Inheritance tax and children in limbo: adoption in Japan.

The issue of adoption in Japan is a dynamic one. There is a social mentality which places massive importance on blood relations, and a legal system which largely reinforces it; on the other hand, Japanese citizens are increasingly choosing lifestyles incongruent to traditionally accepted norms (visible in trends in marriage age, family size, adoption as a viable choice in family planning). The actual volume of adoptions that go through in Japan are indeed low: in 2008, citizens from the United States adopted just 35 [en] Japanese citizens. Beyond the numbers, however, are a number of important issues and serious problems being faced by families in and outside of Japan, as well as the private agencies and government groups facilitating the children living in a situation that is generally looked down upon domestically.

At a high level, there are national policy issues. The Child Welfare law has seen little change in post-war Japan, and modern concerns with agencies turning a substantial profit from organizing adoptions have been growing steadily. The law states that adoption agencies may only charge what they need to cover costs; costs are identified as falling into ten categories, such as transportation, consultation charges, and the like. Problems arise with the relatively ubiquitous “donation” system many of these agencies utilize. Naturally, a non-profit group is bound to seek donations to provide the capital needed to keep the organization financially stable, however this is a system easily abused.

An international adoption blogger notes a past case:

In one instance, a Tokyo adoption agency that featured “free adoption services” asked one of their clients–a Japanese couple living in the Netherlands–for a 5.5 million yen donation in advance. Believing the fee to be too high, the couple declined to pay. However, the agency then told them it would stop looking for candidate children, according to the ministry.

This is a cloudy area to monitor, as discerning legitimate donations from profit-seeking extortion can in many cases be a difficult judgment to make.

In the last three years, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare has attempted to encourage municipal and prefectural governments to tighten the local regulation of independent agencies. Many orphanages and foster care organizations are quite small and independent, making local authorities the necessary leader in stimulating change. That said, some challenge that the entire adoption process would benefit from being government-regulated; that agencies should require licensing and be made to adhere to federally-applied screenings. Reasons for seeking federal responsibility stem from concerns of the end result of international adoption, namely human rights violations and exploitation such as child pornography.

Hiroto Suzuki, a professor at Chuo University is quoted on this matter:

“The existing simple registration system should be replaced by a system under which adoption agencies are not allowed to operate without government screening or a license. The current framework is inadequate for bringing the real state of affairs to light.”

At the court of TMG.

at the court of TMG (Tokyo Metropolitan Government) by Flickr user midorisyu

Turning the focus to adoptions entirely within Japan, there are a number of trends which are observable.

For very practical purposes, that is to say, not for emotional satisfaction, there are actually a very large number of people in Japan who want to adopt, though not necessarily young children. When elderly people are nearing death and are setting their final affairs in order, naturally the passage of their estate is among the more time-critical concerns. In order to avoid the taxes placed on direct parent-to-child inheritances, they adopt a grandchild, and will their estate to the adopted grandchild.

Beyond the tax-dodging, the continuation of family names is important to many people, and often, couples with no male heir will adopt an adult male, and will their possessions to him in exchange for the name change. Domestic statistics are not well-tracked, but it is likely that adult adoptions for the purpose of preserving the family name make up the lion's share of legal adoptions conducted in Japan.

This latter trend points us to one of the critical issues facing abandoned and orphaned children in Japan: the importance and strict nature of family records has established a mindset through which adopting a child is an option looked down upon by many. The family koseki (戸籍), official documentation recording family progression (marriage, birth, death, etc.)  over the years remains influential to this day, and while with many younger individuals it has no influence on forging new relationships, there are still cases in which business/employment opportunities, marriages, and other such situations are negatively impacted by an abnormality in the family records, which could include adoption. Furthermore, older relatives may vocally disapprove of the adoption of a child, creating a distinct point of tension.

To get a better look at the complexity and intra-familial issues that can arise along with or as a result of seeking an adoption, let's take a look at a case blogged about recently by sakaidesu45, relating his personal situation.





