Monday, 29 July 2013

A Flamin' Good Time

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Kids throwing fire. Because, Japan.

Remember the ice festival I posted about? Turns out we do fire festivals well around here too. It's all very Game of Thrones .

I am happy to report that no children were injured this year, although there was "an incident" last year no one wants to talk about. One firework did shoot downwards instead of up, but it missed the kids.

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Sunday, 28 July 2013

Japanese Drama... Gray's Anatomy Inspired?

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  Recognize who is who? (Image Source Here)

OK, Resident: Story of Five Interns is very heavily Grey's Anatomy inspired. One would almost be tempted to say that it is a Japanised version. Resident has been out for a while now and it has been gradually moving further away from Gray's, but the first few episodes had some very familiar elements. I'm not bagging the show out by noting the similarities to Gray's by the way, I find inter-cultural re-makes fascinating.

Resident tells the story of five young doctors starting their surgical internship. The main character is trying to prove that she can make it as a doctor to her overbearing father, who is a successful doctor. She works with a tall and model-looking female resident (who uses a pink stethoscope), a severe but talented female resident, a fluffy-haired and accident prone male intern whose adoration she is oblivious to, and another male intern who is an abrasive and seemingly self-absorbed womanizer with hidden depths. The romantic interest is a divorced senior doctor with awe-inspiring hair. Early cases in the hospital include a patient who is swallowing magnets due to family problems and a teen-aged girl making herself ill trying to please her perfectionist and never satisfied mother. There's even an emergency in a stalled elevator.

Despite these similarities, there are some huge differences necessitated by the dissimilarity of the Japanese medical system and Japanese television's much more conservative attitude towards sex. One of the pleasures of watching inter-cultural interpretations is seeing what has been changed and what hasn't (Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, based on Macbeth, is fascinating in this regard). Although it has developed into much more soap-opera and less medical-drama, Grey's still places medicine and ethical conundrums pretty firmly in the center of each episode, while Resident is all about the emotional connections between the interns and the patients. There's little discussion of medicine and not many scenes featuring surgeries. The biggest thing that jumped out at me is the simplistic attitude to metal illness and emotional problems in the show. In one episode a man who has been allowing his wife to gradually kill him rather than confront her illness has his situation resolved by the residents handing him a pamphlet on mental illness. After being willing to die rather than confront his wife's situation, it seemed less than probable that he would come around so easily. I guess it was a good pamphlet. Then there was the teenaged girl who was repeatedly attempting suicide. All it took to "fix" her was a trip to the OR to see a dead car-crash victim's family crying. Problem solved. And the girl with the overbearing mother? The residents just told her mother to be nicer to her, and she felt bad for being mean and all was well.

Here are the opening sequences to Gray's and Resident in one video, for your enjoyment.

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Friday, 26 July 2013

In Which I Discover that I am an Imperialist Monkey

Researching for this post, it seems like this experiment never actually happened, FYI (Image Source Here)
 Have you ever heard about the experiment with the monkeys, ladder and bananas? Click the image to enlarge and read if you haven't. Although the specific details seem to be untrue, the story is based on published research about learned fearfulness (see Psychology Today). When I first read about the "experiment" I thought immediately about an exchange I had with my father when I was fifteen and had just started working as a kitchen hand. My dad went to use a wet dish cloth as a pot holder when taking a roasting tray out of the oven, and I told him not to. "Why not?" he asked. "I don't know" I said, "they told me at work never to do that." "I wonder why..." dad said, went ahead and did it, and got burned quite painfully. The dampness in the cloth turns into steam, apparently. My dad is like that, he wants to know how everything works. He'd be the monkey getting beaten up by everyone else. Actually, when he talks about his childhood, I think that's exactly what it was like. I remembered this story a while ago when reading This Japanese Life:

"Monkeys Eat Corn
Perhaps it’s a bad sign that after reading about monkeys, my mind wandered to my life as an expat. But a recent study, published in April in the journal Science (and a NY Times story here) made me think about social adaptation.

