JT: Japan’s shelters provide little comfort to abused children

The Japan Times


Japan’s shelters provide little comfort to abused children



Every year, more than 20,000 abused, delinquent, developmentally challenged or otherwise troubled Japanese children needing emergency housing pass through a system of shelters.

But the conditions inside many of them are so regimented that children can find the experience harrowing, according to interviews with more than a dozen people who have stayed or worked in the facilities and with experts on child psychology who are familiar with the system.

The concerns have prompted government officials to suggest that reform is needed, though there is no indication of when that will occur. Government-sponsored committees aimed at improving child welfare policies have been established, and changes to the centers will be on their agenda.

“No one thinks it’s OK to keep these shelters exactly the way they are,” said Yu Hamada, an official at the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. “There hasn’t been any discussion to date as to how exactly they should function, and that’s what we’re working on.”

Set up after World War II to provide food and shelter for wandering orphans and petty juvenile criminals, Japan’s 136 shelters haven’t evolved much in the past 70 years, experts say.

The children, who can be any age between 1 and 17, are usually kept indoors and away from school so they can’t run off and so abusive parents can’t grab them.

In many of the shelters, workers with little training impose strict rules and schedules, don’t allow cellphones or toys from home, and make isolation a common punishment for misbehaving, the sources said. Stricter shelters don’t allow chatting during meals or even making eye contact with other kids.

The shelters vary in age, size and quality. Some have gymnasiums or playgrounds and are well-stocked with DVDs and comic books; others are run-down with peeling wallpaper and old tatami mats, sleeping 10 to a room.

They are administered by child guidance centers that are part of prefectural and municipal governments and have gone largely unsupervised by the central government. They are funded with local and central government money.

Despite its child-friendly image, Japan lags behind other advanced nations in protecting the rights of youths in official care. A fundamental problem is a dearth of foster parents, which means that a greater percentage of kids end up in some kind of group care facility than in other developed countries.

Acknowledging problems in the system, Japan last year revised its child welfare law to spell out that children have rights, though experts say those are not fully enforced by welfare workers.

“These shelters should be a place for children to get the care they need,” said Yukiko Yamawaki, a psychotherapist who worked with children under care in Tokyo for nearly two decades until 2015 and often visited the facilities. “But the attitude is, ‘You’re lucky you have a place to sleep and you’re not getting killed.’ They don’t see their jobs as providing comfort and care.”

A nine-year-old girl who spent more than three months in a temporary shelter in Tokyo is pictured at her psychotherapist
A nine-year-old girl who spent more than three months in a temporary shelter in Tokyo is pictured at her psychotherapist’s office in Tokyo on March 17. | REUTERS

Defenders of the system say tight discipline is needed because the children have a wide range of backgrounds and needs, and chaos would reign without firm control.

“It’s communal living, so we do have to set some rules,” said Chikako Yoshikawa, who oversees a shelter in Tokyo. “With a limited number of workers caring for lots of children, a certain level of control is inevitable to prevent accidents.”

The average stay in the shelters is 30 days, though some children end up in staying for months before they return home, go into foster care or are moved to another residential facility.

Reuters was allowed to visit one of the 33 shelters in and around Tokyo. Requests to go to others were turned down on privacy grounds.

It was difficult to draw any conclusions about conditions during a recent visit to that one shelter in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.

Boys and girls streamed into a spacious lounge after a study time. One started playing ping-pong while several others slumped onto a couch to read comics. It was a scene that could have been in any dormitory except that almost every wall and door was patched up to cover damage from punching and kicking by the kids, according to one worker. Children weren’t allowed to whisper, making sure staffers could monitor their conversations.

One 9-year-old girl who spent more than three months at another shelter in Tokyo last year said she was scolded often, felt suffocated and longed to go home despite having been beaten by her mother.

“When it’s TV time, you have to watch TV. If you start talking, they’ll say, ‘Look straight ahead,’” she said.

An official at the girl’s shelter said occupancy sometimes exceeds capacity by a quarter, prompting stricter supervision.

Dr. Makiko Okuyama, head of psychosocial medicine at the National Center for Child Health and Development, said the shelter experience can verge on traumatic for many children. One teenage girl told her that acts of self-injury — common among victims of sexual abuse — brought punishment, not counsel or treatment, from workers.

Okuyama, who also chairs one of the government-commissioned panels seeking to improve welfare policies, said the real improvement will come when Japanese society becomes more open to fostering.

“We need to think about whether these shelters should continue to exist as they are,” she said.

