TOKYO - The jailing of a stepfather on Tuesday (Oct 15) over a heart-rending case of child abuse has forced Japan to take a deep look at how it treats children.
The case comes amid signs that the plunge in births is not abating, pointing to concerns about the treatment of children in Japanese society.
Yudai Funato, 34, pleaded guilty to his role behind the death of his stepdaughter Yua, five, in Tokyo's Meguro ward in March last year and was jailed for 13 years.
His former wife Yuri, 27, who was last month jailed for being complicit by turning a blind eye to the abuse, has appealed against her eight-year sentence.
Funato said during his trial that his intent was to discipline Yua, on whom he had imposed his "image of an ideal child", and began assaulting her when he felt that his efforts were not working.
"I couldn't control my emotions," he said. "I believe it is completely my responsibility."
Yua was malnourished and had as many as 170 wounds all over her body when she died, 18 days shy of her sixth birthday last year. Her journal entries, begging for her parents' approval, included one that read: "Please, please, please forgive me. I will make sure I can do more things tomorrow than today without daddy and mummy having to tell me what to do."
A startling spate of child abuse cases has coincided with Japan's well-documented struggles to lift its birth rate, leading to questions on how effective top-down policy-making has been on reducing the burden on parents.
The number of births this year is set to fall below 900,000 for the first time, according to government data.
Yet official data also shows that the number of cases reported to childcare authorities has surged nearly 20 per cent to a record 159,850 in the year ending March 2019 - a climb that officials attribute to "greater social awareness".
Many incidents of abuse, observers note, occur in lower-income households that are facing immense stresses to begin with. While Japan is registering record-low unemployment, as much as 40 per cent of the workforce is in dead-end "irregular" jobs with minimum salaries.
Funato had been unemployed, as was Yusuke Shindo, 32, who allegedly murdered his nine-year-old stepson Ryosuke last month.
Shindo is accused of strangling the boy to death in anger after Ryosuke retorted, when told off for losing his cap: "Leave me alone, you are not my biological father."
Shindo, who married Ryosuke's 42-year-old mother, a teacher, in March this year, allegedly abandoned the child's body in a utilities meter box at a vacant apartment opposite his home in Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo.
While Shindo's alleged crime was judged to be impulsive, Funato was found to be culpable for the near daily abuse of his stepdaughter.
In one case cited in court, he grabbed Yua by the neck and dragged her to the bath, where he sprayed cold water on her face with a shower rod, angered that she failed to wake up at 4am.
She was also not fed any carbohydrates, meat or fish in the weeks leading up to her death, often being given only one small meal a day.
Funato also did not seek any medical attention for Yua, despite her vomiting a week before her death, apparently out of fear that his abuse would be discovered.
"The extreme restriction of her food intake and routine violence are unreasonable actions that have caused the physical pains, sorrow and hopelessness of a child who trusted her parents," Presiding Judge Minoru Morishita said in delivering his verdict.
Sociologist Emi Kataoka of Tokyo's Komazawa University told The Straits Times that she sees a growing number of families facing social strains associated with tax increases and stagnant wages: "The stress faced by parents can easily lead to the abuse of children. And the reality is that the number of abuse cases is rising."