In the experiment, researchers dyed two batches of corn – one pink, one blue. For two groups of monkeys, the blue corn was soaked in a disgusting liquid, and the pink stuff was standard monkey corn. For the other groups of monkeys, they switched it.
So, two groups of monkeys grew accustomed to pink being inedible, two grew accustomed to blue being inedible. Soon enough, the monkeys only ate one color of corn (the delicious one).
Then the scientists stopped making the other color taste so bad. Once the monkeys got used to which color was good, they both ended up being the same. What happened was interesting: High-status monkeys never bothered eating the gross-colored corn, but low-status monkeys occasionally had to. And even though these low-status monkeys knew that the corn was identical to the good stuff (identical, now, aside from the color), they still favored the “good” color when they could get it. Meanwhile, babies who grew up watching mom eat one color of corn barely even registered that the other color of corn was even food. They’d shit in it.
Monkeys shitting in food have a lot in common with me, as an expat. I’m not always down on my life, of course, but anyone in one culture can get accustomed to interacting with certain things in certain ways. It’s a given: The institutions shape how we interact with them, and then that shapes how we interact with each other. Sometimes this institution is a school or job hunt, and sometimes it’s the people giving us corn.
But then the researchers did something really cool.  They took some monkeys and introduced them to the monkeys in other areas – areas where the opposite color of corn was “the good stuff.”
Wild Vervet monkeys, trained to eat only pink-dyed or blue-dyed corn and shun the other color, quickly began eating the disliked-color corn when they moved from a pink-preferred setting to a blue-is-best place, and vice versa.
These guys went in, looked around, and lost their old cultural identities. This is, at a literally primal level, a version of culture shock. Humans, lucky us, have a much more complicated set of adaptations to deal with. We don’t just want to eat some corn, we want our identities validated."

For anyone who lives in a culture not their own for any length of time, life becomes a balancing act between experiencing and respecting the host culture on the one hand while retaining a situated sense of self (and depending on your approach to ethics, trying to be culturally aware without succumbing to subjective morality). I've mentioned before the way cultural differences are often discussed in Japan on the one hand in completely trivial ways while on the other as completely uncrossable divide. People ask me if it's hard not wearing shoes in the house. They don't believe me when I say that many Australians have shoe-free houses and that I never wore shoes inside growing up. But even if I had... why would it be difficult to take off my shoes? (Slipper culture is another issue of course!) No-one ever asks if it's hard being casually insulted on a daily basis, because it doesn't occur to them that it's a cultural thing. But if I brought it up I imagine the response would be that I just didn't understand The Japanese Way. In fact, my supervisor at city hall asked me a while ago if I had any experiences of racism. He was very eager about it so I tried to think of an example that had been unpleasant for me but not so serious that it would turn into a 'thing'. So I told him about a function I had just attended for sports people who had represented our city at the prefectural tournament. I was there representing our naginata team and shared a table with representatives from various other sports. A man sitting opposite talked loudly about me all evening, despite the fact that I was speaking Japanese with everyone else and could clearly understand him. He didn't say anything bad, but it was a non-stop stream of: "I have to text my wife that I'm sitting opposite a 外人! She'll never believe it! Someone take a picture as proof. Oh look, the 外人 is eating some melon. Wow! It's eating melon with a fork! Gotta get a photo..." And yes, he literally took photographs of me eating while sitting opposite me at the table, without ever once speaking TO me. "Oh, but you have to understand that it's very exciting for Japanese people to see foreigners" my irrepressibly optimistic boss responded. "It's not discrimination or any bad thing!" And that is how it always is. You have to be understanding. You don't get to feel uncomfortable. You have to see the funny side of things when the fifth kid in a row asks your cup size during class and the teacher is obviously hoping that you'll answer. Anyway, back to the monkeys. Or rather, to me being a cultural imperialist.

At one of our many summer seminars for elementary school teachers we were broken into groups and told to play a card game with simple rules. That catch was that we weren't allowed to speak, and we were told that is was an exercise in non-verbal communication. After a minute some members were told to switch groups and keep playing. We did it a few times, and then the game ended and we were told the real purpose of the activity. If you're familiar with Barnga you'll have recognised it by now: each group is given slightly different rules, so when the players are shuffled around the group has to cope with players who have different expectations of how the game works. Some players will dominate their new group and enforce their original group's rules, some will go with the flow and assimilate into their new group's rules, and some will get confused or angry. It shouldn't come as a surprise if you know me or have been reading this blog for a while that I completely dominated every group I entered, ruthlessly enforcing "my" rules and quashing all opposition while all the while thinking what a great job I was doing of communicating non-verbally. Hearing the real purpose of the activity was an eye-opener. It wasn't news to me to discover that I am bossy and domineering, but it was a big shock to discover that I had gone through the whole exercise without ever once contemplating that perhaps the other players who were "doing it wrong" were actually playing with a different set of expectations. When it comes down to it, despite my desire not to be, I'm still one of the monkeys at the bottom of the ladder beating up the new guy without stopping to wonder why.
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Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Sparkling into the High School Baseball Nationals


