Tag Archives: youth

Futures Past: Absent Kinships and the Japanese Child Welfare System

Laundry hanging up to dry at a child welfare institution in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Photograph by Kathryn Goldfarb. Please do not reproduce without permission

Laundry hanging up to dry at a child welfare institution in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Photograph by Kathryn Goldfarb. Please do not reproduce without permission

Assigned to write about “futures” in the context of childhood, I find myself dwelling on the past. Although approaches to childhood often must grapple with how “the child” is seen to signify the future (of a family, of a town, of a nation, of humanity), within child welfare systems, which are the context of my research, my interlocutors’ considerations of the future are inevitably inflected by their understandings of what has come before.

I conduct research in Japan, where children who cannot be cared for in their family of origin are generally cared for in institutions, sometimes for many years. Activists working for child welfare reform in Japan cite international children’s rights discourses and the science of child development and neurology to argue that institutional care indelibly damages state wards. Specifically, they argue that institutional care for infants is tantamount to violence, that children who receive this sort of state care are harmed by the parental state, that children raised in institutions will not be able to form attachment relationships with others (for example, HRW 2014). These arguments circulate as international scientific and popular discourses and are certainly not specific to Japan. They hinge on the understanding that “the child is father of the man”: that within an adult lives the former child, whose body and brain is shaped by caregiver labor. These understandings of child science posit a particular burden of responsibility on caregivers: “‘our’ input literally materializes the child-brain’s neural connections,” a project haunted by the ever-present possibility of failure (Castañeda 2002: 76, 77; see also Rose and Abi-Rached 2013). Underlying reformers’ claims about the developmental harms of institutional care is the logic that children’s pasts shape their future potential, claims authorized by expertise in child development and neuroscience. Despite deeply sympathizing with these child welfare reform efforts, I remain troubled by the pathologizing, deterministic, and often highly normative language that seems to be the only way that activists can gain attention—the ways they must represent past damage as determining a person’s future, using scientific “evidence” to bolster their claims (Goldfarb 2015). Emotional narratives of experience—the experiences of people who received state care—never seem quite compelling enough to induce policy change. Nuance, the complex relationship between past, present, and future, is lost in the shuffle. The meanings of “the future” for former state wards seem prescribed by past deprivation.

In contemporary Japan, social recognition, legal rights, and subjective identity are deeply entangled in a way that complicates simple understandings of the past’s relation to a livable future.

The kōnotori no yurikago” (“cradle of storks”) in Kumamoto, Japan, 2010. Photograph by Kathryn Goldfarb. Please do not reproduce without permission

The kōnotori no yurikago” (“cradle of storks”) in Kumamoto, Japan, 2010. Photograph by Kathryn Goldfarb. Please do not reproduce without permission

The past shows up in considerations of the future in other contexts, as well—particularly, the question of whether knowledge of the past is an important condition for meaningful life. Ethnographic studies of adoption highlight how the idea of a person’s family or nation of origin often exerts undeniable pull on that person, prompting investigations and sometimes visits (for example Howell 2006, Kim 2010, Yngvesson 2010). In Japan, I have been intrigued by one case that epitomizes the culturally specific gravity of origin stories, and the ways attention to origins is institutionalized in the Japanese family registry. In 2007, the Catholic Jikei hospital in the southern city of Kumamoto, Japan implemented the “kōnotori no yurikago” (pictured left)—the “cradle of storks”—or what quickly became known (to the hospital’s chagrin) as the “akachan pōsuto” or “baby drop box.” The yurikago had been publicized as a place where an infant could be anonymously and safely deposited without legal ramifications for the infant’s parents; the infant would later be placed for adoption. The issue of anonymity rapidly became a flashpoint for child welfare scholars and practitioners. While hospital representatives emphasized that anonymity was a crucial way to encourage safe relinquishment rather than infanticide, critical voices argued that anonymity benefited the parents but harmed the child, who would lack the knowledge about his or her origins central to being an “ordinary” person in Japanese society. Thus, while the child would indeed be alive (the counterfactual was, of course, impossible to prove), a child lacking all knowledge of origin—concretely, a child existing outside of a normal family registry—would not be a socially recognized person in some of the ways that matter most in contemporary Japan. So while the proponents of this child welfare mechanism argued that it is life-saving and the very condition of a child’s future, its detractors claimed that this saved life is denied a fundamental form of social being. Notably, children themselves did not contribute to this conversation. To me, this case exemplifies the tensions between understandings of a person’s past—as documented in a family registry, or made invisible and unknowable in the case of anonymous abandonment—and perceptions of a livable present and an imaginable future in Japan. Japanese family registry is sometimes understood as a base for identity (Krogness 2008), and those without knowledge of their family of origin may feel they lack a foundation for moving forward in life.


