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Woman in west Japan supports fellow isolated mothers while facing own history as abuser

On July 30, 2020, Yukiko Tsuji, left, is seen offering prayers with an acquaintance at an apartment in Osaka's Nishi Ward where two young children starved to death in 2010 due to their mother's neglect. (Mainichi/Yohei Koide)

OSAKA -- As tragic child abuse cases continue to surface across the country, one woman in western Japan with a history as an abuser is supporting single mothers and their children with similar experiences to her own, insisting that bashing mothers is not the way to end the violence.

    Yukiko Tsuji, 46, a certified social worker in the city of Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture, has continued her volunteer work for 10 years, driven by the bitter memory of having abused her young daughter in the past, as well as a neglect case resulting in the death of two children.

    Born in Ibaraki, Tsuji graduated from one of the area's top high schools, and at age 18 married an older colleague she met at her part-time job. She believed his words, "You're destined to be my wife," and they began their married life together in a cheap, about 10-square-meter apartment while she went to university.

    However, her husband didn't work and he beat Tsuji. Once he broke her nose with his fist. At 19, she had a daughter, but didn't develop any feelings of love for her. Tsuji dropped out of school and worked to support the family. After a while, her anger got the best of her. She struck her child while thinking that she could have split with her husband had her daughter not been born. She was later gripped with regret and even attempted to take her own life.

    At 23, Tsuji divorced her husband, trying to put everything behind her. She worked part-time jobs at a cafe, a supermarket, as a cram school teacher and a construction worker, while raising her child on her own. One day, she came across an online post by her daughter, by then in middle school. She read the heart-wrenching words, "Mom please die soon." Tsuji thought, "I want to show love to this child. Why was I ever violent against her?" and proceeded to take a university correspondence course in child welfare in search of an answer. She also obtained a license as a certified social worker, and began to offer lectures and submit advice to administrative bodies to prevent abuse.

    Shortly after, on July 30, 2010, a 3-year-old girl and her 1-year-old brother were found starved to death after being neglected by their mother in an apartment in the city of Osaka's Nishi Ward. The two were found naked on the floor, cuddled up next to each other in a room with no air conditioning. Their 33-year-old mother, who had been raising the children on her own while working, was arrested on suspicion of murder, and also became the target of severe criticism.

    Tsuji could not treat this incident as just someone else's problem, and went to watch the trial in person. She filled two notebooks with the defendant's words, such as, "I couldn't rely on anyone," and "I thought that I had failed as a mother." Tsuji saw her past self in the mother who became isolated amid the stress and worry of raising children all on her own. To this fellow mother, Tsuji kept sending the thought, "I'm here for you," from the courtroom gallery.

    The defendant was handed a 30-year prison sentence with labor. Tsuji, who felt that she may have found herself in the same situation had things taken more bad turns, said, "One must atone for their crimes, but the same tragedy will be repeated unless we direct our attention to what lies behind these deaths."

    A notebook Yukiko Tsuji used for memos as she watched the trial of a single mother accused of starving her children to death is shown in this photo taken in the city of Osaka on July 29, 2020. The defendant's words, such as "I thought that I had failed as a mother," can be seen. (Mainichi/Saori Moriguchi)

    Tsuji serves as an abuse-prevention volunteer for Osaka Prefecture, and has continued to provide free consultations and visitations to homes of mothers and children who reach out for help. She has held over 1,000 lectures nationwide.

    Tsuji receives endless SOS messages from young mothers on her phone, including a woman who had been prostituted by her parents since she was in grade school, and a single mother bringing up two young children after escaping from her violent husband. Tsuji has taken some women into her protection under her own roof, giving them food and daily necessities.

    Over the past decade, the national government and other administrative bodies have taken measures to prevent child abuse. The Osaka Municipal Government established a new section handling abuse cases a month after the deaths of the young sister and brother, as city officials had failed to verify the children's safety even after they had been notified of suspected abuse.

    However, the situation of single parents and the stigma surrounding them remain severe. Another single mother was arrested in July 2020 on suspicion of leaving her 3-year-old daughter unattended in an apartment in Tokyo's Ota Ward, causing her death from malnutrition. The 25-year-old mother is said to have been on a trip at the time, and has been the target of intense online bashing.

    When Tsuji asked her daughter, now 27, for her thoughts on the Tokyo incident, she said, "It's not right to shift responsibility onto just the mothers. I want others to lend a helping hand if they want to end abuse." Her daughter, once a victim of violence herself, now seems to be the most understanding of her mother and her efforts to end child abuse.

    On July 30, Tsuji visited the apartment in Osaka's Nishi Ward where those two little children died a decade ago. She offered cold juice, put her hands together silently in prayer, and said, "Childrearing is something that should be done not just by mothers, but by society as a whole. We need to learn this lesson also for the two young lives that were lost 10 years ago."

    (Japanese original by Saori Moriguchi, Osaka City News Department)

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