Friday, 26 September 2014

Orientation Meeting for Prospective Adoptive Parents (Flashback Friday)

The gorgeous image is by Brett Davies, taken from here.

This is a post I wrote over a year ago, and it has been sitting in my draft folder because I was worrying about potential invasion of the privacy of the other people I discuss. After a log time thinking about it, I'm confident that it would be impossible to identify any individual mentioned here, so I am publishing it.

It’s interesting how telling people we were adopting opened floodgates of infertility stories. I wonder how many Japanese couples are struggling to conceive while feeling like they are the only ones. One teacher I worked with who had recently had her first child told me that she tried for eight years, another for five. One of my naginata friends and her husband were never able to have a child. I feel like an interloper in this world of private pain and monthly disappointments. I’ve never tried to conceive and have no reason to believe that I couldn’t. We are adopting as our first choice, not as a last resort after all else has failed, but the people around me always assume the latter. Early in our exploration of adoption in Japan we attended an orientation meeting with a private adoption agency. It was a pretty eye opening experience. Our cheerful responses about looking forward to adoption seemed incongruous in the atmosphere of sadness. At the start of the meeting we all introduced ourselves, and the other attendees all discussed the length of time they had been trying to conceive and the fertility treatments they had tried. After the introductions we realised that the majority of couples there were not potential applicants but successful adoptive parents who were there to help with the orientation. In fact, only one other couple was there for the orientation, which was the only meeting in Kyushu that year and was compulsory for applicants with the agency.
After the introductions we watched a video about the agency that outlined their policies, after which we were expected to give 感想, responses or impressions. There seemed to be an expectation that we would object to the policies, for example not being permitted to request a specific kind of child (age, race, sex or ability). We then watched a second video about a couple whose adopted daughter experienced some delays in her physical development, and how they felt about it. Again we were asked for feedback, and again there was a heavy expectation that we would be uncomfortable with the possibility of adopting a child who may be disabled. When we responded that if we conceived a child naturally we would have no control over sex or ability either, there was some surprised murmuring around the room, as though the comparison hadn't occurred to anyone else. I learned later that the government agencies (CGCs) often prefer to keep infants in institutionalised care until they are old enough to access if their development is "normal" before placing them for adoption; a policy that becomes a sort of self-fulfilling-prophesy since it is a well documented fact the institutionalisation in early life causes developmental delays.  After running through the policies in greater detail and also going over the costs, we broke for lunch.

The afternoon session was "small group time", and we sat with a group of parents who had successfully adopted through the agency. Most had brought their children with them, and the kids had a fine time playing together while the adults talked. This ongoing support network was the thing we most liked about the agency, although we later learned some less positive information and are happy that ultimately we did not proceed with them. After telling us about their experiences the "sempai" parents then asked us some questions and encouraged us to ask them anything. In a slightly humorous moment, one gentleman asked us earnestly if we were comfortable with the agency's policy that required us to tell our hypothetical future child s/he was adopted. Trying to keep a straight face I responded that a Japanese child with two white parents would probably not find that to be particularly shocking news. This led to some questions about race; were we really OK with not having a say over the child's race? One woman explained that while she was OK with the rule when it came to disability, she had difficulty agreeing to accept a child of any race. "What if the baby were black?" She asked. "I mean I don't mind, but other people might be so cruel and I really worried about if I could handle that."

In the late afternoon we merged back into a single group and the two prospective adoptive couples were asked, again, to make some comments. We said we'd enjoyed seeing all the children playing together and that this ongoing support was wonderful. The other couple said they had decided to try a few more rounds of fertility treatments before revisiting the idea of adoption.
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Friday, 19 September 2014

Vindicating My Face (Flashback Friday)

OK, my face can be kind of scary, but I've got nothing on this terrifying "training baby" doll!
The infant home we spent a couple of years visiting had a very progressive attitude toward having people through for training purposes. University social work students, prospective foster parents and all sorts of other interested parties were able to spend time there getting first hand experience of the system and of the children's needs. Some were timid and earnest, wanting to learn everything and assume nothing. Others, usually women who had experience in education or childcare, were overly confident that "all children are the same" and that exactly how they had always interacted with other children would be just fine with institutionalised kids as well. On one occasion I had a slight run in with one of the later kind of visitor.

The very first baby I held at the home was a little boy just a few months old who I shall call Napoleon, because his real name is equally grandiose and also because he was particularly tiny. While a lot of babies were in and out of care, or stayed for a month or two then left for good, no one ever came back for Napoleon. Visiting every week, I was able to develop much more of a bond with him than with kids I saw less frequently. One day, when he was about 15 months old, Napoleon was having a hard time. He was teething, he had a slight fever, and another kid had hit him over the head with a wooden block. I was giving him a cuddle but he was crying very hard. At this in-opportune time, a staff member came in with a new "observer", an older lady who took one look at the situation and announced "He's scared of you because he isn't used for foreign faces, I'll clam him down." She confidently strolled over, plucked Napoleon from my arms and spun her back to me to shield him from the terrifying sight of my big nose and lack of epicanthic fold.  "There there" she said, "you're OK now."

