THE call came in from a neighbor. A young girl was rummaging through a garbage can and stopping strangers at a supermarket to ask for food. When the social worker arrived, the elementary-school-age child told him that her mother had locked her out. It turned out that the mother regularly abused the child both physically and psychologically.
In a small room at the Tokyo Metropolitan Child Guidance Center, Kozo Iwasaki, a mild-mannered social worker, recalled several such incidences of child abuse that he has seen recently.
``All these cases that I have just mentioned happened in what appeared to be very ordinary families,'' he said. ``I was very surprised.''
Japan has long been considered a country that is fairly free from child abuse and neglect. In contrast to the West, the strength of the family institution in Japan was thought to limit such problems to a small number of families suffering from broken homes, alcoholism, or serious mental disorders.
But experts say they believe that child abuse is far more widespread than that, showing up increasingly in the middle-class families that are the bedrock of Japan's stable social structure.
Moreover, they suspect that the number of cases has been seriously underreported and under-estimated.
Rapid urbanization, the experts say, is the culprit, bringing with it more stress, selfishness, and most important, the replacement of the multigenerational family unit by less stable nuclear families.
Last June, the Child Guidance Center announced that 1,039 cases of child abuse - physical, sexual, and psychological - and neglect were reported to its nationwide network of centers during a six-month period last year.
The 2,100 cases on a yearly basis surprised experts, who say they had expected about 1,000 such cases.
In a previous survey done by the Japan Research Institute on Child Welfare in 1983, the number was only 416.
``I think it's dangerous to conclude that the number of incidents of child abuse soared,'' warns Hiroyuki Kamiide, the center's director, citing different methods used in the two surveys and the relative absence of comparable research in the past.
``But, I think the actual number is probably several times as high as what's revealed in these statistics.''
Many experts share the belief that the number of reported cases are, as several put it, ``only the tip of an iceberg.''
The strong tradition of parental authority in Japan leads many parents to feel free to treat their children in whatever way they like.
And since Japan's general law on child welfare does not give immunity to those who report abuse, it makes it difficult for people to tip off a welfare office of suspected child abuse.
The United States, which guarantees such exemption from legal responsibility, received 2.1 million reports of suspected victims of abuse and neglect in 1986.
``If a firm [reporting] system is established in Japan, the number of reports will increase,'' Mr. Iwasaki argues.
``The current situation is that people finally inform us when they become unable any longer to stand by and watch unconcerned,'' Iwasaki continues.
The social workers say they have noticed an increase in the number of parents who neglect their children. Cases of neglect were the largest category of those reported in the center's survey, accounting for more than one-third.
Mr. Kamiide says he has been shocked by the number of parents who readily, even eagerly, agree to send their children to special homes for abused children.
``And once they are sent, the parents never come to see them,'' he says angrily.
Last summer, four abandoned children were found by police in a Tokyo apartment after the eldest child, a 14-year-old boy, had accidentally beaten his two-year-old youngest sister to death because she was crying.
The mother of the children had left the house six months earlier to live with her boyfriend, seldom returning even to visit. ``The parent put value on her own life and left the children,'' Kenji Tamura, a professor of sociology at Tokyo's Toyo University, says. ``To her life, the children were just a burden.''
``Individualism in a good sense has not developed in Japan,'' Kamiide adds.
Traditionally, Japanese mothers have put their priority on raising children, usually staying home until their offspring leave for college.
If anything, Japanese mothers have been criticized for smothering their children with too much attention.
Mothers commonly sleep with their infants and, even when the children become teenagers, take care of everything from cleaning their rooms to doing laundry.
But modernization and Westernization has brought a change in lifestyles, placing greater value on satisfying individual needs.
Women are joining the work force in increasing numbers, even as their school-age children are still at home.
The weakening of the family structure is a key factor behind the rising abuse, experts here say. Although Japanese divorce rates remain low relative to those reported in the US, the figures are rising.
In the latest survey by the Child Guidance Center, only 24.6 percent of the abused children had both their birth parents at home.
About half were from single-parent homes, and the parents of the rest had remarried.
Mr. Tamura says he believes the shrinking size of Japanese families also contributes to abuse. Japanese families, particularly in rural areas, had large numbers of children, giving people the opportunity to see their parents raise their brothers and sisters.
Now, however, with the average number of children down to less than two, parents have little preparation for raising their own children.
Abuse is more frequent in urban areas, the survey showed. The rate of abuse in large cities such as Tokyo was almost twice that of other areas.
The trigenerational family unit, which has been the norm in Japan, is breaking up under pressure of urban housing conditions and the desire of more-affluent Japanese to live independently. Parents increasingly do not have the support of grandparents in raising their children.
``Parents themselves are under pressure in the society ...'' says Kamiide. ``In the provinces, people still keep an eye on each other.''
Alcoholism and mental illness are blamed in the case of the majority of parents found to have abused their children. In such cases, ``there is a need to find ways to help not only the children but also their family as a whole,'' says Reiho Kashiwame of the Health and Welfare Ministry's Children and Families Bureau.
Beginning this year, the ministry has set up phone-in services and increased staffing at child guidance centers in the most affected 15 prefectures (comparable to US states).
As child abuse grows along with social change, the official says, ``the task is how to educate and support every family.''