High school baseball in Japan dramatic slide to base
It's so much more exciting than pro-games; the kids hold nothing back and literally go for broke(n fingers)
(photo source)
It’s high school baseball season. Unless you have been in Japan at this time of year it is a little hard to describe how important high school baseball is. A friend commented last night that the first time he came to Japan it was during 甲子園 (koshien), the nationals, and he thought a natural disaster had occurred because everyone in the airport was crowded around the televisions watching in rapt silence. Did I forget to mention that it’s televised on the national broadcaster? Restaurants bring out TVs so no one misses the score during lunch. I’ve been asked to cut a teaching seminar short because teachers couldn’t be expected to miss a game. There are magazines dedicated to profiling the players (yes, we are still talking about high school kids here) and team strategies. Some kids are recruited directly into pro teams from the tournament, making it something like college sports in the US I guess. Basically, every boy who plays baseball dreams of making it to koshien. Boys who make it take back sand from the field and treasure it forever. In the TV drama I wrote about in relation to non-biological families, the protagonists’ motivation to foster his dead friend’s children comes not from their (apparently distant) adult relationship but from memories of going to koshien together in high school. It’s that important. In fact, it seems a little sad that for the kids who make it, that’s probably the peak of their lives at the grand old age of around 17. What else is going to compare with that?
Accepting the responsibility of representing the prefecture (photo source)
So this brings me to the reason for today’s post. Yesterday, in a thrilling match (I saw this as someone with no interest in sports and the very Australian habit of referring to the pitcher as the bowler), my husband’s school won the right to play at koshien this year. The school hasn’t made it there since 1997. I hope my introductory paragraph has sufficiently backgrounded you on what a big f-ing deal this is. Obviously I am happy that his kids did well, but there’s more to it than that; some of his kids used to be my kids. I teach K-9, meaning that I have the privilege of teaching kids across their transitions between kindergarten and elementary, and elementary to junior high. Then, some kids graduate and head off to the school my husband teaches at. He has students now that I taught in elementary. It’s beyond words how lucky I am to be able to see them grow up across such a broad time period. So the baseball team’s win yesterday was pretty emotional for me, too. One boy in particular I had in JHS has always had as his dream going to koshien. I never took it that seriously, because like I said, all baseball boys dream of that. But yesterday I got to see him, now more of a man than the boy I taught, making his dream come true. That is pure magic. I’ve done my fair share of bitching and moaning about my job, but there is nothing in the world that could replace the joy I have been able to experience working with these kids. 
This kid is going to be a pro sooner rather than later (photo source)
I’m sorry for the horrible quality (filming my projector with one hand while furiously texting all the other ALTs with the other) but here’s a taste of the final moments. One of the boys on the winning team has a younger brother on the losing team, I think you can probably spot them in this video.

Not only parents but the entire school comes out to watch and cheer for these matches. The kids have synchronised cheers they do non-stop for hours in the sun, as do the parents. The school band plays a different theme-song for each player, and during the “chorus” all the kids chant the player’s name. This isn’t just for home-games; the ENTIRE SCHOOL will travel to Hyogo prefecture for the finals. It’s phenomenal. Personally everything I know about baseball comes from the drama Rookies (excerpt below). Every episode the teacher/coach tells the kids to キラキラ into tomorrow. The translation used in the except I uploaded is “shine”, which is probably more natural in this situation, but when we watched the show the man and I enjoyed translating it as “sparkle”, which is the more common meaning. Hence the title of this blog post. Rookies is well worth a watch for the high melodrama, but also for Hayato Ichihara, who I find strangely attractive.

Sparkle into tomorrow kids!  Make it count!
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Monday, 22 July 2013

