Counting the Children in Japan
three million children and their human right
the story of an estimate and what it means
Chairman of Kizuna Child-Parent Reunion NGO
June 27, 2020
Some ideas continue to reverberate with the passage of time. It has been a decade since the concept first occurred to me of counting the number of children within Japan who have lost access to one of their parents. I remember it well. This occurred on April 9, 2010 in Washington DC while in a town hall meeting for left-behind parents about child abduction to Japan. This was hosted by the Department of State and chaired by the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell. There was an animated discussion about getting accurate, official information about the number of children who had been abducted from the US to Japan. By the end of that discussion, I silently asked myself the question how many children have been affected by this problem within Japan? This means domestic, in-country cases within Japan rather than cross-border, international cases. To my knowledge at that time, there was no substantive discussion about the number of children affected in Japan. People spoke of individual cases they were aware of. I set a firm intention to determine the number of children affected, so it became a research project. Knowing the total number of children would be useful to show the magnitude of the issue and an important parameter for working on resolving it.
This estimate has been cited numerous times in the press and social media by people involved in the activism of this issue or those commenting about it. The concept and its usage has spread in the public discourse. I am quite grateful for this and to those who have cited it. Observing this process has afforded the opportunity for me to consider details of this topic that I have lived with and thought about much over these ten years. Doing so has brought about more clarity of understanding that I would like to share. The manner in which the estimate has been interpreted by various stakeholders such as parents, members of the press and media, government officials and the public at large has not always been what I expected. Therefore, I find it necessary to show the calculation and its reasoning; clarify the interpretation of the estimate; and publish these details to offer a benefit for the activity. The calculation and reasoning are just as important as the conclusion and interpretation for a full understanding. I have welcomed discussion about this and continue to do so. A clear understanding of counting the children is critical for doing effective work on behalf of them because incomplete information and subtle differences in description and understanding that are not apparent at first sight have important implications.
Asking a question guides the thought process and clarifies understanding. It also prompts us to look for information that will answer the question. Sometimes it is a simple question that has not been asked, but the question is important though overlooked. One challenge in looking for information about this issue is that when a parent takes a child away from another parent in Japan, this is not treated as a crime, so cases are not counted as a vital statistic. However, after consideration in the summer of 2010, I recognized that divorce is a ‘marker’ that is somewhat correlated to the number of children who lose access to one of their parents in Japan, and divorce is a vital statistic. Then, during that summer, I looked thru the website of the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare (MHLW) in Japan and found these vital statistics going back many years since 1947 for the current state of Japan and even since 1900. Likewise, the number of children of divorce is also counted. On July 21, 2010, I found a nice bar graph from a report by the MHLW with data since 1950 that indicates the aggregate number of children of divorce in Japan closely tracks the number of divorces one-to-one. Some divorcing couples do not have children, but others have two or more children. Well, this gives the number of divorces and number of children of divorce. It also indicates whether the father or mother was granted custody. Other data indicated the divorce ratio. This was very informative.
The question remained. How many children have lost access to a parent after divorce? The remaining part of the question made me observant to keep an eye out for information that would provide an answer.
Eventually, the information became available. The Japanese TV investigative news program Close Up Gendai aired a program on September 8, 2010. It showed a pie chart in which the percentage of parents who were not visiting their children after divorce was 58%.
A second pie chart that appeared in the documentary From the Shadows indicates that 65% of parents were not visiting their children. This gave a second data point for the percentage. Kizuna Child-Parent Reunion is an authorized distributor of the DVD of this documentary.
Then, by September of 2010, I could calculate an estimate of the number of affected children who have lost access to one of their parents. We multiply the number of children of divorce by the percentage of parents not visiting them. This gives an estimate of the number of children who have lost access to one of their parents after divorce in Japan.
Of course, the number of divorces, number of children, and number of them who have lost access vary on an annual basis. In 2002, the number of divorces in Japan peaked at 289,836. In 2018, it was at 208,333. Over a 20-year span from 1999 to 2018, the average number of divorces in Japan is close to 250,000 per year. At the time of making the estimate in 2010, the number of divorces for several years had been about 250,000 per year. If we multiply 250,000 children by about 60% not visiting, then we get about 150,000 children per year losing access to a parent. This has become the number widely cited in the press and social media. The number came from this calculation and estimate made in 2010.
