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.

Takehiko Kambayashi
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.

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

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."

Mr. Kagami says that another problem is the weighting of social security aid. According to Kagami,4 percent of the social security benefit is allocated for families and children, while about 70 percent goes to the elderly. Some 23 million Japanese, or 18 percent of the population, are under 19, while 28 million people, or 22 percent, are older than 65.

Japan "has failed to invest in future generations. You need the philosophy that children are the future itself," he says. And, he adds, "Japan lags far behind some European countries in this respect."

In Britain in 2005, for example, 14 percent of social security funds were spent on family benefits; the rate was 10 percent in France.

To some advocates, foster parenting can allow them to experience elements of family life that they missed as they pursued their career.

Foster parenting in retirement

Susumu Kirigakubo recalls half-jokingly that, as a "corporate warrior," he had worked so assiduously from morning to midnight that he does not recall when his four biological children were born or how they were raised – a typical sentiment for Japanese families, where the wife is largely responsible for child-rearing.

But since three foster children – 6-year-old twins and their 5-year-old brother – were placed at his house five years ago, he has devoted most of his retirement life to doing the sewing and mountains of laundry that have come along with them. And he is working with them on their math and Japanese, something that has amazed his wife, Kumiko.

"I now enjoy seeing them growing up," says Mr. Kirigakubo, who is in his mid-70s. "They are absolutely beautiful."

Driven to speak out

Sakamoto, whose first foster child was removed 18 years ago, says that because of her experience, she continues to speak up, certain that public officials' indifference and lack of understanding of foster children compounded the problem concerning her first child.

As Sakamoto became more of an advocate, she says, government officials gradually listened, and she received visitors from high-ranking bureaucrats and even Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, whose gaffes have alienated women and non-Japanese. The controversial governor was listening to her stories with tears in his eyes, she recalls.

Since that visit, she says, "government officials have changed a lot," listening to foster families and responding to their needs more quickly than before.

She says that her foster children – many of whom are mentally challenged – have enriched her and her husband's lives. "I've learned a great deal from our children," she says. "They were born with nothing. But they continue to move forward with their life. Without them, I could never lead a fulfilling life like this."

Their goal, she says, is to lay the groundwork for the children to function well on their own. The couple have taken the children to typical family events – an amusement park, a baseball game. They've visited a seaside town, a hot springs resort. They have even gone abroad, though they say they have few savings.

"What kind of life waits for them after they leave here?" asks Sakamoto. "They have to work very hard for themselves. We'd like to give them as many happy memories as possible so they can cherish them and remember they had someone who loved them so much."

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