Graduation Day: The Boy Who Lived


April, 2010. It was the first day of school. The boy was about the start grade eight. It was his little sister’s first day at Junior High; her first time wearing a uniform and having a different teacher for each subject and a million other firsts. The sakura were blooming and pale pink petals fluttered through the air. As he had nearly every day for a year, he walked with his friends. They joked and laughed, faces turned to one another and eyes crinkled against the chilly spring sun. They didn’t see the car, coming around the corner too fast. The car couldn’t see them past a hedge on the corner, and didn’t bother to slow down. The impact crushed his ribcage, bone stabbing his lungs and tearing his diaphragm. His skull shattered, his brain swelling and escaping its suddenly fragile casing. For a time, he died.
For a week afterwards, a teacher was at his bedside twenty-four hours a day. He was not expected to survive more than a few days. His tanned, wiry body looked half the size it had now that it was surrounded by machines. A machine breathed for him. Another fed him. The school councillor prepared the other students for the inevitable. But the boy did not die. He remained comatose for more than a month. His family were warned not to expect too much, even if he woke up. He had been so terribly broken. When he did, one day, open his eyes and struggle to draw breath into his scarred lungs by his own power, I felt worse for his family than if he had died. His eyes were vacant. His face was expressionless. He didn’t respond to sounds. I imagined his mother spending the rest of her life caring for the shell of her child and silently cursed the paramedics who had brought him back from that first, small death.
I was so wrong.
”elleroyHe came back to us, more and more every day. He learned to smile. He sat up. He managed to swallow by himself. Finally, almost year after the accident, the hospital asked if he could come back to school as part of his rehabilitation. His mother, who had long ago quit her job, came with him. At first he could only join one class a day. He didn’t have the balance to sit on a school chair. He couldn’t climb the stairs to get to the science labs. He couldn’t speak. But he fought every day to get back what he had lost. He fought and he smiled every time he dropped his book or had to go to the toilet with his mother’s help while his friends looked awkwardly the other way. After a morning of struggling at school, he went back to the hospital and did more rehabilitation. At the start of this year he was walking by himself without a stick. He could speak, but it was very slow and difficult to understand. His mother moved to the side of the classroom instead of sitting beside him. He began trying to get his old life back, trying to reconnect with his friends.
It was hard for them, too. They missed him. They wanted to support him. But they were fifteen, bursting with energy. All they wanted to do was strip down to their undershirts and play soccer, pushing their growing bodies to their limits. They wanted to run, jump, even somersault across the sports field. He could only watch. They felt guilty when he watched them. They began running out of the classroom as soon as the bell rang, escaping before he could struggle from his chair to ask where they were going. He tried to engage them in the jokes they’d enjoyed before, but he had missed a year of television and didn’t get the current gags. His thoughts moved too slowly to understand their conversations, newly turned to topics more ‘adult’. Every time he was left out, he smiled. Every time I saw him smile, I wanted to cry for him.
In November the school festival included a number of speeches by students who had won essay writing awards during the year. I was surprised to see the boy’s name on the program. It was difficult for him to climb the stairs to the stage, but he did it alone. He spoke slowly. He words were still a little indistinct, a little difficult to understand, but his voice was loud and strong. “I wanted to come back to school” he said. “I never have a break; rehabilitation never stops. But I wanted to come back to school. I wanted to graduate with everyone. That’s why I can get through every day.” It was the first school festival since the tsunami and great earth quake. The student council had chosen the theme “生きているから” (because we live). For the boy, this meant something so much more. He did not die. He came back to us. He reclaimed his body, muscle by muscle. He was able to tell us in his own words how he felt.
Today is graduation day. Today he will walk across the stage on his own feet. Today he will stand with his friends to thank the teachers and parents who have supported them, with his voice loud and steady. Today he will graduate, together with everyone. Because he lives.

This was originally posted March 1st, 2012. I'm re-sharing it for Elleroy's Monday Blog hop. I hope it makes your Monday better.
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Saturday, 20 July 2013

Adoption in Japan Part 3: How to and Experiences

If you have personal experiences you are comfortable sharing, or are affiliated with an agency not listed, please get in touch! Likewise, if you notice a mistake in anything I have said please let me know. I am not a social worker, lawyer or in any professional capacity connected to adoption and I urge you to do your own research before pursuing adoption in Japan. You are welcome to contact me with follow up questions or of course comments, but please don't email me to ask for information that is already in this post if you'd bothered to read it! I love to hear from readers and am very happy to answer genuine questions.
Sorry for the wonky scan. Chart from Adoption in Japan: Comparing Policies for Children in Need (Routledge Contemporary Japan Series) by Peter Hayes and Toshie Habu

This post is about how to adopt a child residing in Japan when you are also residing in Japan. If you are outside Japan there are some agencies that can help you, particularly Faith International and ATW Adoptions for North Americans. I link some blogs at the end by families who have adopted a Japanese child from outside Japan, but that is not what this post is about. If you are living in Japan and wish to adopt a child from another country that is also possible, particularly through ISSJ, but also is not what I am writing about in the body of this post.

If you are considering adoption in Japan, it would be helpful to read part one, about why so many children are in orphanages in Japan, and part two, about attitudes to adoption, before reading this post.

Japan’s adoption system is to all intents and purposes unregulated. As such, prospective adoptive parents need to be extremely pro-active in ensuring that if they chose to work with a private agency rather than the public system that they select an agency with ethical practices and published financial records. There is a long history of babies and children being sold into “adoption” in Japan, just as in most countries. I’m not saying this to be off-putting. There are plenty of ethical agencies, and the public system has worked well for many non-Japanese or international prospective parents. It’s important to be realistic however, and recognise that there are some organisations who use questionable practices to obtain and select placements for children.

