Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Adoption in Japan Part 2: Attitudes to Adoption

In Part One I explained why there are orphanages full of children but very few are available for adoption. In this post I want to talk about factors that discourage parents from adopting even those children who are available. Although I’ve researched this topic, if you notice any mistakes or misinformation please do let me know. I am by no means an expert. I am also very aware of the dangers of the kinds of generalisations I’m making here. It’s impossible to write this sort of article without saying things like “Japanese society treats…” or “in Japan it is seen as…”. Of course Japan, no less than any other country, is comprised of diverse individuals. Many of them I am sure would disagree with the various opinions and prejudices I describe, and I hope that in reading this you can remember that generalisations are not universally applicable.


 Adoption Law

Japan has a long history of adoption… of adults. This is a very practical way, within a patriarchal system, to ensure smooth inheritance. If one doesn’t have a son to inherit the family name and business, one can adopt a suitable successor. This may be an extended family member, a gifted apprentice or trusted employee, or, if one has a daughter, a son-in-law. Think how different world history could have been if Henry the Eighth had had adoption as an option? These “inheritance” adoptions are not limited to the business world or bygone days. An old classmate of mine told me about the difficulties in her family when her younger brother refused to be adopted by their grand-parents. To explain the situation let me back track for a moment to introduce the family register, centre piece of every modern family law problem in Japan (see this post on custody disputes). Each family has a family register, kept at their local city office. Think of it a bit like the old family bible: each birth, marriage and death is recorded. One child, usually but not necessarily the oldest son, will inherit and continue the parents’ register. The other children may join another family’s register through marriage or adoption, or they may start their own register. A poignant moment in the TV drama 14 Year Old Mother (14才の母) shows the titular character realising that she cannot register her baby’s birth in her father’s register: she has to start her own “family”, with her as the head and only other member in order to register her child. As an unwed mother she is both symbolically and legally alone. In the case of my friend’s family, her maternal grandparents had only one daughter and no extended family with a superfluity of sons. That daughter married a man who was not able to take over her family (I assume he was already inheriting his parents’ register), moving into his register, and leaving her parents’ register empty of heirs. She had three children, two sons and a daughter (my classmate). The elder son was inheriting his father’s register, so the maternal grandparents wanted to adopt the younger son. This would mean him changing his name and entering their register. He refused however, not wanting the responsibility (there may have been a plot of land attached to the family name that they expected him to live on and farm, and he would have been expected to care for them (or more likely to have his wife care for them) while living together in their family home in their old age). The grandparents were upset and there was a lot of fighting going on, but my classmate noted glumly that through it all neither family expressed any thoughts of investing her as their heir. 

In what I think is a genius MacGyvering, inheritance adoption is used as a kind of de facto same-sex marriage arrangement by gay Japanese couples. Since the purpose is to clarify inheritance, there is no age restriction, meaning that one partner simply adopts the other as his or her successor. This means that their relationship has legal status; they are registered as a single household, and inheritance/compensation/other money issues are covered. These inheritance adoptions do not sever the relationship between adoptee and birth parents or entail any duty of care from adoptive parent to adoptee.  

Adoption in the sense of taking a non-biological child and making them legally and emotionally indistinguishable from a biological child is an entirely new concept in Japan. Legislation to create the legal framework for this sort of adoption was only finalised in 1989. The entire concept remains unfamiliar, particularly in the case of interracial adoptions. Back in 2005 I was showing my family photos to some older ladies I was having lunch with. They were confused about how my Caucasian sister and brother-in-law had been able to have two Asian daughters. I tried to explain adoption with the help of a dictionary, but didn’t get very far. Then one of the ladies said that she understood, and began explaining it to the others in Japanese. “It’s like my cats!” she said. “Momo is a pure breed I bought from a pet shop, and Tama is a stray I started feeding then eventually took in. Her nieces are like Tama-chan.” I repeated this story to the social worker who is handling our adoption incidentally, and she couldn’t help laughing; apparently when she had tried to explain her job to her grandmother the older lady had initially thought that her job involved finding homes for cats.