This ratio of children per year that has been widely cited is not the complete calculation. The purpose of the original question and subsequent research was to determine a number of children. The ratio of 150,000 children per year is a rate of children over time. It is not a number of children. Then, the next aspect of the calculation becomes the interval of time that we multiply the ratio by to arrive at a number of children (time canceled in numerator and denominator). We can consider the age upon which children legally become adults in Japan—20 years of age. If we start with a scenario in which no children have yet lost access to a parent and year by year add 150,000 children, there will be a distribution of the ages of the children. Some are very young, and some are teenagers. Then, at age 20, those children become adults, yet the total number of children with no access is replenished by more of them losing access every year. To visualize this, we could image pouring liquid into a glass. At first, it is mostly empty. Then, the glass becomes full and overflows. The continued pouring of liquid represents the continued loss of access of children to their parent every year. The overflow represents children who have become adults. Then to calculate this, we multiply 150,000 children per year who lose access to a parent by 20 years. This is 3 million children who have lost access to a parent in Japan over 20 years. By the analogy of pouring in the glass, the 3 million children is an estimated steady-state number. There are roughly 20 million children in Japan under the age of 20. This makes about 15% of children in Japan who do not have access to one of their parents. The 3 million children does not count those who have lost access and became adults, nor does it count the situation of children with separated parents. Due to parental alienation, many children do not access their parent even after becoming an adult. Three million children seems extremely large, but this scenario has become normalized and concealed in Japan. Therefore, the estimate is important for showing how many are affected.
The press has almost entirely avoided citing the 3 million number in preference of the 150,000 per year ratio. Some may wonder whether the problem has been going on for 20 years. I believe there is sufficient evidence that indicates it has. The sole custody system has been in place in the Japanese civil code. Divorces are often contentious, and the struggle for sole custody is often a zero-sum conflict. Enforceable access is still lacking. Custodial parents can deny access with impunity. Considering these factors, it is plausible that the issue has been ongoing for 20 years and much longer. I have met a few parents who lost access to their children in the late 1990s. I know an international case in which the child was taken to Japan in 1988. I met the left-behind father in 2018. At the time, it was a 30-year case, and there has been no access nor communication for all these years. When we met, this was documented by a TV crew and media story. I know cases of loss of access that occurred in the early 1960s, and that condition continued throughout their lives into their adulthood. This scenario has been ongoing for decades.
The data of parents not visiting after divorce does not indicate specific causes of loss of access. This simply means parents not visiting their children after divorce. Therefore, we cannot state specific causes for the loss of access, merely that children have lost access and their relationship with their parent. There have been various reasons for loss of access attributed to me by name or Kizuna Child-Parent Reunion that were given in the press and a human rights claim. However, these characterizations were not direct quotes nor an accurate description of what I have explained. For example, I have seen interpretations like a parent denied access; the parents became estranged; the fathers are no longer interested in seeing their children, and the children were abducted.
People use the term parental abduction to describe this. It does convey the grievous nature of what has happened in some cases, but this term actually limits the description of the context in which children lose access to a parent in Japan by excluding mention of other entities involved in the process. Perhaps it could be stated that various reasons explain some cases, but it is clear that these reasons cannot be a universal qualifier statement that completely explains all cases of loss of access. In fact, there are many reasons for this. We can say that a parental abduction or denial of access is the proximate cause if these occurred, but there are other ultimate causes that must also be considered. Even if a parental abduction has occurred, it was a necessary but not sufficient reason to explain the loss of access of the child. Without the additional ultimate causes, the loss of access and widespread incidence of it would not be possible. We can be sure that if a parent and child are not seeing each other, then the child has lost access to their parent. This explains all cases and fits the description of the data.
There are other important reasons that cause me to interpret the scenario as loss of access. Children have a human right to maintain a relationship with both parents. Loss of access and thereby relationship with a parent is a human rights violation according to article 9 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) that Japan joined in 1994. Also note that in the UNCRC, the human right is that of the children, not their parent. It is the child’s loss of access and thereby the inability to maintain a relationship with both of their parents that is a human rights violation according the UNCRC. Even abduction is not described in the UNCRC, but loss of access would characterize all means by which a child had their human right to relationship with their parent infringed upon. To be sure, the number of them is one thing, but we should never lose sight that each of these children is a person. This has occupied my thoughts for all these years. If we cannot and do not accurately count each of the children who have lost access to their parent in Japan, then their human right and its violation literally count for nothing.