In a country that frowns upon foster care, 33,000 children from abusive homes are growing up in state institutions.
In the United Kingdom, United States and other developed countries, abused or neglected children are often sent to live with a foster family. But that rarely happens in Japan, one of the world's wealthiest and most progressive societies.
Close to 90 percent of Japan's troubled children are placed in state institutions - out of sight and out of mind.
Some 33,000 children currently live in such institutions in this society that frowns upon the use of foster care. But critics say the excessive reliance on 131 child nursing homes across the country represents a form of abuse in itself.
Inside these institutions there are babies as young as six months old, and institutionalised children spend on average five years in the nursing homes. This is despite United Nations guidelines stipulating that alternative care for children under the age of three should almost always be in family-based settings.
Human Rights Watch found that Japan's alternative child care system suffers from overly large institutions where physical space is limited and chances for bonding are scarce. There are poor conditions of the facilities; physical and sexual abuse, by both caregivers and other children, occurs; and there are insufficient mechanisms for children to report problems.
"It's heartbreaking to see children crammed into institutions and deprived of the chance for life in a caring family setting," says Kanae Doi, the Japan director at Human Rights Watch.
Critics say the overwhelming use of institutions instead of family-based care is failing thousands of vulnerable children by not preparing them for independent, productive lives in Japanese society. They are calling for the Japanese government to overhaul its alternative care system, which they say harms the well-being and healthy development of children and infants, and contravenes international children's rights.
Foster care has not emerged as a viable alternative for abused children in Japan because governments have failed to properly train carers, monitor the placements, or adequately educate the public about its benefits. As a result, one-quarter of the children placed in such settings return to institutions.
In the Japanese child welfare system, biological parents retain all legal rights over their child even if they have an abusive history - leading many to have very unstable childhoods.
"I think the government completely lacks the concept of children's rights. The number of children receiving alternative care is extremely small so they are a minority. So the thinking is that it doesn't matter what happens to those kids, they have no one to speak up for them," says Tetsuo Tsuzaki, a child protection expert from Kyoto Prefectural University.
With child abuse cases rising to a record 73,000 cases last year, the problem of institutions and where to place troubled children is unlikely to go away.
101 East gains unprecedented access to these institutions and investigates Japan's hidden shame: the neglect of its most vulnerable children.
What can be done to improve the lives of 33,000 child abuse victims living in Japan's state institutions? #ThrowawayChildren on @AJ101East
By Drew Ambrose
In Japan, when a child is removed from his or her parents due to neglect, they are more likely to be placed in an institution, rather than a foster home.
Japan strongly values blood ties, so welcoming a stranger’s child into a family seems unnatural to many people. Some parents believe a foster family could steal their son or daughter forever, so choose to send them to an institution instead.
Mothers are clueless about child-rearing. But there is no institution where they can learn about it and that is why the chain reaction of abuse cannot be stopped.
Yuki Okada, musician
As a result, a staggering 85 percent of children in Japanese institutions are victims of physical and sexual abuse.
In my home country Australia, foster care is thought to be the best course of action for children who have suffered at the hands of their parents. So in Japan, seeing children housed in facilities that often look like run-down orphanages seemed strange given how progressive and modern the country is.
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