Tokyo is one of the top cities of the world. Its name is synonymous with “leading-edge.” So, you may surprised to find that in 2010, child welfare workers there put 242 babies under one year of age into orphanages, while they put 0 babies into foster homes or the arms of adopting parents.
What is lacking among the numerous child welfare workers in Tokyo? Just one person…someone like Tokuji Yamanta. Mr. Yamanta was not your typical Japanese government worker. Having lived until age 12 with his parents in Manchuria, China, he had a little different slant on life perhaps. He knew of the Japanese children, left behind in the chaos of the war, who were secretly taken in and cared for by Chinese families. He felt deeply that the war proved that people in power aren’t always right, that there are times we shouldn’t just go along and follow the rules.
He wanted to work in government because when he came home from Manchuria, government workers had set out tea for returnees to drink. He decided then and there that he also wanted to help people. Because of his outspokenness however, he was transferred from job to job. Finally, in 1982, he ended up in the child welfare office of Aichi Prefecture since that was a job he could do by himself and not bother anyone…or so his superiors thought.
Pretty quickly, he saw the abuses in the orphanage system. One incident in particular affected him. A woman whose daughter had died was allowed by child welfare to go to a local orphanage and pick out a girl who looked like her daughter and take her home. Mr. Yamanta inherited this case from his predecessor. When he visited the home to see how the little six-year-old was doing, the mother said in front of the girl, “My daughter was not stupid like she is.” When Yamanta told his superior about this, the response was that the girl needed to learn to endure suffering.
Of course, Mr. Yamanta ignored his supervisor and immediately moved the girl out of the situation. He was later rebuked severely.
Impressed by an American missionary and a doctors’ association that was helping newborns get adopted, Mr. Yamanta wondered why the government couldn’t do the same thing. This would keep some children from ever entering the system. So, he started doing something revolutionary. He started asking pregnant women who came seeking help if they would be interested in adoption rather than putting their baby in an orphanage.
Even today, most child welfare offices in Japan will not ask this question. Instead, they will tell at-risk pregnant women who contact them to come see them after the baby is born even though it has been found that babies are most at risk for abuse and death soon after birth. Women who make it to the child welfare office will be advised to put their babies into an orphanage since most welfare offices do not want to adopt out newborns in case they are later found to be disabled in some way. The number one reason for putting children into orphanages is: “parents don’t want to care for child.”
Mr. Yamanta and his co-workers developed a system of finding and qualifying parents and arranging adoptions. One of their tenets was and is that if a baby turns out to be disabled, the adoptive parents must continue to raise him/her. Instead of sitting in their offices, he and his staff would go to the hospital when a baby was born. They would take the new parents there and make sure they were taught how to care for the newborn. Then, they let the birth mother put her baby in the arms of loving parents. You would think that this amazing new process would have caught on like wild fire all over Japan, but instead, Mr. Yamanta and his staff were opposed at every turn.
Four years ago, when I first heard about the 1000s of children stuck in orphanages here, my Japanese friends and I could hardly find any information on this topic. Then someone told me about Mr. Yamanta. When we went to meet him in the very modest offices of CAPNA (Child Abuse Prevention Network Aichi), where he volunteers, he was 74 and seemed surprised to meet someone who cared about his life’s work. At that time, he was still an unpopular voice against the system.
But very gradually, the tide is beginning to turn. Some welfare offices, in places like Hokkaido and Osaka, have made great strides toward adoption and foster care. There have been positive newspaper features and TV documentaries about adoption and the orphanage system over the last year that would have been unthinkable not long ago. And in 2011, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare issued a guidance letter urging child welfare offices all over Japan to begin using Mr. Yamanta’s process for adopting babies out whenever possible.
However, Dr. Tetsuo Tsuzaki, Professor of Children’s Social Care Policy, Kyoto Prefectural University, cautions that, “Most child welfare offices do not follow the guidance since it requires an absolutely different way of handling cases of unwanted newborn babies…real practice and policy are decided by each local authority under the pressures of orphanage associations and bureaucrats/unions.” Realize that adopting out new-born babies at the request of the mother is only a very small part of the solution. It’s discouraging to think that the government can’t even implement this relatively simple, tried-and-true piece.
Dr. Tsuzaki also pointed out that there is a severe lack of professional social workers in the government so that the “know-how” and man power for solving this problem doesn’t really exist in Japan yet.
So, what can you do? If you live in Japan, whether foreign or Japanese, please consider volunteering as foster parents. Good foster parents are hard to find here. Also, if you are interested in adoption, I would urge you to go and begin the qualifying process at your local child welfare office (Jido-sodan jo, 児童相談所). Young people, consider studying to become a social worker. Japanese citizens should contact their local law makers and ask that they push for reform of the orphanage system and laws governing the termination of parental rights. And since the system won’t be fixed over night, consider volunteering at an orphanage near you.
“Mr. Yamanta,” I asked, “Why were you different? What made you go up against the system when no one else would?” He reached into his bag and brought out a photo album. “Look at these babies that were adopted…Here is a photo of this baby as a young lady…This one’s so cute…Don’t the parents look happy?” There could be no better answer.
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