Child abuse cases in Japan have risen to a record high, according to police data released Thursday, fanning concerns about safeguards in a society long known for strong family values.
Japan has boasted a reputation as a relatively crime-free nation, and has a culture that prides itself on pampering, even spoiling, children.
But recent high-profile cases of child abuse have shattered that image, and have unveiled communities that have grown impersonal and uncaring for the plight of children.
Drawing widespread attention were media reports last month of a woman who was arrested after abandoning her two children, age 3 and 1, in her apartment without food or water until they died.
Neighbors said they heard the children crying hysterically, but nobody did anything about it.
During the first six months of this year, there were reports of 187 children who were victims of abuse, mostly physical abuse but some sexual, the highest since such records began to be compiled in 2000, the National Police Agency said. The cases resulted in 18 deaths, and 199 people were arrested, it said.
In another disturbing sign, the police report also found child pornography on the rise, with cases surging 63 percent from a year earlier to 599 cases in the first half of the year. About half the cases involved the Internet.
Such data strike a contrast to the stereotype of traditional Japanese culture that values family ties and neighborhood networking.
Masami Kimura, a lawyer who has been working to prevent child abuse, said the main change is that more people are now reporting abuse. He believes beatings in the name of discipline and other abuse have been common in Japan for decades.
"We talk to parents who hit their children, and they tell us that was the way they were brought up," he said. "But the idea that children have human rights is now gradually gaining ground."
Kimura and other welfare officials say people trained to handle child abuse are scarce in Japan, facilities to shelter abused children are packed, and legal systems to monitor and counsel families need strengthening.
"Japan has long had the belief that the law should not intervene in family affairs," he said. "But children, the weakest people in the family, are getting abused."