Japan needs to increase provisions for foster care and stop putting children in institutions, according to British-based experts on the welfare and rights of vulnerable children.

Japan places around 85 percent of children and babies who need care in institutions, according to government statistics.

This rate is one of the highest among developed countries, according to international studies, and Japan's outlier status contrasts with most other industrialized nations where fostering is the norm rather than the exception.

Although fostering takes place in Japan, often this is when there is little likelihood of the child being returned to their birth parents and seen as a proxy for adoption.

While the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare argues local authority child guidance centers should, as a default, use foster care, they are under no obligation to do so, according to Michael Rivera-King, who has a doctorate from the University of Oxford and will publish a book on foster care in Japan this year.

(Michael Rivera-King)

Deep-seated beliefs among social services staff in local prefectures are one of the key reasons why reform is slow, he said.

Rivera-King found staff are wary of placing children in foster care due to fears they will develop bonds with foster parents at the expense of their relationship with birth parents.

However, most experts dispute this. The widely acknowledged Attachment Theory states that if a child forms a secure attachment with one adult, they develop the ability to form attachments with other adults.

This shows, therefore, foster care placements can help children's relationships with birth parents, according to Rivera-King.

He also thinks Japan's public registration system -- which says a child can only be part of one family -- creates a mindset where the idea of having a "second" set of "parents" is problematic.

He says the legal system works against fostering as well. Social services generally need parents' permission before putting their child in care -- and parents are more likely to grant permission if the child is going to an institution staffed by professionals, rather than "amateur" foster parents who might form a "natural" bond with the child and become a potential rival, he said.

As a result, child guidance center staff -- many of whom Rivera-King found to be "just about coping" with heavy caseloads and dealing with day-to-day emergencies where children are at risk from abuse -- often perceive fostering as riskier and more complicated than using the "tried-and-tested" large institutions that often have plenty of capacity and cultivate close links to officials.

Rivera-King describes as "mindboggling" how Japan still has many of these institutions, particularly for babies. The United Nations and World Health Organization have said children under the age of three should not be in institutional care.

While cases of physical abuse have decreased in institutions, Human Rights Watch has noted children still suffer bullying and harassment from peers both within and outside institutions.

Rivera-King, who previously set up a charity for Japanese orphans and who now heads up Ashinaga UK, which provides scholarships for African orphans, said central government needs to invest heavily in foster carers.

"If foster caring was seen as professional, then it would no longer be perceived as a riskier option and also as a potential threat to the child's relationship with their parents," he said.

All foster carers are given "basic" training, which tends to focus on the legal aspects of caring. A few prefectures are now offering workshops on practical parenting skills, and Rivera-King believes this needs to be rolled out nationwide.

David Berridge, emeritus professor of child and family welfare at the University of Bristol, said England currently has one of the highest foster rates in Europe, with about 75 percent of children in care living with foster families.

He said, "Over the past 50 years England has moved away from residential care for several reasons: there was research evidence that it is harmful for young children to be brought up in large institutions with inconsistency in their care; well-staffed residential placements are expensive; and there have been many scandals involving physical and sexual abuse of children living in residential institutions, often the larger and more remote placements."

He said that, by and large, foster care has worked well with most children feeling cared for and secure. Attempts are always made, where possible, to maintain contact with the child's birth parents, siblings and other relatives.

Berridge added, "My view is that, generally, I feel that countries should move toward a position where the majority of children in care live with foster families rather than residential homes. But such developments often take time and depend on cultural attitudes to parenting and other matters."

"Children should also have a say in where they live and what happens to them."

Kanae Doi, Japan director at Human Rights Watch, told Kyodo News that "budgets need to be shifted from institutional to foster care."

"Institutions are paid on a per-child basis and, in order to keep them open, this provides an incentive to place kids there rather than with foster parents."

Doi added the situation in Japan conflicted with international human rights law, which recognizes the importance of family settings for children.

Related coverage:

Japan Inc. urged to make paternity leave no longer pie in the sky

Record 1,957 child abuse cases probed by police in 2019

Fine line between neglect and independence for Japanese kids

Japan sees record low number of babies born in 2019