Death at Childcare Puts Spotlight on Dangerous Conditions Across Japan

Death at Childcare Puts Spotlight on Dangerous Conditions Across Japan

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Picture of Utsunomiya: PIXSTAR / PIXTA(ピクスタ); picture of Emiri Yamaguchi courtesy of her family
Two grieving parents finally got justice after their daughter died in a childcare facility in Japan. But why did it take so long?

A couple lost their daughter due to neglect at a childcare facility in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture. Why did it take them so long to get justice? And what does their case say about the safety of children in childcare facilities across Japan?

Warning: the following article discusses topics of child abuse and neglect. If you are sensitive to the topic, please do not read further. If you need help, call the phone numbers listed at the end of the article.

Not even 1 year old

Emiri Yamaguchi
Emiri Yamaguchi (Photo: the Yamaguchi family via press conference)

Two parents’ worst nightmare came true on July 26th, 2014.

Ai and Makoto Yamaguchi (pseudonym) were running their own company and had been away on a business trip for three nights and four days. But they still had one more job left: picking up their nine-month-old daughter, Emiri.

When the Yamaguchis arrived at the childcare facility TOYS in Utsunomiya City of Tochigi Prefecture, it was around 5:30 AM.

Emiri should still be snoozing in her cot. Or maybe she’s being fussy.

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It turned out to be neither.

Emiri was found in her bed, not breathing.

It wasn’t just that. When the paramedics arrived at 5:58 AM, rigor mortis had already set in. That meant Emiri had already been dead for two hours. Her skin had turned purple.

According to the autopsy report, Emiri’s cause of death was heatstroke. She was severely dehydrated and was burning hot with a fever of 38.1℃ (100.58 °F) from the day before. The air conditioning in her room at TOYS was turned off.

Why didn’t TOYS call for help sooner?

No Care In Childcare

TOYS owner Kumiko Kimura (57 at the time) had been lying to moms and dads.

Kimura falsely advertised TOYS as a credible and safe place for parents to leave their kids. Kimura lied that her father, a powerful ex-prefectural legislator, and local kindergarten owner was a representative of TOYS.

The now-shutdown website for TOYS and its old pamphlets falsely listed the names of renowned university professors as contributors to the facility’s educational curriculum. These professors had never even heard of the daycare.

On paper, TOYS was where “nurses were always staffed,” “commissioned doctors were partners,” and “baby food was handmade and managed by nutritionists.”

TOYS went so far as to take the Yamaguchis on a tour around the facility to ensure its trustworthiness.

“But what they saw on the tour was all a lie,” says journalist Hiroko Inokuma at a press conference held at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan today.

Inokuma’s quote highlights the reality of TOYS. Kimura never hired nurses, doctors, or nutritionists. She didn’t even provide children with decent food and drinks.

Instead, Kimura and her two adult children, Remi and Taka (28 and 23 at the time) were abusing children behind closed doors whilst fooling parents like the Yamaguchis into paying high fees for childcare.

TOYS had the Yamaguchis pay admission fees and other costs that amounted to approximately ¥800,000 or $562 between January and July of 2014, all the while subjecting their newborn daughter to abuse.

TOYS had kept logs that detailed the condition of each child under its watch, including Emiri.

But when Tochigi police confiscated Emiri’s records from TOYS, information from the day before Emiri’s death, July 25th was missing. Where the page should have been was empty, except for the jagged edges of a page that had been torn out–––which prompted suspicions that the Kimuras had attempted to destroy evidence.

But it was too late to evade justice.

It should not have taken baby Emiri’s life to bring the Kimuras to justice, but it did.

The floodgates were open. And out came the dark truth behind TOYS’ closed doors. Even worse was that TOYS turns out to be just one of Japan’s myriads of horror stories in its childcare industry.

An anonymous tip

Anonymous employees took photos of children being neglected by staff at TOYS. The Yamaguchis presented this evidence at a press conference on July 10th.

Emiri was not the only victim. Two months prior to Emiri’s death, Utsunomiya City had received 2 separate alarming complaints against TOYS that went unanswered.

On May 27th, a parent whose son attended TOYS filed a report to the city. The boy’s entire nail on his left pointer was peeled off when the parent picked him up. In January of the same year, the boy’s older sibling came home from TOYS with a bruised face.

The next day, on May 28th, an anonymous acquaintance of a TOYS employee filed a detailed report of ongoing abuse at the facility.

The anonymous tip included information that:

  • 30 to 40 children at TOYS were under the supervision of only 1 or 2 staff.
  • Employee names registered by the city were just for show.
  • To solve understaffing issues children were bundled inside blankets tied over with ropes.
  • When it was too hot in the summer to use blankets, staff clothed children in adult-size shirts and tied the sleeves around their bodies to prevent them from moving.
  • Despite charging parents for lunch fees, TOYS hardly fed children and neglected to change diapers.
  • Despite having a separate room for sick children, both sick and healthy children were put into the same room.

The anonymous whistleblower requested that the city send investigators unannounced to prevent a coverup.