The family register raises its ugly head again in the issue of biological parents’ willingness to release their child for adoption. A child who is raised in an orphanage appears normally on the register (in most cases). A child who is given up for adoption will still be listed in the register, but with the adoption noted. For a young woman, having an adopted child listed in her register could cause any number of problems, including employment and marriage discrimination. There will be negative consequences not only for her but for her entire extended family. If she were to have an abortion, her register would remain unaffected. Some obstetricians have run a black market in matching infertile couples with patients experiencing unplanned pregnancies and illegally registering the birth of the latter’s child to the former’s register. Some private adoption agencies legally facilitate adoptions of newborns who are never listed in the birth mother’s register, but this means that the full costs of the mother’s medical care throughout pregnancy and birth must be paid up front. Although Japan has national health insurance, the costs of healthy pregnancy and a normal vaginal birth are not covered and have to be paid at the time of treatment. After a birth is registered in the family register the government pays a “baby bonus” to the mother that reimburses these costs. In a “normal” situation this means that the pregnancy and birth are in practice free, but if the birth is not registered the bonus isn’t paid, laying a large financial burden on the biological mother. Most agencies require the adoptive parents to pay this amount in addition to other fees and charges, meaning that even above-board, not-for-profit agencies charge very high fees.


Societal Acceptance of Eugenics

I wrote in a post about an orphanage Christmas party I organised that a co-worker commented that the kids would “just end up in jail anyway” because they had “bad blood”. Her view is definitely not a fringe or minority one. Ideas of pure and impure blood and of personalities based on blood types are commonplace and largely unquestioned. There is a pervasive belief that everything from your taste in food to the language you speak is biologically pre-determined. Even teachers will unabashedly say things like “Japanese ears have a different internal structure that can’t distinguish between R and L” or “Japanese language uses a different part of the brain from other languages”. These casual assumptions may not seem serious enough to warrant my use of the term eugenics, so let me also point out that laws providing for compulsory sterilisation of women with disabilities were not abolished until mid-1996.

During the orientation meeting for a private adoption agency we attended last summer the main focus was on the organisation’s policy of not allowing applicants to refuse a child. They explained that this included the following commonly objectionable reasons: Biological parents with a criminal record or mental illness, a child born of rape, the child’s race or the presence of a disability. Apparently many applicants baulk at the idea of a child with parents who have a criminal record… we couldn’t even understand why that was included. What possible difference could it make?! To Japanese couples, apparently it makes a big difference. During the Q and A section one couple who had adopted their daughter through the agency told us that race had been their biggest stumbling block. “A disability we could cope with” they told us, “but what if the child were black?! I mean, we don’t mind, but think about the bullying…” According to materials we were given, after this orientation more than half of applicants decide not to continue every year.

An anecdote in “Adoption in Japan” by Peter Hayes and Toshie Habu illustrates what prospective parents want in an adopted child. The authors write about the overwhelming response an adoption agency received to their search for parents for a three-year-old girl whose parents had died in a car accident. She represented the ideal "orphan" to prospective parents: the cute and developmentally standard child of a normal family affected by tragic circumstances.

In some Japanese cases, as in  many other countries, parents fear that that will not bond with or love an adopted child. Last time Abe Shinzo was prime minister his wife spoke publicly about their infertility but also commented that she felt incapable to raising an adopted child, and consequently they had decided to remain childless.


Fragmentation of Services

Adoption of children who are wards of the state is conducted via the child welfare office of each regional center. Private orphanages may pursue adoptions privately, particularly Catholic orphanages in coordination with the local Catholic congregation. A number of private adoption agencies exist to match birth parents with couples looking to adopt infants. Some obstetricians and maternity hospitals run private or ad hoc programs. There seems to be no national guidance or oversight. This quote from an article by highlights the lack of consistency:
A woman whose daughter had died was allowed by child welfare to go to a local orphanage and pick out a girl who looked like her daughter and take her home. Mr. Yamanta inherited this case from his predecessor. When he visited the home to see how the little six-year-old was doing, the mother said in front of the girl, “My daughter was not stupid like she is.” When Yamanta told his superior about this, the response was that the girl needed to learn to endure suffering. Of course, Mr. Yamanta ignored his supervisor and immediately moved the girl out of the situation. He was later rebuked severely. Impressed by an American missionary and a doctors’ association that was helping newborns get adopted, Mr. Yamanta wondered why the government couldn’t do the same thing. This would keep some children from ever entering the system. So, he started doing something revolutionary. He started asking pregnant women who came seeking help if they would be interested in adoption rather than putting their baby in an orphanage. Mr. Yamanta and his co-workers developed a system of finding and qualifying parents and arranging adoptions. One of their tenets was and is that if a baby turns out to be disabled, the adoptive parents must continue to raise him/her. Instead of sitting in their offices, he and his staff would go to the hospital when a baby was born. They would take the new parents there and make sure they were taught how to care for the newborn. Then, they let the birth mother put her baby in the arms of loving parents. You would think that this amazing new process would have caught on like wild fire all over Japan, but instead, Mr. Yamanta and his staff were opposed at every turn.
Post-adoption services are similarly confusing and fragmented. Some private agencies keep track of adoptive parents, but their staff do not necessarily have any training appropriate to the special challenges faced by adoptive families. As this sad case of a foster mother murdering the little girl in her care shows, the government sector doesn’t do a great job of following up on placements either. In countries like Australia and America there is a plethora of support services, specialist councillors, respite care, play groups, email lists and publications. In Japan it is still apparently common for couples to move house around the time of an adoption in order to hide it, and to keep adoption a secret both from their neighbours and from the child. This makes it very difficult for those families to seek help or to network with other adoptive families. There is an increasing trend in private agencies insisting that this not happen. They use the English word “telling” to express “openness about the fact of adoption”. Some adoptive parents blog about their experiences and attend orientation sessions for prospective adopters, which helps to normalise adoption and break down the wall of silence. When I began telling co-workers that we were trying to adopt most couldn’t understand what I meant or why we would do such a thing, but two were enthusiastic and told me about friends or extended family members with adopted children. My feeling is that a generational shift in attitudes may be slowly taking place.

