. The caseworker from the child welfare office who approached the Yokotas about taking him in tearfully pleaded to the couple, “He’s got nowhere else to go.”

At school, the boy was tagged as a troublemaker and excluded from outings for fear that he would be disruptive. When his classmates went on field trips, he remained at his foster home. “Without a parent to take his side,” Wakako recounts, “the school called the shots. He didn’t get to join in even one event.”

The Yokotas were determined to support their foster son, come what may. Wakako recalls a fight between him and their youngest son, who was then in junior high, that ended with the older boy pummeling the younger and leaving in a fit of rage. The worker from the child guidance office who intervened in the incident told the Yokotas they could reject the boy if they wanted, but they refused despite their sons’ protests. “If we turn our backs on him,” Wakako had argued, “he’ll be totally on his own.” The boy, persuaded by his girlfriend, eventually returned to the Yokotas.

The incident was a turning point, and after that the boy’s behavior grew less erratic. He lived with the Yokotas until he was 20, then the age of majority in Japan. He now works as a photographer and occasionally comes home to visit his foster family.

Looking back, the Yokotas are glad that they stuck by their foster son. “When he first came to us, he would cry that he didn’t know who to trust,” says Takashi. “It took about two, three years before he was finally able to fully put his faith in us.” Wakako notes the difficulties of taking over parenting responsibilities for an older child. “There are endless challenges to navigate, all of which affect their life going forward,” she explains. “It’s a struggle, but the joy of becoming a loving parent to a child makes it all worthwhile.”

Family homes were brought into Japan’s broader system of alternative care for children in 2008 with the revision of the Child Welfare Act. Under the law, family homes can be established by either two foster parents who are married and one assistant, or a single foster parent and two assistants. They can be run as private companies, as long as they provide family-based care, with a maximum of foster children allowed in one household set at six.

The Adachi Family Home always has room for one or two more children before reaching the maximum of six, as the Yokotas keep space open to accept requests from the child guidance office to house children temporarily, anywhere from a few days to several months. Hiroto says that every child, no matter how long they live at the home, is treated as a member of the family. He describes the opportunities children have to interact with others as “wholly positive” for their development. Older foster children at the family home provide vital peer support, particularly when a child is coming from an abusive environment. “They talk to them and assure them that they’re in a safe place.”

Family Effort

Just a stone’s throw from the Yokotas in the neighboring city of Warabi is Southern Village, a family home run by Ishii Sachiko, her recently retired husband Atsushi, and their eldest son Toshiki. Sachiko, who has 28 years of experience as a foster parent, shares a close, supportive relationship with the Yokotas, each helping when problems arise or lending a listening ear.

Sachiko and Atsushi have four boys. The couple adopted Toshiki, the oldest, when he was 18 months old after having trouble conceiving. Just a year and a half later, Sachiko gave birth to their second son. The Ishiis then adopted a third son and took in their fourth as a foster child.

The pair had cared for 10 children on both a long-term and a temporary basis, when they began considering transitioning from foster parents to a family home. They credit their third son as providing the final impetus in opening Southern Village. “You should do it,” he had urged them, describing it as “a chance to be part of a transformative approach to foster care.” Hearing these words of encouragement from her adopted son meant a lot to Sachiko. “It showed me that he viewed his own upbringing in a positive light,” she says.

The Ishiis say that people are often surprised that they accept foster children on a temporary basis even while raising a family of their own. However, the couple points out that with the family home approach, everyone in the household is involved, with older children helping look after younger foster siblings.

The Ishiis value family communication, with regular chats allowing them to stay abreast of what is happening in the lives of their foster children. (© Gotō Eri)
The Ishiis value family communication, with regular chats allowing them to stay abreast of what is happening in the lives of their foster children. (© Gotō Eri)

Toshiki, for instance, has looked after bath time for his younger foster brothers since he was a high school student. He says it is moving to see young children go through the process of settling into their new surroundings. “A toddler might be inconsolable when he first arrives, but within a week he’s splashing and having a great time,” he describes. “It impresses on me that I went through the same process of adapting to life with a new family.”

Looking back as an adult, Toshiki says he realizes just how important it is for a child to receive unconditional love, as he did. He grew up surrounded by loving relatives like his grandparents as well as other adults who took an interest in his upbringing, including helping care for him after school until his parents came home. He wants to provide his foster siblings at Southern Village the same opportunities to create lasting memories. “I want their time here to be a bulwark for them if they ever find themselves struggling as they get older.”

Toshiki as a young boy during an outing with his family. (Courtesy of the Ishii family)
Toshiki as a young boy during an outing with his family. (Courtesy of the Ishii family)

Toshiki and his parents firmly believe that home and community play different but equally essential roles in raising a child. To this end, Sachiko and Atsushi have been active in youth sport activities, PTA, and in running the local foster parent association. Sachiko uses her experience to advise new foster parents and couples who are adopting a child. Atsushi says that “I want people to know they aren’t alone and to take advantage of the resources society offers.”

From Facility to Home

Foster care in Japan long centered on government-run institutions. With revision of the Child Welfare Act in 2016, emphasis switched to placing children with foster families or family homes. Local governments have bolstered training programs and other efforts aimed at increasing the number of registered foster parents, but growth has been slow. In 2011, 13.5% of children in need of alternative care lived in foster homes or similar settings, but by 2020 this had only increased to 22.8%. The rise in the number of family homes has also been incremental, going from 218 as of October 2013 to 427 by the end of fiscal 2020. Today, around 20% of children placed in households live in family homes.

Although more foster children are now being placed in home settings, there is a growing tendency to place those in need of specialized care in family homes rather than other foster situations. For instance, 46% of children with mental and physical disabilities are placed in family homes compared to 24% in foster homes and 36% in group care facilities. For children who have experienced domestic abuse, 53% live in family homes, compared to 38% in foster homes.

Fujii Yasuhiro, a former director at the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare who oversaw revisions to the Child Welfare Act, says, “The family home system was created to bolster support for experienced foster parents and to expand family-based foster care. However, we did not anticipate that so many children with special needs would be placed in family homes.” Fujii, himself a foster parent to more than 10 children, stresses that more support needs to be provided if Japan’s alternative care system is to work effectively. “When dealing with attachment disorders and development issues, experience bringing up your own children doesn’t prepare you to deal with every issue that arises. There needs to be a specialist support network that foster parents can rely on.”

Fujii served on a panel organized by the Nippon Foundation looking at the family home system and says that while the lion’s share of responsibility for rearing children falls to birth parents, foster parents, and directors at alternative care facilities, everyone in the community has a role to play. “Adults across society need to be a part of the child-rearing process,“ Fujii declares. In 2020, the group released a list of proposals that included the recommendation to lower the maximum capacity of family homes from 5–6 children to 4–6 and to create a high-quality childcare system by tapping into and linking with available resources, such as daycare centers and childcare support facilities.

(Originally published in Japanese with editorial assistance by Power News. Banner photo © Pixta.)

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