Since I was very young, I was told by my great-grandfather that I was the heir to the family business. (According to my grandmother's stories, he would even say this at company meetings). With my great-grandfather's passing, I thought the discussion of my inheriting anything was gone as well. That is, until my grandmother asked me to carry on her family name.
For this, there are two reasons which I can come up with.
1. My grandmother has a younger brother (my great uncle), and he has two children. My grandmother bears a great deal of ill will towards this younger brother's wife and kids, and has already made him write his will so that his wife and children cannot receive the family inheritance.
2. She also is resentful of my father, whom she will under no circumstances approve of (He is actually my step-father).
As a result of all this, my grandmother does not wish to pass the inheritance on to my parents, nor to my great-uncle, and by adopting me, it seems she feels that she can protect and safely pass on all the things she succeeded from her father.

There are presently a number of conflicting forces at play: a disapproval of adoption from those valuing past norms, yet many of these people are the ones adopting heirs into their family near the end of their lives. This negative viewpoint also clashes with the many younger families who are seeking to adopt, rejecting past ideals and placing the importance on their present family. Legally, progress has been slow. In the late 1980s, the law was changed to allow adopted children to remove their biological family name from their koseki, which makes concealing an adoption easier on their end… pragmatically, this is a useful change, but it reflects clearly the remaining national discomfort with such familial “abnormalities.”

On a support thread created by someone dealing with issues of realizing their adopted status later in life, user alice0614 relates her own experiences.



I also was adopted when I was less than a year old, and I first learned this three years ago, when I received a copy of my family registry. Because I had a very close relationship with my parents, I spent a week or so worrying whether I should talk to them or not. Continuing to hide this knowledge became increasingly difficult however, and in the end I conversed with them honestly.
Apparently, my parents intended to speak with me about it when I was to get married. Perhaps your parents are also living with the knowledge that they must tell you the truth sooner or later. How do you feel about bringing this up to them and relieving them of this anxiety yourself?

The widespread assumption that children being raised by foster families are living unsatisfactory lives plays a large role in the laws governing child custody in Japan. The Japan Times explores the ways in which child foster care is conducted shines light on the practical implications of ideological issues.

Sakamoto explained that the “ie seido” traditional social system, which places family ties above children's individual rights, forms the basis for parental custody rights granting even abusive mothers and fathers powerful influence over the lives of their children.

When those children are moved into the protective care of the state, such traditional values, plus jealousy toward potential foster parents, often prompt biological parents to bar their children from foster care or yank them away from a foster family after the children have settled in.

It is the tension between traditional (some might say antiquated) and modern family values which is keeping the children living in state-run facilities from entering into adoptive families (be it permanently, or at all), and both sides lose as a result.

User ofukubird comments on the estimated length of his adoption experience:


We first consulted with an anti-abortion group in order to affirm our own volition. We learned that there are many couples waiting to adopt and prepared for a long wait, thinking “if we're contacted within a year, we'll consider ourselves lucky!”.

How do the attitudes in Japan influence opinion on adoptions made abroad, particularly those of high-profile individuals adopting out developing nations? User yakusoku-movie created a poll surveying opinions on the matter.


ー良いと思う (10%)

ーどうかと思う (47%)

ー親が生きているから止めた方が良い (19%)

ー親が生きていても、仕方ない場合もある (24%)

Recently, there have been a number of high-profile adoptions by people such as Madonna and Angelina Jolie. How do you feel about adopting children from poor countries? (select one)
– I think it is a good thing. (10%)
– Ambivalent (47%)
– Because [in case] the birth parents are still alive, this should not continue. (19%)
– Even if the birth parents are alive, there are situations in which it is the only viable option. (24%)

The strong presence of ambivalent opinions effectively reflects the conflicting cultural attitudes towards adoption, illustrating how such conflict can leave many people without a strong single opinion, which leads to stagnation and stalls the progress of change.

A writer for ABCDane's story regarding Jessica Simpson's adoption interests includes some personal commentary:



Regarding famous single mother Angelina Jolie's adoption, Jessica Simpson commented, “I think [she] really did something great. Thanks to her, the number of children adopted across borders has grown rapidly. It's wonderful.”
One of the speculated reasons for their divorce was that Nick [Lachey] wanted to have his own children rather than adopting, however, explaining to the children their mother's “Chicken of the Sea is chicken” comment leads me to wish that she does not become a mother!

The comical nature of some celebrity adoptions assuredly lightens up the issue a bit, but applied to Japan, reinforces that the current state of loosely-defined standards and regulations on adoptions need to be tightened up, to reconcile unfulfilled desires on the part of children and parents, but also to ensure that children in any culture are receiving a proper marine biology education!

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