The controversial "baby hatch" set up at a Kumamoto hospital in 2007 to enable parents to leave infants anonymously received a total of 125 babies over the nine years through March last year while it has remained the sole such facility in the country.
Ahead of its 10th anniversary on Wednesday, Taiji Hasuda, president of Jikei Hospital in the city of Kumamoto, southwestern Japan, said Tuesday his hospital was able to play a role in saving the lives of babies through the program.
"We began this program to allow people who do not want their (pregnancy and delivery) to be known to feel safe in entrusting their babies," he said at a news conference in the city.
The hospital set up the hatch, called "konotori no yurikago" (the cradle of the stork) in May 2007, to give an option to parents who feel they cannot raise children on their own, after studying similar systems in other nations including Germany.
The launch sparked controversy, with advocates calling it a "last resort" to save lives, and opponents regarding it as giving the green light to parents to abandon their children.
The government at the time also distanced itself from the program, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in his short-lived first stint as premier, saying it made him feel "very awkward."
Of the 125 babies left at the hatch in Kumamoto, 104 were newborn babies less than 1 month old and 14 less than 1 year old, while seven were older infants, according to the Kumamoto city government, which reviewed the program.
As of March 2014, 30 children had been sent to orphanages and other facilities, 29 adopted, 19 left to foster parents and 18 returned to their families, with the remaining five classified as "other cases," according to a review of cases for 101 children left at the hospital.
The city government report found that at least 46 percent of the 125 babies left at the hatch by March last year had been born at places other than medical institutions, with 53 babies delivered at home and four inside cars. In some cases, mothers had delivered babies on their own and cut their umbilical cord with scissors.
Economic hardships and an inability to consult with family members about their pregnancy were among the reasons cited for giving birth at places other than medical institutions.
As to why parents left their children at the Kumamoto hospital, economic hardships were cited in 32 cases, childbirth without marriage in 27 cases, and fear of how they may be viewed by others and family registry issues in 24 cases, according to the report, which allowed multiple answers for their reasons.
The report showed women in their 20s accounted for 36 percent of the women who used the hatch, followed by 22 percent who were in their 30s, while 12 percent were teenage girls.
The city government plans to announce how many babies were left at the hospital in the year ended this March, the 10th year of the program, later this month.
Meanwhile, a nonprofit group that was seeking to set up what would have been the nation's second baby hatch at a maternity center in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, has informed the city government there that it has given up on the plan as the medical institution was unable to secure a doctor on duty at all times as requested by the city, a city official said Tuesday.
The group, called "konotori no yurikago in Kansai," plans to explore other ways to save the lives of unwanted babies, such as by setting up a baby hatch at other hospitals or cooperating with an association that supports adoption of child.
Also Tuesday, Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki said he still remembers the shock he felt upon learning about the launch of the baby hatch.
"Even if you become pregnant unexpectedly, it is best that babies are raised on their own. But in cases where it is impossible, we want them to make a decision after learning about an option of adoption," Shiozaki said at a news conference in Tokyo.
Jikei Hospital is also known for its around-the-clock pregnancy and childbirth consulting services, dealing with a record 6,565 cases of counseling needs in fiscal 2016.