Each year in Japan there are over 200,000 abortions. Every two weeks, a newborn infant dies of abandonment. And each year, more than 50 children lose their lives to physical abuse at the hands of their parents.

This is according to the nonprofit Migiwa, based in Nara Prefecture, western Japan.

Migiwa's mission is to protect unwanted babies, acting as a mediator to help place them with new families through plenary adoption. Such cases often involve birth mothers choosing to give up their right to raise their child with a disability such as Down syndrome.

Although the health ministry has offered a lower estimate of roughly 122,000 abortions occurring in fiscal 2022, organizations such as NPO Florence say that one newborn baby dies every two weeks in Japan due to abuse and neglect or from being abandoned in parks and other public spaces.

The Japan Network for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect also reports more than 50 deaths due to abuse occurring each year, meaning one child loses his or her life every week.

Migiwa, established in the spirit of supporting people "from the cradle to the grave," has found homes for 14 children since launching in 2018. It hopes to find homes for many more young kids, no matter who they are, it says.

While working as a church pastor, Migiwa founder Hiroki Matsubara, 55, set up a consultation center for women dealing with unwanted pregnancies. The first case involved a woman whose prenatal diagnosis revealed a fetal defect.

Discovering her child would be disabled, she said she would "kill the baby" if she gave birth to it. Her shocking words revealed to Matsubara the depths of her anguish, compelling him to start counseling sessions for women pregnant with disabled babies.

The majority of the approximately 50 cases the NPO takes on each year involve children with disabilities.

Some of these women face stigma, with those around them attaching values of superiority or inferiority to an infant's life, such as in one case where a woman said she was told by her own parents she was "pregnant with something inhuman." Many of them also suffer from prenatal depression, Matsubara said.

If the organization determines after consultations with the woman in question that she cannot raise the child, it starts the adoption process, beginning the search for a new home.

In plenary or special adoption cases, where the relationship is terminated between the birth parents and their child, families who wish to adopt the baby must go through a series of rigorous interviews to determine their suitability. The public system allows the new parents to place the child on their own family register.

Families who have gone through the process of adopting a child through Migiwa also speak about how conflicted birth mothers often are, and that they sometimes receive letters of apology or thanks from the mother for taking in their child that they were unable to raise themselves.

Hiroki Matsubara (R) and Yamato, who has Down syndrome, are pictured in Nara in November 2023. (Kyodo)

Matsubara welcomed Yamato, a child with Down syndrome, into his own family after the boy's birth mother said that she was unable to raise him. The program is an option of last resort and should only be carried out when the original family cannot fulfill their duties as parents of protecting their child, he says.

Yamato's real mother, who gave him his name, which she said she chose in the hope he would grow into "a strong man of Japanese spirit," would write messages in her maternity book -- a handbook issued by Japanese municipalities to prenatal mothers to record the mother and child's conditions throughout the pregnancy.

The woman's book, which she later gave to Matsubara's wife Naoko, is filled with messages of excitement and anticipation such as, "I look forward to the day I get to meet you!" -- up until the day it was revealed her child had a disability in a prenatal checkup. From the 28th week onward, the book is left blank.

Due to circumstances that required medical care for Yamato's congenital heart ailment, Migiwa was unable to find a family to take him in. Eventually, the Matsubaras decided to adopt him themselves.

Matsubara, who has three biological adult children of his own, is proud to say that his "family has become richer" through the days spent with his new adopted son, whom they refer to as "Yama-chan." Matsubara's own children are very loving and protective of 5-year-old Yamato, and they say he "brings out what we value as a family."

Since retiring as chairman of Migiwa in June 2022, Matsubara has remained active as a consultant with the organization.

In many cases, disabled children require hospital visits and rehabilitation, and there are few daycare centers where they can be left unaccompanied, increasing the burden of childcare on families.

According to the Children and Families Agency, there is also no financial support from the government for plenary adoptions.

Established in 1988 as part of the Civil Code, the government promotes plenary adoption on the grounds that it can provide permanent home care for children who are unable to live with their biological parents due to abuse or other reasons.

According to government data, 711 plenary adoption cases were approved in 2019, doubling the number in 10 years. In 2020, the eligibility age for adoption was raised from 6 years old and under to 15 and below.

Matsubara said the social infrastructure to support parents who have adopted children with disabilities is still nowhere near adequate. "Only the families bear the burden. We must create a system that allows children who need care to feel they belong to society."

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