The Public System 

In Theory

Adoption through the local child guidance centre (CGC) is the cheapest and most straight-forward method. Interested prospective adoptive parents (PAPs) register as a foster-to-adopt family (this is separated right from the start from foster-only families) and attend some basic training. A  CGC worker will conduct a home visit and basic interview (although one couple I spoke to just submitted a floor plan of their apartment) then approve the application. When a child becomes available the PAPs will be taken to the orphanage to visit the child, then asked to make a decision. If the PAPs want to go ahead the CGC will place the child and the PAPs can apply to the family court for an adoption. There is a six month trial period during which the PAPs are paid a foster family allowance. If there have been no major problems after six months, the court will approve the adoption. Some families “foster” for longer than the minimum period, holding off applying for the adoption for months or even years and continuing to receive government payments. CGCs place children under the age of six; after six the adoption law changes and as far as I understand the situation most CGCs no longer seek families for older children.

CGCs have their own individual guidelines for approving PAPs. Some require very large living spaces, leading to complaints in Tokyo particularly that the requirements are unrealistic. Some require PAPs to have a high income or to be certain ages. Some accept single applicants while some will only consider married couples. It seems to depend entirely on your location.  You can read some stories about successful adoptions here and here, but there are many more.

My Experience

Fortified with a number of stories about wonderful CGC adoption experiences in Nagasaki, Yokohama and Osaka, we contacted ours. It didn’t go too well. At first they said they needed time to “research” how to deal with foreigners. We told them that they didn’t need to do anything differently (for Australia, expatriate adoptions have to be finalised in the country of residence before one can start anything on the Australian end anyway). They were unconvinced. Three months passed. A friend who works in an orphanage called to ask them what the hold-up was on our behalf. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but in hindsight it probably wasn’t. They eventually got back to us and said basically that they would never place a child with foreigners. So that was that. I’ve spoken with adoptive parents all over Japan, and no one else was ever treated like that. I guess it’s the drawback of living in the countryside.
Update: Since Tiger was placed with us, our local CGC has actually been incredibly helpful and supportive. When we originally contacted them they said they had many waiting Japanese families, and since a child would not be placed with us ahead of a Japanese couple, we'd never get a placement. At the time, armed with all the statistics I'd been reading about Japan's low placement rates, I assumed they were just unwilling to deal with us. There definitely was an element of that, and if we speak to someone other than our caseworker they do freak out about having to engage with "gaijin". However, after getting better acquainted we discovered that they do actually have a long list of waiting families and they place every single child who has been freed legally for adoption. We agree that without a doubt, a Japanese family should be the first choice, so in the end it was us who misjudged the CGC and not the other way around. Our skepticism was not entirely unwarranted however, since the high placement rate here was equally surprising to social workers from other prefectures we spoke to.

Private Agencies, National

There are innumerable other ways to pursue adoption in Japan. Some are national agencies, some are local, and some are obstetricians and gynecologists who dabble in adoption on the side. I can’t list them all; I’m just giving some examples here.

Wa no Kai has a philosophical commitment to giving birth mothers all the support and options it can. Adoption is not promoted to birth families in preference to other options, and support is offered for whatever choice the mother makes including assistance if she decides to raise the child herself. After surrendering her child a birth mother has three months to change her mind and ask for the child back after it has been placed, or even longer if she requests that the child not be placed with PAPs immediately. All adoptions are partially open, with letters and pictures exchanged via Wa no Kai if the birth parent/s express a desire to do so. On the PAP side, Wa no Kai does not allow any kind of preference for age, sex, race or health/ability. The financial cost is quite high, but it is a registered NPO and financial reports are published every year.

To adopt through Wa no Kai you first have to attend an orientation meeting. The cost for this is about 5,000. If you decide to proceed the next stage is an interview in Tokyo with the directors. They make a final decision then. The fees for adoption are something in the order of AUS$30,000 but I can't remember exactly. The approval process is quite straightforward and arbitrary. There is no home visit, background check or anything… they just like you or dislike you.

My Experience

In our case, they disliked us. Their website requires that PAPs be under a certain age, have been married for a certain period of time and that one parent be home full-time. We could clear those requirements, but it turned out that there was another requirement I assume they didn’t specify because they hadn’t considered it necessary; infertility. The first question they asked us was what fertility treatments we had been trying and for how long. When we said we were adopting by preference not necessity that was pretty much the end of the interview. They also seemed quite upset that we were not Christians, which was unexpected. We were apparently the first foreign couple to apply with them, but they seemed open to the idea. They were concerned about maintaining the open adoption if we moved back to Australia and about our inability to contribute to future orientations (the organisation seems to rely quite heavily on successful applicants for a support network and volunteering, which is actually one of the things we really liked about the organisation). I have no reason to think that they would refuse to deal with an infertile foreign couple and I have no hard feelings about being rejected (although we did waste quite a lot of money traveling to the orientation and then interview).

