Fragile Kinships & Child Welfare in Japan


A review of Fragile Kinships: Family Ideologies and Child Welfare in Japan, by Kathryn Goldfarb.

It is to Kathryn Goldfarb’s credit that her dissertation includes a series of emotionally difficult stories nevertheless rendered immensely readable and analytically provocative. Fragile Kinships explores child welfare and adoption practices to describe how family is constructed and continues to matter in contemporary Japan. In Japan and Japanese Studies, the “family” has long been a key social category, through which researchers and everyday people alike imagine and organize the human condition. Goldfarb’s work begins by refusing to take such a category for granted, and instead she traces how kinship, families, and relationality come to be made and remade, often through interactions that seem unnecessarily painful for the children involved. Like child protective services in any country, the Japanese system for assisting children without dependable families often seems to be operating on theoretical premises that ignore actual children and their needs. Although Goldfarb’s work is not directed at reforming the system, many of her interlocutors are, and this dissertation traces their agreements and conflicts as they negotiate what should and can be done. The dissertation organizes itself around four key themes: first, the centrality of “family” in research and popular discourse in Japan; second, “care” being given and received; third, responsibility for self and others; and fourth, the ways that Japanese families are simultaneously described as “in crisis” but still uncritically represented as locations of nurturance.

Goldfarb’s descriptions of Japanese child welfare policies begin with the necessary disclaimer foreclosing any sense of Japanese exceptionalism. Certainly to some readers the Japanese system for child welfare will seem strange or even unfair, but Goldfarb is careful to refuse any simplistic arguments about Japanese uniqueness. With the zombie of such essentializing theories of Japaneseness (nihonjinron) slayed, she moves on to describe the basic tenants of the Japanese child welfare system. The first potentially surprising fact is that about 90 percent of Japanese children in protective services live in orphanages rather than in foster or adoptive families. Moreover, the majority of children living in such orphanages are not actually “able” to be adopted. Goldfarb allows these two surprising facts to motivate her dissertation research: why are so few children adopted in Japan, and why are most of the children living (for years) in orphanages legally unavailable for adoption?

It is her descriptions of the conditions of such orphanages or the damages they can cause that I found most difficult to read. Although there are many types of “children’s homes” in Japan, the majority of them are dormitory-like structures with large numbers of children, often of different ages, and relatively few adult supervisors.  In addition to the small number of supervisors, the few adults that do interact with the child residents are often state workers who are transferred to other jobs, meaning that most children rarely have the opportunity to build sustainable relationships with adults. Goldfarb delicately describes the social effects of such institutionalization with a story about a young boy who now lives with a foster family. When Goldfarb arrived to have a conversation with his foster mother, the young boy hid and acted shy. The foster mother suggested that such behavior was actually a positive mark of his emotional transition – children at “Children’s Homes” who are starved for adult attention often swarm any visitor, regardless of their connections. In addition to such behaviors, former residents of care facilities describe them as rife with bullying and abuse, and some of the most difficult to read sections of this dissertation occur as young adult relate how their instutionalized childhoods continue to create emotional and psychological problems for them.

By Goldfarb’s estimation, many people who work with or around children’s homes understand that they are fundamentally problematic. But they seem to last because the state, and many people within it, firmly imagine “biological” parents as being fundamentally preferable to any other kind of kinship. For instance, biological mothers, in particular, must relinquish parental rights for children to be “able” to be adopted. Even in cases of extreme abandonment, such a decision cannot be made implicitly – parents must pro-actively agree to put their children up for adoption, and such a status is never the default. Goldfarb narrates many painful stories of parents (often, but not always, mothers) who leave their children for years in “Children’s Homes” but maintain just enough bureaucratic contact that the children are never allowed to be considered for adoption. In many of these cases, the children stay in institutional care until they “age out” at 18, and then enter the labor market or, much less frequently, the educational system. To my utterly non-relativistic mind, a loving family unrelated by blood would be more emotionally and psychologically supportive than an extended childhood within an institution, but Goldfarb carefully explains why this is not the conclusion of many Japanese officials, care-givers, or potential family members.

One particular strength of this dissertation is its engagement with people’s imaginations surrounding parental love. Many of Goldfarb’s interlocutors reported that they found it hard to believe that anyone could love someone else’s child. Ideologically, real love and parental affection were limited, in these people’s worldviews, only to children within one’s “blood” family. Without space here to explain all their reasoning, I cannot relate all of Kathryn Goldfarb’s fascinating analysis of such statements, but can describe how such clear analysis of seeming “facts” illustrate this dissertation’s broad engagements with how people understand and build families in the contemporary moment.

Allison Alexy
Assistant Professor
Department of Anthropology
University of Virginia


Ethnographic research in Japanese Children’s Homes, groups of advocates, and families considering adoption

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2012. 266 pp. Primary Advisor: Judith Farquhar.


Image: Photograph used with permission.

  1. Dear Ms. Goldfarb: I am looking for current research on the topic of the Child Welfare system of Japan in English. How might I get a copy of your dissertation? Thank you!

    1. Hi! Thanks for your interest. My dissertation is available on ProQuest. If you don’t have access to ProQuest, you can email me at my university address– kgold[at]– and I’ll send you a copy. I also have a chapter in an edited child welfare volume specifically about the Japanese child welfare system. The edited volume is: “Child Protection and Child Welfare: A Global Appraisal of Cultures, Policy and Practice.” Penelope Welbourne and John Dixon, eds. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2013. My chapter is the “Japan” chapter, pp 144-169.

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