“It’s not a normal place. It’s not a place where anyone should stay for more than a few days.”

Source:  “Japan’s shelters provide little comfort to abused children”, The Japan Times, 24 June 2017 

JT: Justice seen hamstrung as experts warn court interpreters should be licensed

The Japan Times


Justice seen hamstrung as experts warn court interpreters should be licensed



Courts are supposed to be bastions of justice. But equal justice may be thwarted for some defendants owing to language barriers.

Despite all the various training seminars and guide books preparing newly registered court interpreters for the job, the current pool of interpreters are not sufficiently skilled to speak for defendants and may introduce miscommunications during trials, according to veterans in the field.

Of 59,462 defendants who received verdicts from district courts or summary courts in 2015, 2,694 were foreign nationals from 73 different countries who required translators to speak on their behalf during trials, the Supreme Court figures show. The law requires courts to hire and prepare translators for defendants who are not fluent in Japanese, at no cost to the accused.

As of April 2016, close to 3,840 available court interpreters were registered nationwide at courts, providing translations in 61 languages to and from Japanese.

Haeok Chung, an Osaka-based court interpreter with more than 20 years of experience, known for her book “Hotei Tsuyakunin” (“Court Interpreter”) published in 2015, claims that translators are insufficiently compensated given the high-level skills required for the job. As a result, there is little incentive for court interpreters to undergo professional development to improve their existing skills.

“If they are not able to make a living, it’s unavoidable” that they take on other jobs, said Chung. Courts do not disclose how much court-appointed interpreters are paid.

To supplement her income, Chung also teaches Korean as a high school teacher.

Chung stressed that while becoming a court interpreter is not hard, performing at a high level on the job is no easy task. On top of requisite legal knowledge and language skills, interpreters also need mental discipline to be able to maintain a neutral stand, she said.

While there are many who are fluent in multiple languages, “you have to have a specific personality to work properly as a court interpreter,” Chung said. “If you are too sympathetic toward other people,” you should rethink accepting the job, she added.

In 2016, several misinterpretations were found during the trial at the Tokyo District Court of Japanese Red Army member Tsutomu Shirosaki, then 68, who was later found guilty of launching a mortar attack against the Japanese Embassy in Jakarta in May 1986.

According to an Asahi Shimbun report, during the trial, the court summoned 11 Indonesians who testified as witnesses using two interpreters. Since there were discrepancies in the lengths when comparing the two translations, the court had doubts about their accuracy and brought on a third interpreter to weigh in. The third-party evaluation found close to 200 errors and omissions in the translated testimonies of three Indonesians given on Sept. 29 and 30.

Chung said the problems flagged by the court are only the tip of the iceberg.

“It has been debated for a long time that a public license is necessary and that there have been many misinterpretations,” said Chung.

The Japan Law Interpreter Association, a nonprofit organization launched in 2009, stresses the need for a public or private licensing system for legal translators, including court interpreters.

The organization annually conducts its own examinations to assess the skills of the law interpreters, whose language abilities span various levels. About 70 applicants take the exam every year.

“It’s true that skills vary among each interpreter. Not all interpreters are unskilled, but there is a problem in the system that operates them,” said Roman Amami, who was the former head of the association and has translated Chinese to and from Japanese in court since 1993.

“There is no guarantee for the amount of work the interpreters get and how much they will be rewarded,” she said.

Amami said that because of such a system, many skilled translators would rather pursue stints in nonjudicial fields, and most interpreters who are less skilled take up legal work on the side.

“That’s why, whether it’s a public license or a private license, we’d like to see that it’s made mandatory to have a license for interpreters to work in courts,” said Amami, explaining that public licenses are required to work as legal interpreters in the United States as well as in some European countries.

The organization is accepting applications for its next exam to be held in October, and also conducts training courses with help from lawyers from Kanae International Law Office and others that have expertise in international cases.

On top of issuing licenses and conducting professional training, JLIA also thinks ethics should be taught to legal interpreters.

“It would require some time to make licenses a requirement. But first of all, ethics should be instilled” in law interpreters, said Hiroaki Sugiyama, a lawyer at Kanae International Law Office.

“It’s questionable whether all law interpreters are providing fair translations. If everyone followed an ethics code, there wouldn’t be a problem, but some of them give inappropriate translations while knowing they lack ability,” said Sugiyama.

Sugiyama said some interpreters, like in the trial of Tsutomu Shirosaki, intentionally provide translations that would benefit prosecutors, putting their thumbs on the scale so the prosecution can win more cases in court.