Baby Pocket is also an NPO with a strong network of adoptive families supporting one-another.  You can read blogs by Japanese families who have adopted through Baby Pocket here, here, here and here (Japanese only).

My Experience

We decided not to apply with Baby-Pocket because they required a commitment not to have biological children after adopting and that isn't a decision we have made yet. Anyway, we are ineligible based on their age requirements (both husband and wife (only married couples are considered) must be over 30 (I'm not), the husband under 46 and the wife under 43). From memory they didn't say anything specifically about international parents but one of the bloggers mentioned a Canadian family who had adopted through the agency so I am assuming there wouldn't be any particular issues.

ISSJ specialises in inter-country adoptions and have since the 1950s. They have English-speaking staff and "ISSJ’s caring methodology is based on the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children". They will consider singles and PAPs with biological children, unlike most other agencies I researched. ISSJ is very careful to ensure that PAPs understand that their priority is the child. Their website states:
In 2008, the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced its key policy of shifting social custodial care from childcare institutions to more home-like facilities as part of its effort to improve the placement ratio from foster parents. In contrast to Europe and the United States, where the placement ratios are high as around 80%, the placement ratio is currently only about 10% in Japan.

Recognizing how important it is for children to be taken care of in a more family-oriented setting, ISSJ has been conducting an “international children and families counseling service”. This service supports children in the custody of childcare institutions and for infants resulting from unplanned pregnancies. ISSJ supports intercountry adoption as a means of protecting and raising these children with new families.

ISSJ, with its motto of “Children’s happiness first”, carefully and sensitively conducts interviews with birth parents in order for their children not to be put up for intercountry adoption without prior thoughtful consideration and to support birth parents to bring up their own children if at all possible. If, under certain conditions, intercountry adoption is determined to be the best option for the child as well as the birth parents,ISSJ will endeavor to choose the best adoptive family. In the process of choosing the best family, we will determine whether the adoptive parents can accept the child according to his/her age, racial and ethnic background, any handicaps, and whether they are ready to welcome that child into their home. After all this, ISSJ will arrange a match. Throughout the entire process, we will pour our efforts into providing thorough counseling support to the birth parents who have decided to give up their child for adoption.
ISSJ also assists PAPs in Japan (Japanese and non-Japanese) with inter-country adoptions from countries other than Japan. ISSJ is affiliated with the Intercountry Adoption Board (ICAB) in the Philippines. To read about the experiences of an American couple in Japan adopting a Thai child through ISSJ click here.

My Experience

Our experiences with ISSJ have been all good. Very helpful, transparent and communicative. I'm not going to say anything more than that because we are in the middle of adopting and I am going to need a bit more perspective of time to know how much of what I say about our experience infringes on our son's right to privacy about his experiences throughout this process.

Christian Agencies

For foreigners pursuing a Japanese adoption, some of the most welcoming and experienced agencies are Christian. There is a long history of faith-based agencies sending Japanese children abroad for families. I discuss some concerns below based on both my observations and reading I've done from authoritative sources. I am extremely concerned that these concerns not be seen as an attack on all Christian agencies in Japan. I have no doubt that there are many wonderful faith-based agencies. I am not sharing more contact details because it simply isn't an avenue we researched as we are not Christian.

My Concerns and Experiences

This agency appears to have an ethical approach and do not state that they require PAPs to be Christian, so we briefly considered them. However, they state that
Japanese Children may best be served by placing them within Japan with Japanese families.

Non-Japanese children or mixed race children's needs may best be served by placing them with international families or overseas if immigration is possible.
This sounds an awful lot like "pure Japanese babies should be placed with Japanese families, mixed race babies should be sent away from Japan". They probably don't mean it like that, but that’s the feeling I got reading their website and it made me very uncomfortable. There are some pretty glaring ethical issues with the way some Christian agencies approach adoption. I'm not trying to paint all Christian agencies in Japan with one brush, just raising a note of caution. For some agencies their preferences for placement are 1: Japanese Christians 2: Non-Japanese Christians followed at a distant 3rd by Japanese non-Christians. In other words, they will refuse to place a baby with a local family who have the wrong theology, preferring to send them into a different language, culture and country. I don’t agree with that, but it isn’t the main issue that put us off. The treatment of birth mothers is deeply problematic. Again, I have not researched every Christian agency and I am sure that there are some with impeccably ethical behaviour; but don’t assume that an agency will do the right thing just because they say they are Christian, research first.

I wish I could word that in a way that sounds less like I am generalising but since I can’t think of better wording I’ll just say again: Some Christian agencies may have all or some of these practices. That is not to condemn each and every Christian adoption agency in Japan or to say that there aren’t non-Christian agencies that also have problematic policies and priorities. 

