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Difference Maker

In Japan, foster parents blaze an unpopular trail

The government is taking small steps to boost interest. But prejudices remain in a society where the pull of traditional family structures and blood ties is strong.

By Takehiko KambayashiCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 17, 2009

Large Family: Yoko and Koichi Sakamoto have been foster parents to 12 children over the past 23 years, despite experiencing discrimination. Mrs. Sakamoto has become an outspoken advocate for more resources for children in need of foster homes.

Takehiko Kambayashi


Hachioji, JAPAN

Yoko Sakamoto remembers well the prejudice she faced as a foster mother.

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She and her husband, Koichi, who were childless, decided to expand their family by welcoming foster children. But when their first son had major problems in elementary school, the criticism started.

Some parents whispered about the different family names. One waited for the boy after school and slapped him for the "nuisance" he caused. Even Mrs. Sakamoto's own parents criticized the decision. "We were facing a fierce storm of discrimination," she says.

When the Sakamotos let their son skip school because of stress, officials removed him, sending him to institutional care.

But the couple didn't give up. Today, their home in this quiet Tokyo suburb reverberates with the energy of five children, ages 4 to 15. And the government is looking for more people like them.

Promoting foster parenting has not been easy in Japan, a country where blood ties and traditional family structures are paramount. But in recent years, a home setting has begun to trump institutional care in officials' views of what's best for children who face abuse or abandonment. And now, the government is revamping its foster-care system to increase the number of caseworkers and better promote the option for families.

Keiko Nomura, a senior Tokyo city official who deals with the foster family system, says it is important for needy youngsters to grow up in a family environment.

"That will certainly have a big impact on their life," she says. "That will help them picture a family itself."

The number of children in Japan, a nation of 127 million people, is still very small. In 2007, 35,925 children were placed in institutional foster care, a 12 percent increase from 2000. During the same period, the number of children who live with foster parents grew 68 percent to 3,633.

But with only 7,882 registered foster families across the country, there's need for more people to consider the option. Officials are particularly concerned that the country's deepening economic gloom will place more children at risk – and that the demise of extended family ties will leave young parents with fewer resources for help if they need it.

One measure the government is taking is to offer better financial backing to interested families. In April, the monthly allowance for families will rise to 72,000 yen, or about $800, per month for the first child, and 36,000 yen (about $400) for additional children.

People's attitudes are also gradually changing as foster parents like Sakamoto speak up. She has written three books and makes speeches at schools, corporations, and in communities. Her story was also featured in a TV drama.

But Sakamoto readily admits that tolerance for what are considered unconventional families is low. Japanese "are very harsh to those who they think are different," she says. "I myself came to understand what it was like to be different, in my case, from other women, after I learned I was not able to have children."

Advocates say that what is missing is a comprehensive approach. The aid that exists is a "patchwork response," says Yusho Kagami, a director of a children's nursing home and professor at the department of human and social services at Yamanashi Prefectural University.

"I would say the essential problem is that Japanese society is now incompetent to raise children," he argues passionately. "The notion that it takes a society to raise children totally crumbled due to rapid industrialization and the collapse of farming communities."