Foster Care in Japan Shifts from Facilities to Homes

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
A consultation session for prospective foster parents is held in Tokyo in September.

What becomes of children who are victims of parental abuse or poverty once they are taken into protective custody? While in Japan they generally live in orphanages, in Western countries it is more common for them to be put into foster care. This practice is gradually being adopted in Japan.

■ 45,000 in Japan

In Western countries, instances of prominent people, including celebrities and members of the U.S. Supreme Court, adopting children and raising them as their own are fairly common. However, this practice is common among ordinary people as well, a fact that surprises most Japanese people.

In the foster care system, children whose birth parents are unable to provide proper care are looked after in orphanages or foster homes. This system was designed to support such children as a society.

According to a report conducted in fiscal 2018, there are about 45,000 such children in Japan, most of whom are housed in orphanages and only roughly 20% of whom have been taken in by foster parents.

This rate, however, is reversed in Western countries. In Australia, 90% of such children live in foster homes and in the United States it is 80%, according to a survey conducted about a decade ago. In Britain and Germany, more than half of such children live with foster families.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

What is the source of such a disparity?

■ War orphans

Japan’s history of supporting children as a society began just after World War II, when people voluntarily donated money to fund the construction of facilities to house the large number of war orphans who were living on the streets.

As reconstruction in the post-war era progressed, more and more children were protected from abuse by publicly run consultation centers, which maintained policies of supporting those children at orphanages.

However, in places such as Europe and the United States, there is a long-established philosophy that being raised in a home by parental figures from a very early age is vital to a child’s development. This way of thinking shifted ideas on childcare from being “facility-based” to being more focused on a “home life.”

In 1970s Britain, more children in distress were living in orphanages than not. However, that has completely changed along with the shift in child-rearing philosophies, thanks in part to a number of factors including cooperation from private support groups.

This philosophy is also reflected in the Convention on the Rights of the Child adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1989. Nowadays, the idea of prioritizing the raising of children in comfortable and stable homes has become mainstream the world over.

■ Foster parents needed

At the turn of the millenium in Japan, housing facilities for children in distress were being made smaller to create more of a “home-like” environment. Some facilities even allowed private rooms for each child and raised them in small close-knit groups. Even so, raising children in such a way that allows them to experience “ordinary family life” is difficult in a staff-run facility.

In response, Japan has finally begun to make efforts to shift its ideas on child rearing, with the revised Child Welfare Law enacted in 2016 stipulating “the principle of prioritizing a home upbringing.”

In 2017, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s expert panel compiled a new social childcare vision, in which the group set numerical targets similar to those in the United States, such as raising the rate of foster parents for infants age 3 and under to at least 75% in about five years. At the same time, it called on welfare facilities to take on a more in-depth role such as caring for children with disabilities.

However, only a small number of prefectural governments have set targets for achieving this level in their social childcare promotion plans over the next 10 years from this fiscal year. In reality, few people become foster parents, partially due to a lack of awareness.

Broadening the public’s understanding of foster care, increasing the number of people involved in the system and improving efforts to prevent foster parents and children from becoming isolated are vital.