Toothbrushes lined up at a child welfare institution in the Kansai area of Japan. Photograph by Kathryn Goldfarb. Please do not reproduce without permission

Toothbrushes lined up at a child welfare institution in the Kansai area of Japan. Photograph by Kathryn Goldfarb. Please do not reproduce without permission

In contemporary Japan, social recognition, legal rights, and subjective identity are deeply entangled in a way that complicates simple understandings of the past’s relation to a livable future. One of my interlocutors, now a man in his sixties, believed that he could not marry because he lacked knowledge of his origins; marriage, as he told his girlfriend, is between two households, and he did not belong to one. He had spent his entire childhood in a Japanese child welfare institution, and did not have a relationship with either his mother, who had lived in a psychiatric hospital, or his father, of whom he knew nothing. His girlfriend had scoffed at him, calling his thinking old-fashioned. “Marriage doesn’t have to be between two households these days,” she told him. “It is a contract between two people.” So the two decided to get married. My interlocutor, disconnected from a “genealogical grid” (Povinelli 2002), had never imagined himself as able to enter into a marriage precisely because of the lack of kinship network that would make a union of families possible. Unmoored from ancestors, he had been equally unmoored from future generations. However, his own ability to have a son, and foster another, allowed him to develop a new understanding of forward-oriented kinship ties that emerged from present-day intimacies. Self-reflexive attention to the future—the future family that might be made new out of nothing—animates the desires of many of my interlocutors who have decided to foster or adopt children in Japan (Goldfarb forthcoming). Their meditations on a future with children new to their family, children with their own past histories, illustrate how the past is not always a condition for future relational possibilities. For them, present-day investments and caregiving relationships are generative, transformative, and hopeful.


Works Cited:

Castañeda, Claudia. 2002. Figurations: Child, Bodies, Worlds. Durham: Duke University Press.

Goldfarb, Kathryn. 2015. “Developmental logics: Brain science, child welfare, and the ethics of engagement in Japan.” Social Science & Medicine 143:271-278.

Goldfarb, Kathryn. 2016. “‘Coming to look alike’: Materializing affinity in Japanese foster and adoptive care.” Social Analysis 60(2) (forthcoming).

Howell, Signe. 2006. The kinning of foreigners: Transnational adoption in a global perspective. New York: Berghahn Books.

Human Rights Watch. 2014. “Without Dreams: Children in Alternative Care in Japan.”

Kim, Eleana J. 2010. Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging. Durham: Duke University Press.

Krogness, Karl Jakob. 2008. The Koseki System and ‘Koseki Consciousness’: An Exploration of the Development and Functions of the Modern Japanese Household Registration System and How it Influences Social Life. PhD dissertation, University of Copenhagen.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2002. Notes on Gridlock: Genealogy, Intimacy, Sexuality. Public Culture 14(1): 215-238.

Rose, Nikolas and Joelle M. Abi-Rached. 2013. Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Yngvesson, Barbara. 2010. Belonging in an adopted world: Race, identity, and transnational adoption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.



Kathryn E. Goldfarb is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is working on a book manuscript, entitled Relational Futures: Material Ties in Japanese State Care. Her research brings together kinship, medical anthropology, and semiotics to explore the ways that social relationships shape bodily experience.


Read the AAGE companion to this post: Staying on the move: The urban future of the aging body, by Tiina Suopajärvi


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“Time is no longer a river”: Reflections on life, death, and youth in the digital age


This post is part of the Life Course Collaborative Research Network blog exchange, also available on the website of ACYIG. To see all of the posts in the series, click here.