Click here for Part Three: How to Adopt and Experiences with Adoption in Japan


  1. Our infant son, whom we've adopted from Japan (2012 to Canada)was completely and legally removed from the Family Census/Registry as soon as his adoption was finalized in Canada.
    He will no longer have any proof of birth within Japan and will have to be issued a new birth certificate in Canada (strange but true. Same thing happens to the babies adopted to the States from Japan).
    According to the Japanese adoption agency, it's one of the reasons Japanese (grand)-parents are pressuring some of the young birth moms/couples to choose international adoption if they've missed the abortion deadline: it erases the "mistake" in the blood line (whether because of social status or interracial relationship) from the Registry and will make it easier for the young woman to eventually find a husband, who may go his whole life not knowing she had a baby before she met him.

    1. Hi Keke, thanks so much for your comment. There is a "Part Three" coming up, which is going to be a "hot to" and "experiences with", but I have been dragging my feet on it a bit because it is much more subjective and difficult to fact-check than the first two posts. If you have written about your experiences somewhere I would love to be able to include a link to it, and if you haven't, would you consider writing something and allowing me to share it? If you have time to get in contact my email address is sopheliajapan:AT:gmail(dot)com
      Thanks again for stopping by :)

    2. I adopted while living in Japan( now in Oz) this is so interesting. I don't think this was the case with our child. I would love to know how to get him an Australian birth certificate. at the moment he is still on a Japan passport with permanent residence here. He is now able to apply for Aus citizenship.

    3. Anonymous, we're just starting to look into how things will work when/if we return to Australia and I would really appreciate hearing from you if you don't mind~ my email address is sopheliajapan:AT:gmail(dot)com and I would be eternally grateful ^_^

  2. I want to share about my experience for giving my child for adoption. At first there was no problem at all, they found adoptive parents for my child, a japanese woman married to A foreigner from Spain. As soon as I gave birth they will be there waiting for the child. Feeling happy for my child knowing that she will have a better future but at the same im feeling sad for us to be apart because of our situation. Everything was accepted until they diagnose my child with a congenital heart disease, and then they tell me that the adoptive parents wasnt able to care for a child with that health problem. I understand why they did that, it would be very hard and complicated and its a lifetime caring. Everynow and then I keep asking if they found adoptive parents who can take care of my baby, and then my heart broke when they tell me that it is hard to find a family and knowing that the baby will be soon gone and who knows when. I just cry.. I cant do nothing.. putting my child for adoption is hard for me, and now that my baby is sick and knowing no one wants to adopt her is much more hard for me to let her go.. Im struggling eversince, wanting to take care and be with her, but cant do nothing as a mother.. I feel horrible.. I feel angry.. I dont know.. Done doing research to find families who can give her love and care and support her through out her life.. But living here in Japan wasnt that easy!!! My heart was more broken..

    1. Thank you for sharing your story. I am so sorry to hear what you are going through. If you would like to talk to me please send me an email to sopheliajapan@gmail.com with your telephone number and I will call you. Or, we can talk by email. I really want to hear how you are doing!

      I don't know whether you are talking to an adoption agency of your local 児童相談センター?
      If you contact http://wa-no-kai.jp/




      ・ お電話または下記メールアドレスまでご連絡下さい。

        TEL:03-3951-7270 FAX:03-3951-9495 e-mail: wa@wa-no-kai.jp

      They may be more help for you. They can give advice about services to help you stay with your daughter. Or, if you are completely sure about adoption, they may do a better job of finding a family for her. Unlike some agencies, they put the mother and child's welfare before the adoptive parents'.

