She is a precocious little girl, in pigtails and rainbow rimmed glasses, all spark and determination. The 11-year-old attacks origami with the mission to build a flying bird.
Creating an object of beauty contrasts with the ugliness this child has suffered at the hands of her own parents.
The director of Nonohana-No-ie orphanage nods at us, signaling this girl is one of the of abused children who reside at this protective facility. Seventy percent of the children here, between the ages of 2 and 18, are victims of abuse and neglect so severe the police removed them from their parents' custody.
In the case of this 11-year-old, her parents beat her so severely on a daily basis that they're no longer allowed to see her or even know her whereabouts. To reveal her identity, we're told, would endanger her life.
This girl is part of an exploding population in Japan: victims of child abuse.
Figures from Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare show the cases of reported child abuse have quadrupled in 10 years and increased 40 fold in twenty years. In 1990, the ministry recorded 1,101 cases of abuse. In 1999, 11,631. In 2000, 17,725 cases. And in 2009, the numbers hit an all-time high of 44,211.
The causes behind the numbers are multifaceted. One reason is that abuse cases are being reported more accurately. In 2000, when the number of cases jumped, a national law went into effect mandating the reporting of child abuse and neglect cases.
But child advocates point to a number of other murky, societal factors, from Japan's two-decade-long economic stagnation to the increasing numbers of divorces and lack of support and affordable child care for single mothers.
Misao Hanazaki, the director of Nonohana-No-ie, says regardless of the reasons for the jump in abuse cases, the result is Japan's child welfare system is at the breaking point.
"We're in trouble," says Hanazaki. "Orphanages all across the country are full. There aren't enough foster parents in Japan. We are truly in trouble."
Hanazaki's orphanage is home to 52 children. When one child leaves, another immediately follows. Japan's culture is deeply rooted in the family and has historically not embraced adoption or foster care. Japan's government says in cities like Tokyo, orphanages are at 100 percent capacity.
Yuki Okada, a child advocate, says part of the solution to Japan's child abuse problem is educating families about abuse. Okada is an author and public speaker, who has written about how her mother abused her. Okada says she then abused her own son, continuing the cycle of child abuse.
"It's going to get worse unless the public understands the pattern of child abuse and deals with abuse openly," says Okada.
"The world's image is that Japan is kind to its children," says Hamazaki, pausing as she looks at the children around her. "But the image does not match reality."
Sorry to post two stories in a row like this, but I saw both of them at the same time.
The Japanese system for foster kids is nothing like the American one--I know people here just boggle when I explain that my family kept foster kids, and claim there's nothing like that in Japan. Likewise, for more anecdata, a friend of mine told me how a lot of Japanese acquaintances just couldn't wrap their brains around why her friend wanted to adopt a child, because it wouldn't be her child or anyone in her family's, so why would she'd want that responsibility. And I remember seeing a news story a few years ago about how social workers couldn't check up on children unless the parents actually consented to let them in the house, meaning a lot of times, they couldn't see how the kids were. The system seems to be very, very broken.