More than 130,000 child abuse cases were handled by child consultation centers across Japan in fiscal 2017, on the back of increasing reports of children being psychologically damaged by witnessing violence within their families, the health ministry's preliminary data showed Thursday.
The figure rose 9.1 percent from a year earlier to 133,778, marking a 27th straight year of increase since comparable data became available in 1990.
The ministry attributed the rising number of reports to increased awareness among the public that psychological mistreatment such as witnessing acts of domestic violence can also be counted as child abuse cases.
Although child abuse reports included less serious cases such as quarrels between parents, serious cases continued to occur, some leading to the deaths of children. In fiscal 2016 through March last year, 77 children died due to abuse, including 28 who were forced into murder-suicide. Of them, 33 were under 1 year old.
In March this year, Yua Funato, 5, died in Tokyo after being abused and neglected by her parents despite her desperate pleas for them to stop mistreating her. Her case shocked the public as she left a message in a notebook saying, "Please forgive me forgive me."
Following her death, the government compiled emergency measures to tackle child abuse, including a plan to boost the number of child welfare staff nationwide by about 2,000 by fiscal 2022 from 3,253 as of April last year.
(The apartment complex in Tokyo where 5-year-old Yua Funato died in March 2018)
The rising number of abuse cases has placed added strain on welfare workers, but authorities are increasingly expected to swiftly identify urgent cases among a huge number of reports.
"We want to create a system involving not just child consultation centers but also municipal governments to prevent abuse," said an official at the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.
Experts say isolation from society and poverty are among the causes of child abuse, and that it is important to create an environment where parents raising their children have somewhere to turn if they encounter difficulties.
In fiscal 2017 that ended in March, psychological abuse including witnessing acts of domestic violence, neglecting children and verbal abuse stood at 72,197 cases, accounting for 54.0 percent of the total.
There were 33,223 cases of physical abuse, 26,818 cases of neglect and 1,540 sexual abuse cases.
The number of child abuse deaths in fiscal 2016 dropped by seven from the previous year and in 67.5 percent of the 77 cases, mothers were responsible for their deaths. The ministry has not yet released the number of child abuse-related deaths for fiscal 2017.
More than half of the mothers of children who died in cases other than murder-suicide gave birth to their children after an unplanned pregnancy, the ministry said, calling for support for both pregnant women and mothers.
The ministry interviewed local authorities over cases deemed particularly serious. In a case involving a mother with a psychiatric disorder who attempted to die along with her daughter, the ministry said there was nobody with psychiatric expertise around the mother to offer her help.
The ministry said a framework is needed to help child welfare staff seek advice from experts.
As of June this year, the whereabouts of 28 children aged under 18 remained unknown and the ministry says their parents may not be sending them to school. At least four are feared to be subjected to abuse while nine may have gone abroad, according to the ministry.
The survey on missing children covered children who did not undergo a public health examination for infants or did not attend school, as well as those authorities could not reach.
"We will continue to ask municipal governments to locate their whereabouts and call for their support if the children are in danger," a ministry official said.