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Child Abuse Is on the Rise, Police, Social Workers Say

One expert blames increasing isolation, smaller families, parental ignorance. Reported cases are only 'tip of the iceberg,' he declares.

March 31, 2000|VALERIE REITMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Six-year-old Chizuru Kawai was taking too long to eat her dinner. So her mother, stepfather and their friend beat the child repeatedly with a metal mop handle, burned her arms with a lighter and hung her by the arms from a shelf so that her feet barely touched the floor. The child died from the trauma.

The case highlights what police and social workers say is a long-hidden but growing problem in Japan: child abuse.

Chizuru's abusers were given sentences last week by an Ibaraki prefecture district court of four and six years.

The number of abuse cases reported to social service agencies has risen more than sixfold since the government began collecting statistics: from 1,100 cases annually at the beginning of the 1990s to 6,932 cases for the year ended March 31, 1999, the latest statistics available from Japan's Ministry of Health.

Police reported 120 separate cases of child abuse, including 45 deaths, in the calendar year 1999.

While the cases are relatively few in this nation of 126 million people, social scientists say the problem probably extends far beyond the statistics. For example, incest is not considered a crime unless a complaint is filed by the child or the child's "legal representative," which includes parents, guardians and lawyers.

"It's just the tip of the iceberg," says Dr. Jun Saimura, head of social work research at the Japan Child and Family Research Institute here. "Only the most notorious or serious cases are brought to the child centers."

Among the reasons Saimura cites for the increase: smaller households, increasing isolation from neighbors and society, and parental ignorance.

"Now people live in apartments and they don't know their neighbors, and they feel isolated even in the family," Saimura says, "whereas before, many had the [child's] grandparents living in the same house to consult."

In addition, many parents have delusions that their children should be angels and have little knowledge about caring for them. "Some women even come in to report that their child's urine is yellow, not blue, because they see commercials that show blue liquid in diapers," Saimura says.

Historically, Japanese have been hesitant to report child abuse to authorities or even to view it as abuse. "Maybe Japanese parents think they own their children," Saimura says.

Japan has toughened its child abuse laws in recent years. Until March 1998, only obvious injuries such as bruises constituted abuse. But because of the rising tide of cases, the government has created a definition that includes psychological abuse, neglect, sexual abuse other than incest, even lack of affection.

About half the cases reported last year to social service agencies involved physical violence, while 30% were incidents of "negligence or refusal of protection," such as not providing food or treating illnesses. Nearly every summer, children perish in locked cars while their parents are gambling in pinball-like pachinko parlors.

New guidelines were adopted in December obliging anyone who becomes aware of child abuse to report it to special counseling centers in each prefecture, which must conduct an investigation. But the charges can be difficult to prove.

"In many cases, parents don't admit that they did it, so we ask for help from people who might be familiar with the family--such as public health nurses who look after babies in the community, schools or other parents--to get the truth," says Nobuko Nozaki, who works at a child counseling center here.

The number of calls requesting counseling is rising, Nozaki says. "Even some mothers call themselves, saying, 'Oh, I hit my child hard,' or 'I'm almost abusing my child.' "

Prosecutors in the case of Chizuru Kawai sought sentences of seven and eight years, but the judge meted out four years to the girl's stepfather, Masashi Kawai, a 40-year-old businessman, while the child's mother, Sachiko Kawai, a 34-year-old recycled-goods retailer, and their friend Chizuru Ishii, 30, each received six-year sentences.

A spokesman for the prosecutor's office in Mito, about 65 miles northeast of Tokyo, declined to comment on the sentences, saying only, "There are a lot of similar cases in Japan, so please judge based on them."

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