Media watch: New children’s agency may not necessarily be there for children

On March 14, the Mainichi Shimbun published an article about an ordinance proposed in the Okayama prefectural assembly to bolster so-called home education in order to “encourage children to become parents in the future.” The proposal received pushback from certain groups who felt that the ordinance promoted the idea that girls would be expected to have babies. The backers of the proposal said that they weren’t trying to impose any values on anyone. Instead, they simply want to assist parents in the raising of their children, and one of the elements of that education is teaching children how to become good parents themselves. 

The ordinance, which has since been passed, brought more attention to the issue of “home education,” which is also being discussed right now at the national level, and just as contentiously. A Feb. 25 article in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun outlined the creation of a new government office that will ostensibly address children’s issues. The office, which is slated to open in April 2023, will have 300 employees and is now called Kodomo-Katei-cho, or, literally, Children-Family Agency. At present, there is a similarly named sub-bureau in the welfare ministry whose functions will all be transfered to the new agency, which will be in charge of welfare matters such as the children’s allowance and measures to reverse the sinking birthrate. It will also take on child abuse, children’s poverty, mother-child health issues, and support for single-parent households. Preschool education will remain the realm of the education ministry and daycare service regulations will continue to be handled by the health ministry. The overall purpose of the new agency, as stated by the Cabinet Office, is to make it easier to raise children with the help of comprehensive government support. Nikkei illustrated what the agency will be up against with statistics: 840,000 births in 2020, a new record low; and a child poverty rate of 13.5 percent as of 2018, which increases to 50 percent in single-parent households. 

The Nikkei article, however, neglected to talk about the controversy surrounding the new agency. A March 7 post on the legal issues website bengoshi.com explains that the name of the agency has been changed twice due to objections from interested parties. It was originally dubbed Kodomo-Katei-cho, but representatives of groups who advocate for victims of child abuse objected, saying that including the world “family” in the name would dilute one of the office’s main purposes, which is to protect children, so the name was changed to simply Kodomo-cho, or Children’s Agency. However, other elements in the government, mostly aligned with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, lobbied to have the original name restored, and so it was. 

The argument over nomenclature may sound trivial, but the naming means a lot to those involved. It should first be noted that there is an important semantic distinction between the words katei and kazoku, both of which are usually translated into English as “family.” “Kazoku,” which is the more common term, usually refers to a larger group when Japanese people use it, meaning the extended family; while “katei”—literally “house and garden”—is typically used to refer to what English speakers would call the “nuclear family.” So the reason that certain elements want to retain “katei” in the name for the new agency is to stress that children and their families are indistinct, meaning one cannot exist without the other. A family without children is not a family at all, and a child without a family is…well, that’s what the argument is all about. 

One group opposed to including “katei” in the name represents victims of child abuse, who believe that those who insist the agency work with families will not protect children from abusive parents and thus abused children will be even more reluctant to report their circumstances to the authorities. As one victim told bengoshi.com, they don’t feel that an agency with “family” in their name would take their accusations seriously and would endeavor to send abused children back to the homes where the violence happened. And, in fact, this is a common scenario when it comes to child welfare services, whose main job is to keep families together. The victim pointed out that in many such cases, the authorities take the child’s opinion less seriously than they do the parents’. Another victim said that the “politicians” who are deciding the name of the agency don’t listen to children, which means the authorities can’t help children if they don’t know how they feel. “Children” may be there in the name, but in society they are virtually invisible. Bengoshi.com notes that a petition with 30,000 signatures was sent to the children’s policy minister, Seiko Noda, to have the name of the agency changed back to Kodomo-cho. More than 60 scholars also signed a letter demanding the same thing. 

On Feb. 21, the Asahi Shimbun ran a story that talked more about the political background of the controversy, saying that originally the aim of creating the agency was to “place children at the center of society,” but once the idea was debated among lawmakers many insisted that “family” be stressed. The article quotes one scholar, Kiyofumi Tomono of Showa Women’s University, who has studied the history of family education and observes that the present government has a strict view of family-related policy. Not only did the government add “family” to the name of the agency, but it also added phrases to the bill to create the agency that said, “in order to support children’s development, it is necessary to also support the family’s child-rearing activities” and “the importance of the family is in the raising of children.” Tomono comments that to most parents the ideas imparted in these phrases go without saying, but there are many situations where children are not being “raised” in the kind of “family” the government envisions. Sometimes there is only one parent, or the guardian of the child is not a blood relative, or the parents are a same sex couple. The implication is that only families who “have” children are recognized by the government. Such support should be extended to individual parents, not just to “families.”

In this regard, the phraseology also avoids recognizing the primacy of children as individuals with rights, and Tomono illustrates the problem with this kind of thinking with the cash that the government gave out to people as an economic countermeasure for the effects of the COVID pandemic. Money was given to “households,” meaning to the heads of those households, whereas it should have been distributed to individuals, including children. As a result, much of this money did not go to where it was needed most. 

The gist of the controversy comes down to how much should society contribute to the raising of children. The government believes that rearing children should be the sole responsibility of parents, and thus parents are given more leeway in how they carry out those duties. In that sense, the agency is also charged with promoting oyagaku, or “parent learning.” The idea is that parents should be educated in a proper way to raise children. Tomono says that the scholar who came up with this concept, Shiro Takahashi, an expert on family systems who often lands on family-related government panels, is also at the forefront of the government’s quest to retain “family” in the name of the agency. Takahashi believes that home education has deteriorated since the 1980s, and when the Basic Education Law was revised in 2006, the government implemented rules governing home education that stipulated it is the responsibility of the child’s guardian. Consequently, the home is seen as the bedrock of education, not only for the child but for the parent, which, to Tomono, means that the government sees the ideal parent as being of a certain type. All subsequent family- and child-related policies flow from this idea. In turn, the idea of the family itself is narrow. 

The main problem is not so much philosophical or even political as it is economic. The overall socioeconomic environment in Japan has changed significantly since the 1980s. Two incomes are now considered necessary in order to raise children, which is the main reason for the slump in the birthrate, and the government’s assistance is piecemeal rather than holistic because it wants and expects the family to raise and educate children “properly.” Such a way of thinking neglects children’s rights as outlined by the United Nations, but it also sidesteps the government’s own responsibility in terms of child welfare. When Nagano Prefecture passed a regulation recognizing children’s rights, it was criticized by Takahashi and others, who said that stressing children’s rights would undermine home education and the family structure. That’s why people like Takahashi insist that the new agency serve families rather than children. 

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