Child Welfare in Japan

Our founder Mike is now doing a PhD at the University of Oxford looking at the system for children in alternative care in Japan. Here he explains a little about baby and infant institutional welfare facilities, child welfare institutions, foster care, and adoption in Japan. 

Context and Institutional Care

Alternative care for children around the world is largely moving towards foster care and small-scale (1~20 children) institutions. Japan is a massive outlier here, in both the usage of institutions and the size of the institutions. Currently around 85% of children in care here are in institutions. These usually hold 50 to 80 children, though there are more than house over 150 children than those that house under 20 children. These children are aged 2 to 18 (an extension allows a few to stay to 20). The child welfare institutions vary widely in style. Some are organised into small units of six children in home like settings, others have dormitory rooms of 12 children, some mix boys and girls others keep them separate. Some institutions provide excellent care and see a very high percentage of their care-leavers progress to university (Japan actually leads the world for kids entering university from care). Other institutions seem a little outdated and a staff to child ratio of one staff member for every 4 children means that often even the best intentioned staff lack the time to give proper one-on-one time to each child. This is where we believe volunteers can make an enormous difference to the children’s lives.

Those entering care aged 2 or under are placed into baby and infant institutions. This directly contradicts all policy advice from the United Nations, World Health Organisation, World Bank, and European Union, as well as The International Association for Residential Care (FICE), who all state that children under 3 should never be institutionalised. Despite being isolated, Japan has no policy plans to change this. The Japanese Red Cross is the largest provider of these baby and infant institutions, and runs a facility that can house 70 babies and infants under 2 years old. The Bucharest Early Intervention Project demonstrates the enormous damage that institutionalising this age group does. Despite being aware of this research, and the position of the UN, WHO, WB and EU, the Japanese Red Cross stated to me recently that they see no issues in institutionalising babies.

As in other countries, abuse, neglect, financial issues, and mental and physical health issues of caregivers are common reasons for children to enter care.


There is very little adoption of children in Japan. Last year around 300 children, all under six years old due to legal limitations, were adopted here. The reason Japan has such little adoption is not cultural, demonstrated by the thousands of families registered and on waiting lists, it is the result of a legal system which almost never cuts parental rights. Whilst there has been an increase in the temporary suspension of parental rights in cases of extreme abuse or neglect, on average fewer than ten cases per year of abuse lead to the cutting of parental rights. Some practitioners have described the courts role here as very conservative, favouring parental rights over children’s rights. Whether this is true or not, the result is that only children who have been given up by their parents can be adopted. If you live in Japan and are interested in adoption please go to your local child guidance centre (児童相談所) and they will be able to register you and explain the process in full. There is minimal international adoption from Japan.

Foster care

The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare recently launched a plan to increase foster care from 14% to 33% within the next 15 years. One of the key reasons why Japan has a low foster care rate is that parents have to consent for their child being fostered. Many parents prefer institutional care as they perceive it to pose less of a threat to their identity as parents than foster care. In addition there is a lack of consciousness about foster care in the general public, and a need for more carers to register. If you are interested in becoming a foster carer and are Japanese, or a long-term resident, please visit your local child guidance centre (児童相談所), where they can register you and talk you through the process. If you are curious at all, go along and ask them for more information: Becoming a foster carer could be the most rewarding thing you do in your life.

Issues with the Japanese child welfare system

To learn more about some of the issues that the alternative care system for children in Japan faces please have a look at Human Rights Watch Tokyo’s recent report.


If you are researching child welfare, including work on care-leavers, please feel free to contact Mike here