“To develop ethics, we must research the situations in other countries, and present the results as an example” to the government, said Masanari Aoto, a lawyer also involved in JLIA, which will soon launch a study group on legal ethics.

“(Ethics) would include how one must prepare to become a law interpreter, and things they should avoid. They must be developed for interpreters to give fair translations,” he said.

Source:  “Justice seen hamstrung as experts warn court interpreters should be licensed”, The Japan Times, 2 June 2017 

Letter in today’s Japan Times…

The Japan Times

Custody rights remain huge problem

Thank God for Christopher Savoie. I always remember the American father who forced Tokyo to act on the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction.

Years after Hague signing, parent who abducts still wins” in the May 1 edition and “Parental abduction victims hold rally to push for joint custody rights” in the May 6 edition are the most recent additions to my thick file of Japan Times stories on this issue which I began keeping in September 2009.

This is when Christopher Savoie famously, valiantly, virtuously and rightly tried to reclaim his kidnapped children from his Japanese ex-wife by seeking asylum inside the U.S. Consulate in Fukuoka. “Asylum” is self-evidently the right word for it. Ultimately, he failed. The consulate turned him over to Japanese authorities, but the Fukuoka police and prosecutors dropped their case and deported him instead. Prosecuting him would have been too shameful for Japan and cast the country in a humiliating bad light internationally. It was a textbook example of how it (sometimes) takes foreign pressure to move Japan forward.

More attention has been given to the plight of children and their alienated parents since then, but the application of the Hague Convention is not satisfactory. To make it satisfactory requires starting with acknowledging and treating the abducting parent (usually but not exclusively their Japanese mothers) as criminal kidnappers. Active intervention to repatriate the children followed by the prosecution and long imprisonment of the kidnapper are not excessive suggestions.


Parental abduction victims hold rally to push for joint custody rights

The Japan Times


Parental abduction victims hold rally to push for joint custody rights



Parents deprived of their children held a rally Friday to push for introducing joint custody to the Japanese legal system and to raise awareness of the plight faced by their offspring when marriages fall apart.

Marching through the Asakusa district in Tokyo’s Taito Ward, about 30 Japanese and foreign participants held up a multilingual banner reading, “Stop Parental Child Abduction!”

Demonstrators also carried signs reading “More visitation time” and “Affection from both parents to children” during the hour-long march on Children’s Day.

It was the first rally organized by Kodomo no Kenri wo Mamoru Bekkyo Oya Forum (Forum for Left-Behind Parents Protecting Children’s Rights) to address the problem of parental child abduction in Japan.

“I want people to know that children have the right to see both of their parents and that parents are responsible for accomplishing that,” said Daisuke Tanaka, the organizer of the event.

Tanaka has been struggling to spend time with his daughter since his wife whisked her away in March 2016. Since then, he has only been allowed to meet her twice a month for three hours at a time, he said.

Other participants told The Japan Times similar stories.

In most cases, a spouse abruptly leaves with the children before filing for divorce or custody rights. Tanaka said child abductions will only continue to fester unless Japan approves the concept of granting joint custody.

“It’s usual for the court to give custody to the parent who lives with the child, and that’s why there are so many cases of abduction. If there’s joint custody, better conversations and negotiations would likely take place,” he said.

Michihiko Sugiyama, a lawyer who participated in the demonstration, said the biggest issue is that Japanese law only allows custody to be awarded to one parent. Once separated from his family, he decided to take part in the rally to share his experience.

The civil code requires parents to decide on visitation and custody arrangements, but research shows people are increasingly forgoing such discussions and heading straight to court mediation. In fiscal 2015, 12,264 cases of mediation involving visitation rights were accepted in family courts nationwide, almost double from 10 years earlier, according to court data.

A group of lawmakers is drafting a bill to help divorced or separated parents see their children more easily, but the issue has yet to gain traction. Some are concerned that parents with a history of domestic violence are too dangerous to be granted visitation rights.

Rally participant Susumu Ishizuka, 48, claimed there must be better awareness of the issue because the current perception is that abandoned parents may have committed domestic abuse.

“People who are against such a bill are linking left-behind parents with domestic violence too easily without sufficient understanding,” said Ishizuka, whose spouse ran off with his 5-year-old child three years ago. Their divorce has not been finalized, but according to the court’s decision, he is only permitted to see his child for two hours every two months.

“I can only meet my child in an appointed place, and I’m not allowed to give them presents. This is far from a parent-child relationship,” he said.

Source:  “Parental child abduction victims hold rally to push for joint custody rights”, The Japan Times, 5 May 2017