Actually, for a few seconds Napoleon did stop crying. I guess being unceremoniously grabbed by a complete stranger will have that effect. Before she could congratulate herself on her success, however, the "observer" copped a punch to the face (from Napoleon, not me). He punched and kicked and squirmed until she put him down, upon which he ran back to me, threw himself into my lap and buried his face in my neck.

Miss you, Napoleon. My scary face thinks of you often.
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Friday, 12 September 2014

Rural Depopulation, Japan Agriculture and the Failure of the Concrete Solution

Road through Japanese forest in fall, inoshishi visable
Wild boar foraging for acorns by the side of the road: There is so much beauty when the pachinko parlors are out of sight!
Japan's ailing agricultural sector, demographic crisis and the death of rural towns and villages are not new topics, but I hope you'll forgive me bringing them up when you read this brilliant and passionate recent post:

I thoroughly agree with the criticism of how zoning laws make the Japanese countryside look dingy and messy when it could be so beautiful. What really interested me, though, are these comments about Japan Agriculture:
Japan’s agriculture actually contributes zero to GDP because the Tokyo Foundation estimated that subsidies balance the economic wealth generated by the agricultural sector.

Tragically, real farmers, who want to grow rice profitably, find it hard to buy farmland. Greedy gerontocrats sit on their micro-plots in the hope of a re-zoning windfall, and because owning farm land exempts their family from inheritance tax. Real farmers also find it hard to lease land because lessors are worried by the strong protection the law grants leases. Furthermore, non-farm investors like public companies are officially barred from buying land. These measures are all remnants of well-meant US efforts post-1945 to prevent the rise of usury, rural exploitation, tenant farming and absentee landlords.

In short, the farm lobby is ironically destroying Japanese agriculture. Their perverse policy of using tariffs on rice of almost 800% and of being paid subsidies NOT to grow rice in order to keep prices high has been disastrous. Although Japanese rice is good quality and in demand abroad, a lack of concentration and scale is preventing Japanese rice farmers from doing for agriculture what Toyota and Panasonic did for manufacturing – take the world by storm with excellent export products.
Many moons ago I studied the influence of Japan Agriculture in the LDP (the relationship is under strain at the moment) and the way voting district allocation gives farming areas a disproportionate representation that leads to extraordinary pork barreling (more so in the '80s and '90s). It's not a new topic. I do have a different perspective on it having lived in a rural area though. Just the other day we were driving up into the mountains looking for a river swimming hole and we passed through a small group of old farm houses, of which only three or four looked like they were still inhabited. There was an old overgrown gas station and an ancient looking vending machine facing the dirt road. Yet just on the other side of this little settlement there was a brand new, two story concrete JA office resplendently modern-looking with a car-park that looked like it had until recently been a rice field. When riding the local bus a recorded voice gives information about each stop: "get off here to transfer to south-bound routes" and so on. Before the bus stop that is actually named Japan Agriculture, however, the voice over tells me that Japan agriculture is defending Japan's farming culture and giving us safe crops we can be proud of, before playing the JA jingle. I'm deadly serious.

Autumn rice fields~ hard work getting a shot without power lines or (much) concrete in sight

So, as young people abandon the unattractive (in many senses) countryside described in The Delphi Network article, how are those communities responding?
The tiny Japanese community of Mishima was desperate to reverse its shrinking population so officials came up with what they hoped would be a game-changing plan: free cows. Anyone willing to pack up and move to the remote southern village of 379 residents would get a no-cost calf or 500,000 yen in cash.
Mishima’s bovine brainwave has fallen well short of expectations, however.
“The program has been going for more than 20 years, and so far there has only been one person who took us up on the cow, and that was two decades ago,” village official Shingo Hidaka told AFP, adding the cash had only a handful of takers.
Japan needs to stop its population from cramming into the capital and create towns "overflowing with individuality and charm," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday at a roundtable on reinvigorating the countryside.
One unheralded Yubari success story is its rewilding, although no Japanese administrator would use that expression, which smacks to them of defeatism.
As humanity recedes, nature returns. By a railway station on Yubari’s somnolent branch line, a man who in a small act of public spiritedness is watering the bare concrete floors of the station building (“It keeps the dust down”) points to a Sika Deer doe in the nearby undergrowth. “Unusual to see one around here until just recently.” More deer vaulted in front of my car on Yubari’s main street the following day, forcing a swerve. Good use is being made of the return of nature, too: an abandoned elementary school has been turned into a nature academy, where big-city kids can kayak down the now pristine rivers and catch stag beetles.
 That last quote brings is very nicely to Alex Kerr, who wrote in Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan over a decade ago about the failure of the government response to dying villages and offers a different approach which he describes in this 2013 TEDxKyoto talk:

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