Regional Agencies

For obvious reasons I don't have information on a lot of small local organisations, but one example from Osaka is They have worked with foreign/Japanese mixed families in the past and are also looking for weekend foster parents. Your local CGC should be able to give you contact details for any agencies in your area.

Gynecologists/Obstetricians Associations

I have no direct experience to call on here but Adoption in Japan describes the process of adopting through various regional medical associations. PAPs indicate their desire to adopt with their OBGGYN and if a pregnant patient indicates that she is considering adoption the association will look over their list of PAPs. These arrangements are usually conducted by word of mouth not advertising and are seen by some physicians as a natural extension of their patient care. According to Adoption in Japan, there are often more babies that PAPs in these situations because the requirements for PAPs are onerous and the costs quite high.

I mentioned in a previous post the occasional instances of practices such as registering a baby's birth to the adoptive parents not the birth parents, thereby side-stepping any actual adoption. The fact that some underhand incidents have occurred should not taken to besmirch the work of all medical associations who assist in adoption placements, particularly when those associations register as NPOs.

Experiences Others Have Shared

This lovely story is about a couple's adoption through the public system.

We visit Yuto in the orphanage for hours, days, weeks, months. Finally we can bring him home for an overnight. Then, finally, we can bring him home forever, just after his second birthday.
We go to a playground where he can see the bullet trains passing overhead. At the playground, he comes up to the other kids and wants to play with their toys, or play ball, or play with them in general. He likes to hold hands. He wants contact, touch, closeness. Because he grew up in an orphanage where everything was communal, he misses it. He has no concept of personal ownership.
The first time we give him Ai-Ai, the stuffed monkey we’d brought to take with him in the car—he tries to leave it at the orphanage. We have to convince him that he can keep it. He’s never had a single thing of his own.
 He is the opposite of other kids, who have to learn how to share. He brings his own toys to share, but the other kids don’t take much interest in them. I don’t want to try to make sense of things like this, or explain everything to him. He’ll learn. I want to cut a path in this crazy forest of life with him.  Sitting Zen. Walking Zen. Playing Zen. Mothering Zen. It’s all practice, and we have a lifetime.
But my aunt doesn’t. I want him to meet her before she dies.
So we bring him to San Francisco. He loves his seven-year-old cousin Shaviv, but he cannot pronounce Sh, so he calls him Habib. My sister tells me Habib means “friend” in Hebrew.
We see a homeless man with a cat on the street in front of Macy’s on Union Square. The cat has been hit by a car and the man needs money for its hospital bills. Everyone rushes by the man and the cat, but Yuto pulls my arm, insists on petting the cat. Then he sits down on the pavement and tries to pick up the cat to hug it. I tell him the cat is hurt and he shouldn’t touch it. So he pets it instead. Now people stop to look at the little boy sitting on the sidewalk, blocking their path. Some mothers pull their children away. A photographer stops to take a picture. Others put money in the basket. More children come to sit by his side.
Somehow, he brings together the splintered worlds of strangers. He is a healer of cats and hearts, a small wonder in this world of so many wonders. If I ever felt any doubts, I do not now.
This touching account of collecting their son from his orphanage is also by a mother who adopted through the public system.
All of Sho’s “siblings” attended his farewell party, which was held only three days after our arrival. The 2-year-old guest of honor sat in a tiny chair at the front, facing the other toddler attendees.
They sang a song for Sho in their inimitable 1-year-old way, and then everyone ate cake. Each caregiver gave him a toy or an article of clothing; these, plus similar gifts they had given him on his first birthday, were the personal possessions Sho would be taking to his new home.
He was placed front and center between his new parents, with a bouquet of flowers, for the final group photo. Later, Sho spent his last night in the communal nursery, unaware that he would probably never see any of these children again.
The next morning, Cha-chan cried as she said goodbye to Sho. Confused by her sad demeanor, Sho burst into tears. He was soon smiling again, however, as we finally began walking to the station to catch the train home.
As we stood waiting on the platform, I heard tiny voices behind us: “Sho-chan, Sho-chan, bye-bye!” We hadn’t noticed, but the caregivers and children had followed us. Despite the sweltering August heat, they were going to give us a station sendoff.
Some were standing, others were seated in baby strollers — all were pressed up to the outside fence. As the train doors closed, I held my new son up to the window. I wanted him to see the waving hands until they were completely out of sight.
This story is about staff from the US embassy adopting in Japan.