Dodging the investigators

Utsunomiya City had the legal authority to conduct an impromptu on-site investigation under the 59th Article of Japan’s Child Welfare Law.

Despite this, city officials called ahead of their visit and gave Kimura ample time to hide damning evidence.

In addition to granting Kimura leeway for a coverup, investigators failed to pick up on multiple red flags during their inspection. The anonymous tip said that the facility managed 30 to 40 children. When officials showed up, only 5 were witnessed. Where are the others?

Due to the inconclusive inspection, whether Kimura was being truthful or hiding the other +25 children is uncertain. However, it is known that Kimura stopped investigators from checking the 4th and 5th floors of the facility. She asserted that those floors were her personal living space, which investigators took for granted as truth despite TOYS’ website and pamphlets listing all 5 floors of the building as operating childcare spaces.

In response to concerns regarding the lack of food and drinks provided to children, city officials should have checked the facility’s refrigerators but didn’t.

Justice (?)

TOYS childcre facility
Additional evidence of children being neglected at TOYS.

On July 23rd, 2015 the first arrests were made in the TOYS case–––nearly a year since Emiri’s passing.

TOYS owner Kumiko Kimura, and employees Remi and Taka Kimura were taken into custody under suspicions for violating Article 218 and 219 of the Japanese Penal Code.

Abandonment by a Person Responsible for Protection

Article 218 When a person who is responsible for protection of a senile, immature, physically disabled or sick person, abandons, or fails to give necessary protection to such person, the person shall be punished by imprisonment with work for no less than 3 months but no more than 5 years.

Abandonment Causing Death or Injury

Article 219 A person who commits a crime prescribed under the preceding two Articles and thereby causes the death or injury of another, shall be dealt with by the punishment prescribed for either the crimes of injury or the preceding Articles, whichever is greater.

On August 12th, the Utsunomiya public prosecutor’s office filed a lawsuit against Kumiko Kimura, who at the time denied guilty allegations.

Prosecutors decided to not indict Remi and Taka Kimura and released them.

As the case against TOYS grew day by day, Ustunomiya police rearrested Kimura on suspicions of abuse citing Article 208 of the Japanese Penal Code. These concerned incidents dating back to April of 2013 when two children under her care were bound in blankets and ropes.

Assault

Article 208 When a person assaults another without injuring the other person, the person shall be punished by imprisonment with work for no more than 2 years, a fine of no more than 300,000 yen, misdemeanor imprisonment without work or a petty fine.

In June of 2016, as Kimura maintained to pledge not guilty, The Ustunomiya District Court delivered a guilty verdict and sentenced the accused with the prosecutor’s recommendation of 10 years imprisonment for violation of Articles 218 and 219.

The court sentenced Kimura yet again with a guilty verdict citing Article 246 for fraud, adding another 6 months of imprisonment to her plate.

At the beginning of this month, Japan’s Supreme Court’s 3rd bench threw out the Yamaguchis’ appeal but ordered Utsunomiya City to pay a compensation amounting to approximately ¥21,000,000 or USD $147,433–––a third of the fine filed against TOYS.

Utsunomiya City is currently assembling a third-party investigation committee for Emiri’s case. However, Ai Yamaguchi says that she doesn’t trust them – and for good reason.

The Yamaguchis have found signs of collusion between high-profile city officials and investigators. Ai Yamaguchi has been told by an insider that anything negative that would be uncovered in the upcoming investigation will likely be buried to save the reputation of Ustunomiya and local businesses.

The Yamaguchis found that TOYS had violated construction laws, building insufficient emergency evacuation routes. TOYS had been notified to pay the required (and hefty) amount of fees to the city architect to fix the issue. However, the Yamaguchis uncovered information that the notice went away after city officials made multiple visits to the architect.

In other instances when Utsunomiya’s buildings violated construction laws, notices never went away.

An epidemic

The TOYS case is not an isolated event.

914 cases of inappropriate acts at certified childcare facilities occurring between April and December of 2022 were reported in Japan’s first countrywide survey on abuse by Japan’s new Children and Families Agency released on May 12th this year.

90 of these cases involved serious abuse such as physically striking children.

20 involved sexual abuse, when one is already far too many.

A separate survey conducted by Kyodo News in February this year tracked the number of so-called special audits, where local authorities visited childcare facilities and conduct hearings on employees when severe risks to a child’s life, health, and mental well-being were found during the past decade.

Such audits are on the rise. In 2013, eight audits were conducted. In 2021, there were 52. Administrative actions tackling abuse and mistreatment increased from 2 to 27.

The surveys were carried out as a response to a high-profile abuse case from last December. The incident took place at Sakura Hoikuen, a nursery school in Susono City, Shizuoka Prefecture where teachers were arrested for repeatedly abusing children on at least 15 occasions between June and August of 2022.

Three teachers at Sakura have since confessed to subjecting children to abusive behavior. This includes holding toddlers upside down by their feet, slapping their faces, forcibly removing their pants, and brandishing cutter knives in a threatening manner.

