Media Mix, Nov. 6, 2011

Kyodo photo

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about two child abuse cases that have been covered extensively in the media in recent months. As I imply, there are many other similar cases reported on an almost daily basis, and most involve children born into strained circumstances–parents who are poor or underemployed, single mothers who depend on male lovers. Of course, child abuse is not restricted to low-income families, as shown by the NHK special I mentioned in the piece. Some of those women were from middle class backgrounds and married to men with steady jobs.

The thrust of the column was the authorities’ ineffectiveness in addressing child abuse as a recurring problem in these young victims’ lives, and the Asahi interview with Yukiko Tajiri, the head nurse of Jikei Hospital in Kumamoto, was instructive on this point, even if the interview was ostensibly about something else. Tajiri said that the main purpose of the “baby hatch,” which Jikei installed in 2007 to receive unwanted babies anonymously, is to save lives, though its corollary purpose has become much more significant, and that is to provide a venue where expectant mothers can discuss their fears openly. Tajiri estimates that the hospital has done much more to convince women to keep their children or, at least, give them up for adoption than it has receiving babies anonymously. At one point she says the fear these expectant mothers feel has the same source as “the increased incidence of child abuse” that has been noted in the media: loneliness and ignorance. Actually, loneliness and ignorance are exactly what child welfare consultation centers are supposed to address, but because these centers are associated with authority many women are reluctanct to call them. Nevertheless, this notion implies that women who are having a problem with child abuse recognize it as a problem and want to deal with it. Tajiri’s comments about the ineffectiveness of the authorities with regard to adoption is important to understanding their ineffectiveness with regard to preventing abuse, since both deficiencies spring from a desire to keep the family whole at any cost. But as with the NHK special, she takes for granted the idea that mothers can only receive help if they ask for it.

However, what seems to tie all these high profile child abuse cases together is a consistent denial on the part of the guardians that abuse is really taking place. In other words, they don’t seek help, and it’s because they don’t necessarily feel guilty. In such instances child welfare centers must step in and take over, by force if necessary. And this brings up back to the belief that child abuse cases are somehow on the increase. I’m not alone in thinking that this perception is due to the fact that the media over the past few decades has become more aware of child abuse as a social problem and is thus reporting it more often. In turn, more people are recognizing something they used to think of as normal–call it “discipline,” if you want–as now being abnormal. There’s nothing cynical about this development. Civilization is built on the premise that life improves over time as people become more self-knowing. When I was a child it was fairly common for parents to strike their children when the children did something wrong. One hundred years ago, before the current idea of the “innocent child” was formulated, children were nothing more than short adults, and parents did with them what they wanted to do. No one complained. We are better now than we used to be, but Japan’s child welfare authorities still think parents have the right to do with their children as they see fit, even if the child suffers terribly as a result.

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