Finally, for some stories about parents who have adopted Japanese children from outside Japan, check out

*It is possible to adopt a child over 6, but the special adoption law 特別養子縁組 is exclusively for children aged six and younger.
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Monday, 15 July 2013

Toddlers are not the Devil

Hmong girl with blond toddler in Thailand
Obviously Sinners
Image by joaquin uy from Seattle (Flickr), via Wikimedia Commons

I read a blog post by an adoptive mother that upset me deeply a while ago. I've been trying to let it go but I keep coming back to think about it. She talks about her six year old child coming to “understand his own sinfulness” in the context of his questions about how he came to be adopted and what his life might have been like had he grown up in Thailand. She responded to my incredulity with the following:
If you struggle to embrace the fact that all men are sinful from birth, consider children you may know. I’m not sure if you are a parent or not but I’d venture to say you’ve experienced this…children are not taught to be sinful. We never taught our children to be selfish, or to lie or to take something that didn’t belong to them or to be disrespectful, etc. They are born ready to do those things because they have a sin nature. A one year old manifests a sin nature, just spend time with one and you will see it firsthand. It’s innate.
In other words, sin does not require action or even intention in her eyes; it is humanity’s default state… which does beg the question why we’re supposed to ask forgiveness for it. Perhaps she also asks her children to apologise to her daily for their eye-colour. It also, snarkiness aside, makes me wonder what she believes Jesus died for, if it wasn’t our sins.

Since I happen to be rather fond of babies and toddlers, and have yet to meet one I didn’t believe to be of intrinsic worth, I thought I might outline what science has to say about babies and intrinsic morality. Spoiler alert! Babies are born full of awesome. Although these findings come from numeous individual studies, I read about all of them in one book: Alison Gopnik's fabulous The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life.I'm not referencing them each individually.

Gopnik describes an absolutely charming study in which fourteen to eighteen month olds were shown two bowls, one containing goldfish crackers and the other broccoli. An experimenter ate some crackers and acted disgusted, then ate some broccoli and acted delighted. This reaction startled the babies; I mean, obviously crackers are nicer than broccoli! However, when the researcher reached out her hand and asked "Can you give me some?" the eighteen month olds gave the researcher the broccoli. Although it seemed crazy to them, they did what they thought would make the other person happy. The fourteen month olds tried to encourage the researcher to try the crackers instead.

In an experiment to determine the extend of children's ability to analyse data children were asked which animal a toy bunny was afraid of. First a zebra was introduced, and the bunny shook with fear. Then an elephant visited, and the bunny welcomed him. Finally the elephant and zebra visited together, and again the bunny shook with fear. Four year olds were not only able to deduce that the zebra was frightening the bunny but wanted to remove the zebra from the bunny's basket: "the sympathetic preschoolers were quite anxious to do so- they practically rushed in to evict the scary animal".

Gopnik sums up the morality of babies thus:
Other studies also show that these young children are genuinely altruistic. In one striking recent series of studies Felix Warneken showed the even fourteen-month-olds will try hard to help someone else. If they see an experimenter straining for a pen that is out of reach, for example, they will obligingly help him get it. In fact, they will toddle all the way across the room and clamber over a couple of cushions to get there to help. They will not only get upset when they see someone in pain, they will also try to help, petting and kissing and trying to make it better.
Such children not only act in a genuinely moral way, they also make genuinely moral judgements. In a groundbreaking study, Judith Smetana presented children as young as two and a half with simple, everyday scenarios. In some of the stories children broke a preschool rule- they didn't put their clothes in the cubby or they talked at naptime. In others, they caused real physical or psychological harm to another child, by hitting, teasing or stealing a snack. Smetana asked the children how bad the transgressions were, and whether they deserved punishment. But, most important, she asked whether the actions would be OK if the rules were different or if they took place at a school with different rules. Would it be OK to talk at naptime if the teachers all said so? Would it be OK to hit another child if the teachers all said so?
Even the youngest children differentiated between rules and harm. Children thought that breaking rules and causing harm were both bad, but causing harm was a lot worse. They also said that the rules could be changed or might not apply at a different school, but they insisted that causing harm would always be wrong, no matter what the rules said or where you were.
Poignantly, even abused children thought that hurting someone was intrinsically wrong. These children had seen their own parents cause harm, but they knew how much it hurt, and thought it was wrong.
Pages 210 to 212
I see a lot of bad people in this world. I see a lot of bad parents. I don't see a single bad baby. I will not tell my son that losing his birth family was ordained by God before the foundation of the earth or was in answer to my prayers for a child. And I sure as hell will not tell my son that he was born stained and broken and cruel.

This post contains an Amazon affiliate link. That means if you click it then buy the book I get a small commission. It does not mean that I am being paid to promote a particular product or opinion. I will only include affiliate links that are directly related to the subject of a post. If you want to know why I have begun including affiliate links you can read about it here.
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