In a recent editorial about how our “overdocumented lives” are making it more difficult to let go of the past, Susanna Schrobsdorff writes:

Most of us type more than we talk these days. And the more we live in this parallel digital world, the blurrier the line gets between present and past. Because when nothing is lost, nothing is past. Even if you want it to be. Unbidden, Facebook’s Memories function has started posting photos of a meal you ate seven years ago with people who may not even be alive anymore. And those images sit in your feed along with photos of the mimosa brunch you’re having on vacation right this very second. Time is no longer a river; it’s a looping series of digital paths.

While human beings have long found diverse means of organizing and traversing the flow of time, Schrobsdorff’s observation raises interesting questions for anthropologists today: How are “digital paths” and practices changing the way people navigate and experience the life course? How is the contemporary obsession with documentation and digital connection altering our relationship to time, memory, and even death? How might digital technologies and social media be reconfiguring the experiential boundaries between life and death, and reshaping practices of mourning and memorialization? Finally, how might the youth, the most avid users of such technologies be particularly affected by these developments?

These are questions I am just beginning to explore in my new research on death in the digital age. For instance, I have come across very moving examples of bereaved children using online memorials to communicate with a deceased parent even months and years after the death occurred.  As one ten year-old girl posted several months after her father’s death, “Hi Daddy! It’s me again! I miss you so much! Tell God I say Thank you for taking care of u for us!” Two years later she began another post with, “Dear Daddy, I got into the spelling bee and made it to the second round.”

This girl’s appropriation of social media for the purpose of mourning and memorialization is becoming increasingly common among youth. Some observers interpret it as evidence that digital technologies are playing a key role in “democratizing” the mourning and memorialization process. Others suggest that online memorialization among the youth is generating new intergenerational conflicts about who has the authority to mourn, memorialize, and even communicate with the deceased. Indeed, a number of scholars studying “virtual mourning,” have observed that messages posted on online memorials typically take the form of a letter or message written directly to the deceased. This has led them to conclude that in the digital age, biological death is less and less congruent with social death. The deceased are often kept alive, or at least in circulation through the postings of online friends and others, and in many cases, as Lim has found, “the dead are either assigned, or else presumed to have active social roles” (Lim 2013).

“…perhaps these ongoing and prolonged attempts to communicate with the dead could be conceptualized as a digital drying of the bones. Perhaps, they reflect not only a desire to maintain connections with the dead, but also provide the bereaved with a way to ferry the deceased to the other side.”

This raises further questions for anthropologists about the functions that online mourning and memorialization serve. Are such practices providing young people with a way to transcend the embarrassment of grief and more effectively cope with loss? Or alternatively, as Hartman has proposed, does cybermourning recharge “the libidinal cathexis to the object” launching it “into ever-new iterations such that the ego is no longer impelled to give up the object”(Hartman 2012:463- 465)? Could the current popular fascination with the “Walking Dead” be reflective of a digital society where the dead do not so much disappear, as linger on in varying states of animation?

It might be tempting to conclude that in a society of networked selves and hyper-connectivity, the human fear of disconnection has become exacerbated. After all, “nomophobia”- the fear of being separated from one’s cell phone is now recognized as a legitimate disorder among younger generations. And a recent report by CNN found that teens currently spend about nine hours a day on social media and check their Facebook pages approximately 100 times!

And yet it is also clear that the attempt to maintain connections with the deceased is as old as humanity itself. As such, anthropologists might also consider how digital technologies are providing the bereaved with new means for pursuing a very old desire- continuing bonds with the deceased.

