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Child abuse, related laws in spotlight as high-profile case opens

In this June 8, 2018 file photo, flowers are placed outside the apartment where 5-year-old Yua Funato died of alleged abuse. (Mainichi/Tatsuro Tamaki)

TOKYO -- The first hearing in the trial over a high-profile abuse case that resulted in the death last year of a 5-year-old girl here has put the spotlight on the issue of child abuse in Japan and recent legal changes regarding physical punishment by parents.

The 5-year-old girl, Yua Funato, died in Tokyo's Meguro Ward in March 2018, allegedly after being abused by her parents. Her family had moved to the ward from the western Japan city of Zentsuji, Kagawa Prefecture, in January that year. There were suspicions that Yua was being abused before the family moved, and the child consultation center in Kagawa had informed its counterpart in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward about the case. The Shinagawa center, however, did not hold any interviews with Yua after the family moved to the capital.

In July last year, as an emergency measure to prevent abuse, the government made it a rule for workers to meet face to face when relaying information on urgent cases from one child consultation center to another. After the information is passed on or abuse reports are received, if a meeting cannot be arranged with the child in question within 48 hours, government rules state that a forcible probe can be conducted.

Despite such moves, 10-year-old elementary school girl Mia Kurihara died in a separate high profile abuse case in Noda, Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, in January 2019. Mismanagement of the case by the local child consultation center and a lack of communication between administrative bodies came again under scrutiny.

In both cases, the children had been subjected to violence in the name of "discipline," and this created momentum for the establishment of a law prohibiting parents from physically punishing their children. Amendments to child welfare and anti-child abuse laws passed in June this year forbid parents from physically punishing their children and seek to beef up the functions of child consultation centers.

Discussion has also started within the Legislative Council of the Ministry of Justice on reviewing a provision in the Civil Code that allows those exercising parental authority to discipline children.

In fiscal 2018, the number of child abuse cases fielded by child consultation centers across Japan reached a record high of 159,850, according to preliminary figures -- 26,072 more than during the previous fiscal year. The government plans to boost the number of child welfare officers, but there are concerns that this could result in more workers with little experience.

(Japanese original by Kenji Tatsumi, City News Department)

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