  3. Dear Anonymous, I'm so sorry for you, darling. Please do the right thing and get in touch with Sophelia, at least to talk things over.

    Hugs, to you and your baby.

  4. To the lady who has a baby with heart disease. We adopted our daughter from Japan in 2008. We live in the US. We used a US agency who works with a Japanese woman. Her name is Tazuru, you can contact her:
    Across the World Adoption
    Across the World Adoption
    "Across JAPAN" Office:
    #401, 29-9 Shiba 2 Chome, Minato-ku, Tokyo 105-0014
    (Ms. Tazuru OGAWA, Director of Across Japan)

    Maybe she can help you find an adoptive family if you are still wanting to do that. Best of luck to you.

    1. Just for the record, we emailed that address in 2011 and still haven't got a reply. I don't know if anyone is still checking it.

    2. yes its true i am in condact with this lady too Taz!!
      but i am not sure the kid can go to us familiy soon:(
      how long it takes ...its a mess nervouse waiting till some family get the kid to usa

  5. I am working at adoption agency who register legally here in Japan. According your blog says " Some obstetricians have run a black market in matching infertile couples with patients experiencing unplanned pregnancies and illegally registering the birth of the latter’s child to the former’s register. " I am very surprised to read it. Do you have any actual evidence news data source of such a crime? Many people are just talk as "Unsure" makes us so hard to work this field and it is very hard to remove or fix those "Wrong Rumor" especially negative gossip.I am really wishing people "STOP" to talk by just "guessing" for this adoption field. For me by my work on this field several years, here is not more (yes, it used to be happened way back ago)fake birth registry.Also so far as I know, here is no agency who place newborn without register birth mother's Koseki with full cost, if you do place baby without birth registry, there is no way to finalize court. No health insurance,no benefit, no school for this child. I wish right Japanese adoption information goes around here in this world.Thank you.

    1. Hi, thank you for commenting. That information comes from a book by Peter Hayes and Toshie Habu called "Adoption in Japan: Comparing Policies for Children in Need". It is based rigorous on academic research, so I trust that it is a reliable source.
      I wrote these posts because it was very difficult to find information about adoption in Japan that was reliable, and I have tried to make sure what I say is accurate by using these kinds of sources. However, I am sure there are many mistakes and missed nuances. If you are interested in writing something about your work or your experiences I would really love to include it here. My email address is sopheliajapan@gmail.com
      I really hope to hear from you!

    2. To Anonymous. We are interested in learning more about adopting a Japanese child. I am a married half Japanese female living in the US and looking to adopt a child from Japan. However the websites that say they do Japanese adoptions are not taking any new applications. Does the agency you work for do international adoptions or do you know of any agencies that do? Thank you for your assistance. Please contact me at mpkline5@gmail.com.

  6. Hi... I am a filipina married to a filipino who is a 3rd generation san ki jin if im not mistaken... We are wondering if we ate eligible to adopt an infant from here in japan... We are actually living here in japan but we are having a hard time having a baby and we are thinking to adopt a baby.

    1. Hopefully Part 3 will give you some places to start :)

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    3. And wow, yes, there in fact was a comment too vile for me to be able to leave. The human race never fails to disappoint.

  7. Hello to those of you looking for baby to adopt, am olivia by name and am from south africa, i have a set of twins boy and girl, i don't have all it takes to take care of them as i have made my decision to put them for adoption, intreasted couples looking forward to adopt the babies should please contact adoptionbabyhome@live.com, or my private email on oliviaphilip40@Gmail.com. i don't just want the little children to suffer anymore please HELP by coming to take them from me i beg you, thank you.

    1. I decided when I started this blog never to delete comments, even spam. However, this one has really tested my resolve. Usually spam is just annoying; this is downright horrifying. I am sure no one reading this blog would be silly enough to attempt to contact either of the addresses given but allow me to caution you just in case. Don't. I'm going to leave the comment, although it is upsetting, but with a heavy heart.

    2. If you run a google search for the Gmail address "she" lists, you'll find it comes up several hundred times for this and that, all of it for scams, and only rarely for anything to do with the supposed babies she has.

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  9. You might find this website interesting. Www.actusa.org Global Adoption Trafficking news. Child Trafficking in the guise of adoption.


Because of all the spam lately, comments on old posts will now be moderated. This means it may be some time before your comment appears. You can always email me directly, check the contact page for details.