Broken System

Both perpetrators of abuse and experts on the matter cite increased workload amid the coronavirus pandemic, understaffing issues, and poor working conditions as reasons linked to abusive behavior.

The tight ratio of children to caregivers is in part due to the high turnover rate in Japan’s childcare industry. It doesn’t take long for Japanese childcare workers to consider career changes due to the low monthly average pay of ¥230,000 or $1611 coupled with the physically and emotionally taxing nature of the job.

The standard ratio of children to caregivers is legally set by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare.

 childrencaregiver
0-year-olds31
1–2-year-olds61
3-year-olds201
4–5-year-olds301

Violation of this legal standard is punishable by reducing commission fees and suspension of new student enrollment.   

Elections Over Protection

The chaos in Japan’s childcare industry today is credited to past politicians’ agendas.

Many politicians in the late 90s early 2000s made pledges to increase childcare’s capacity so that no kid is put on the waiting list for admission, and that no mother is kept out of the workforce.

When the elimination of the waiting list became less about childcare and more about elections, politicians like Fumiko Hayashi, backed by the LDP, falsified documents to convince voters that the childcare industry was improving for the better. Hayashi was elected Mayor of Yokohama but was later exposed for tweaking the number of children admitted to care facilities by 8,000.

Laxing of regulations for children-to-caregiver ratios in 2016 also made it easier for inexperienced staff to work at childcare facilities. That was a plus for accountable politicians – but a minus for the children placed in insecure care.

The Big Sad Truth

The ongoing abuse in childcare facilities draws attention to the broader issue of child abuse in Japan.

According to the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, child abuse cases are on the rise. The steepest jump in reported concerns over child abuse came in 2019 with 193,780 cases–––a 21.2% increase from the previous year.

The overall count has continued to rise every year, with 205,044 cases in 2022 and 207,659 last year. Tokyo recorded the highest number of cases at 26,047, followed by Saitama (14,370 cases) and Osaka (14, 212 cases).

Categorically, Japan identifies abuse in four groups. Physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and sexual abuse.

Physical and emotional abuse have remained the two most prevalent categories. Until 2012, cases of physical abuse outnumbered emotional abuse. Since 2013, emotional abuse has been the most reported category and continues to rise in numbers.

“I just got prescription pills”

“After my daughter’s death, I went to a psychiatrist but I just got prescription pills. I could not tackle the root problem,” says Ai Yamaguchi.

She hopes that parents going through similar struggles can receive more mental support than she and her husband did.

Help

If you or anyone you know is experiencing child abuse, call the following phone numbers for help.

Police: 110

Child Guidance Office’s Child Abuse Hotline: 189

Persons receiving counseling from the Child Guidance Office or members of related organizations can call this emergency number: 03-5937-2330

English-friendly resources: 03-5467-1721 (Tokyo Women’s Plaza), 0120-279-889 (Cabinet Office DV Consultation Plus)

Sources

[1] グルグル巻きの虐待が日常だった…宇都宮市認可外保育施設乳児死亡事件の悲劇. 現代メディア

[2] Methods of Estimation of Time Since Death. National Library of Medicine

[3] 保育施設放置死に懲役10年判決 両親、愛美利ちゃんに報告 栃木. 産経新聞

[4] 「といず」訴訟 宇都宮市の賠償責任が確定 最高裁、両親の不服退ける 栃木. Yahoo! ニュースJAPAN

[5] 【速報・宇都宮トイズ】元施設長・従業員たる娘・息子を逮捕. よどきかく

[6]  保育料詐取でも実刑確定へ 宇都宮、乳児死亡の施設. 産経新聞

[7] 宇都宮の元保育施設長逮捕1週間 死亡女児、後頭部にあざ 毛布でくるまれ、もがく?. 産経新聞

[8] Penal Code. Japanese Law translation

[9] 【宇都宮といず】元施設長を起訴、長女・次男は不起訴処分で釈放. よどきかく

[10]【宇都宮といず】幼児2人への暴行の疑いで元施設長を再逮捕. よどきかく

[11]【速報・宇都宮といず】元施設長へ懲役10年の実刑判決が言い渡されました. よどきかく

[13] といず詐欺事件で元施設長に有罪判決 宇都宮地裁. 下野新聞

[14] 1st survey by Japan’s new family agency reveals 914 cases of day care abuse. The Mainichi

[15] 120 cases of mistreatment at Japan child. care facilities over past decade, survey finds. The Japan Times

[16] Japan nursery school teachers arrested over abuse of toddlers. Kyodo News

[17] Child Care in Japan: The Changing Political Context. Osaka Metropolitan University

[18] 保育士の年収はどのくらい?年齢・地域・公立私立による年収の違いまで解説.

[19] 【2023年最新版】保育園の保育士配置基準について経営者が知っておくべき3つのポイント. いちたす保育専門経営コンサルティング

[20] 令和3年度 児童相談所での児童虐待相談対応件数(速報値). 厚生労働省

[21] Child Abuse. tell

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