From my vantage point, examples of online memorialization by children are interesting not only because they suggest that the digital age is enabling bereaved children and youth to play a much more active role mourning but also because these examples suggest fascinating parallels with many other ethnographic contexts where extended mortuary processes and the double burials are the norm. As Robert Hertz noted long ago, “We cannot bring ourselves to consider the deceased as dead straight away: he is too much a part of our substance, we have put too much of ourselves into him, and participation in the same social life creates ties which are not to be severed in one day” (Hertz 2004:209-210).  Considered from this perspective then, perhaps these ongoing and prolonged attempts to communicate with the dead could be conceptualized as a digital drying of the bones. Perhaps, they reflect not only a desire to maintain connections with the dead, but also provide the bereaved with a way to ferry the deceased to the other side. Perhaps writing and posting messages to the deceased does provide contemporary Americans with a ritual means through which the deceased are rendered dead, and ultimately incorporated into a collective world of ancestors.

To be honest, I am not sure what to make of all of this yet. But I do know that if time is no longer a river but rather a looping series of digital paths, as Schrobsdorff suggests, then anthropologists should be actively considering what the entailments of this change are. How is the digital age shaping the way youth navigate the life course and deal with matters of life and death?

Works Cited:

Durkheim, Emile. (1912) 1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, translated by Karen Fields. New York: Free Press.

Hartman, Stephen. 2012. “Cybermourning: Grief in Flux From Object Loss to Collective Immortality.” Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 32: 454-467.

Hertz, Robert. 2004. “A Contribution to the Study of the Collective Representation of Death” In Death, Mourning, and Burial: A Cross-Cultural Reader edited by Antonius Robben pp.197-212. Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Lim, Ming. 2013. “The Digital Consumption of Death: Reflections on virtual mourning practices on social networking sites.” In The Routledge Companion to Digital Consumption edited by Russell Belk pp.396 -403. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.

Schrobsdorff, Susanna. February 2016. “In our overdocumented lives, letting go has gotten a lot harder.” Time Magazine. 59. http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/03/health/teens-tweens-media-screen-use-report


Jenny Huberman is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is the author of Ambivalent Encounters: Childhood, Tourism, and Social Change in Banaras, India. Her current research explores how experiences of loss, mourning, and memorialization are changing in the digital age.


Read the AAGE member companion to this post on “Death and the Life Course” by Cristina Douglas

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AAGE X ACYIG: Richard Zimmer on generational links in special needs families

When I was in San Diego last spring for the SPA/ACYIG Meeting (Anthropology of Children and Youth Interest Group), I attended a panel discussion on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (which only the USA and Somalia are yet to ratify).

Many of us are involved in similar political advocacy for the rights and welfare of older persons. We may work in areas of the world where these rights are debated, ignored, or threatened. In most cases, the rights of older persons are either explicitly or implicitly covered in generic human rights declarations such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). However, although positive steps were taken last August at the Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing, the UN is yet to adopt a Convention on the Rights of Older Persons. (See the pdf of the August 2012 working paper on the rights of older persons by Fredvang and Biggs here)
Realizing that the challenges and vulnerabilities faced by older adults were shared by children and youth as well, and that the AAGE and ACYIG share a common emphasis on the life course perspective, the anthropologists at the table thought it would be a good idea to to move towards building a common agenda on both advocacy or engaged anthropology issues as well as on life course research on human rights, including the distinctive ways older people and younger people are affected by climate change and natural disaster, poverty, abuse, mental health, discrimination, war and displacement, institutional living, and many other issues.

ACYIG was generous in taking the first step. Aviva Sinervo (UCSC), who edits the newsletter for ACYIG published this piece by AAGE/AALCIG member Richard Zimmer (pdf of his contribution here). Zimmer does not speak specifically to the human rights issues brought up at the workshop I attended, but he does raise the crucial issues of working across generations in communities affected by developmental disabilities. In working with these families, Zimmer highlights the need for greater anthropological/ethnographic work on the family that can draw together the complexity of individuals at different ends of the life course.

I hope that our groups can find additional ways to make additional generational links. From here, we might think about organizing a panel for the ACYIG meeting (in Charleston, SC, 12-15 February) and keep things rolling (AAA 2014?). Hope that AAGE X ACYIG this becomes a recurring theme in the news here. Email us and/or Aviva Sinervo at ACYIG if you would like to get involved or organize conference symposia/events (You can also join the ACYIG for free if you are a AAA member, or join their listserv, or like their Facebook page even if you are not!)