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Witness: Lack of Support in Japanese Orphanages

Masashi Suzuki sat in the quiet upstairs level of the McDonald’s in a Tokyo suburb. The restaurant was bright and cheerful, but Masashi’s expression was somber. His parents abandoned him as a baby, he said slowly, in a listless voice. From age 2 he lived in agovernment-funded institution in Funabashi, Chiba prefecture, just south of Tokyo. He explained that he was released from the institution at 18, and over the past two years, he’d been through 20 different jobs. He had also skirted being homeless, he said, sounding deeply exhausted. Masashi cared about his appearance – he wore fashionable, albeit worn, clothes and had styled his hair – but a sense of isolation clung to him.

“A day feels like it never ends,” he said, sighing.

It gradually became clear that, growing up in an institution, Masashi hadn’t acquired the knowledge and life-skills necessary to live independently. Nor had he received the continuing support he needed to re-enter Japanese society.

Nearly 34,000 children in Japan live in institutions after being taken from or abandoned by their parents. This is in stark contrast to what happens in the majority of developed countries, which place most such children in foster homes or with adoptive families. That gives the children a better chance at being raised in a home with love and support, according to a new report, Without Dreams.

Living in an institution is especially damaging for children younger than 3, as Masashi was when he entered an institution, because they lose the opportunity to bond with adults. Numerous studies show that this puts the children at high risk of delayed mental, emotional and even physical development. It’s also a poor environment for older children. In Japan, there are too few staff members to tend to all the children, and bullying is a frequent problem. Even high-school-age children may have to share a room with several others, and share a bathroom with dozens of kids.

Once they leave the institutions, these children are often poorly prepared to fend for themselves. Many end up unemployed or trapped in low-paying jobs, and some even become homeless.

What Masashi didn’t say about his life resonated as much as what he did say.

The institution where he lived, named Oncho-en, became infamous in Japan when its director, Hiroshi Oohama, as well as the director’s son, Akira, who also worked there, were put on trial.  They beat the children as a matter of routine, and forced the children to kneel on the floor in the traditional Japanese seiza style for hours, forbidding the children to move even when they soiled themselves. Akira Oohama was sentenced to prison for sexual assault and rape of a 12-year-old girl living in the institution. The director received a suspended sentence.

The Oohamas were arrested when Masashi was about 9, yet Masashi said he could not remember much about the abuse in the institution, although it was probably part of his day-to-day life. He did, however, recall being bitten by the director’s dog. More cases of abuse in institutions came to light between the late 1990s to mid-2000s, and after these revelations, many of the worst abuses stopped.

What did upset Masashi was that the institution’s staff encouraged him to become certified as a having a disability because he scored slightly below average on his IQ test, he said. He resents having been sent to a high school for students with disabilities. He is also frustrated that he wasn’t encouraged to study and learnin the institution – although he admits that he should have motivated himself. “I’m barely disabled,” he said.

Today, he has trouble reading and doing basic math – both necessary skills for most jobs. He was hired by an interior decoration company, but found he wasn’t always able to read instructions.

Masashi said he was never able to obtain a driver’s license, which costs 200,000 to 300,000 yen (US$2,000 to $3,000), because at the time, neither the institution nor the government subsidized it. Today, children do receive subsidies to obtain a drivers’ license, though the 55,000 yen ($550) isn’t enough. His lack of a license has led to fewer job opportunities, he said.

He has an apartment now, but he used to spend the night in a park, or in a cubicle at the Manga Café, where people sometimes take shelter because it’s cheaper than a motel.

Despite his troubles, he is more worried about his older brother, who grew up in the same institution. Masashi’s brother is about to become homeless, Masashi said. His brother’s situation is much worse than his own. His other friends from the institution aren’t doing well, either. Some are male companions at a club; none have permanent, full-time work. Some of his friends have babies of their own, but aren’t caring for their children.

“Life is not such a smooth ride,” he said.

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