TOKYO - Japan is set to ban the physical punishment of children under revised laws against child abuse that will be tabled in Parliament this month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Monday (March 4).
The government has come under fire for its apparent inaction that led to the deaths of two girls in under a year. Both had been abused under the name of "discipline".
In its new law, the government is expected to clarify specifically what kind of actions will constitute corporal punishment.
In March last year, five-year-old Yua Funato died begging for her stepfather's approval. Her journal contained such entries as "please, please, please forgive me".
And in January, 10-year-old Mia Kurihara died after being kicked, beaten, starved, deprived of sleep and made to stand for hours at a time by her father.
Laws against child abuse were last amended in 2016, but did not include any explicit ban on the physical punishment of children.
The move to further tighten the laws and protect children - increasingly a precious commodity amid plunging births - comes as child abuse cases handled by the police surged.
Mr Abe, who does not have any children, said on Monday that he takes child abuse seriously, and told Parliament that the government "will do all we can to eradicate child abuse".
He was replying to a question by lawmaker Mitsuru Sakurai, of the opposition Democratic Party for the People, who lamented that "young lives are being robbed by child abuse".
Mr Abe assured the Diet that his government is urgently working on such measures as "making corporal punishment illegal and giving child welfare workers more powers to temporarily take children into custody".
The Mainichi daily, citing an outline of the planned revisions, reported that the government is also considering extending this ban to include child welfare workers and foster parents.
Also, the welfare and education ministries have said they will proactively share information with each other when suspected child abuse victims skip school for more than a week.
Last month, figures showed that Japanese police handled 80,104 child abuse cases last year - a significant 22.4 per cent jump from 2017 in what was the 14th straight year of increase.
Of these, there were 14,821 cases of physical abuse, up 20.1 per cent.
But only in 1,355 cases were parents or guardians arrested and charged for inflicting harm on their children. This indicates both a societal preference to let families iron out their own domestic issues and a reluctance on the part of the judiciary to step in, especially in cases that may be difficult to prove.
Mr Abe also said that a month-long government emergency review into the safety of all suspected child abuse victims, which began on Feb 8, is due to end this Friday.
On another probe which began in July last year, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare said last Thursday that it has identified as potential victims of child abuse some 143 children, out of the 15,270 children who did not attend either nursery or elementary school or had not received health check-ups.
Worryingly, it also said that it could not ascertain the safety of some 2,936 children nationwide - a vast majority of them being of pre-school age or below.
As national attention is being focused on horrific child abuse cases, domestic media have also begun picking up on a spate of arrests for child abuse across the nation.
On Monday, public broadcaster NHK reported the arrest of Takashi Aminaka, 23, in Ibaraki prefecture in north-east Japan for the abuse of his three-year-old daughter in January. He is alleged to have hit her repeatedly, causing swelling on her face and bruising that required a month to heal. She is now under protective care.
Last week, also in Ibaraki, Komoriya Takayuki, 47, and his wife Mariko, 37, were reportedly arrested for hitting and kicking their eight-year-old son, whose teacher called the police after seeing the bruises on his face.
Takashi Ito, 45, was also reportedly arrested in Sendai, north-east Japan, for hitting his 12-year-old son over a two-week period in January. In this case, the father, who has a history of child violence, reportedly turned himself in and sought help from a child counselling centre.
The Sankei Shimbun, meanwhile, reported that Wakayama police, in western Japan, have arrested certified care worker Yuka Tochino, 32, for the abuse of her eight-year-old son by stomping on the back of his head. She denies having done so, and said that she had only wanted to discipline him for not doing his homework.
The same paper also said Kagoshima police, in south-western Japan, have arrested restaurant worker Saori Takano, 31, for abusing her eight-year-old daughter last month by flinging a television remote control at her, hitting her under the right eye.
The single mother reportedly has a history of abusing her daughter, who was seen with burn marks in 2012 and 2016.