Malnourished 3-year-old girl in Japan died after abuse by family

Hazuki’s favorite swing is seen at a park near her family’s residence in Sayama, Saitama Prefecture, on July 6.
PHOTO: The Japan News/Asia News Network

There seems to be no end to young children being injured or killed by the people they are supposed to depend upon the most: their parents.

This new series focuses on measures to save young lives highlighting examples of children who have fallen victim in isolated family incidents.

This is the first instalment of the series.

Before dawn on Jan. 9 last year, the small, cold body of Hazuki Fujimoto, age 3, was found lying in the bathroom of an apartment in Sayama, Saitama Prefecture, on a morning with temperatures close to 0 C.

At the time of her death, she weighed 9.7 kilograms, about the weight of an average 1½-year-old.

There were numerous circular bald patches on her head.

The doctor who carried out the autopsy was stunned to see her thymus gland, which is located near the heart, had shrunk to about one-tenth the normal size.

The thymus gland shrinks in response to extreme stress, and its atrophy can reduce the body's immunity.

"I have never seen a thymus gland that had shrunk to that size," the doctor frankly said at the trial of the child's mother, Ayaka Fujimoto.

The 24-year-old woman, along with a man she was living with, were indicted on several charges, including abandonment by a guardian and assault in the death of Hazuki following about four months of abuse.

The woman was subsequently sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Ayaka and her husband separated when she was 18 and pregnant with Hazuki, her second daughter.

She had moved into her mother's house with her elder daughter and began working nights at a bar with female companions.

She began dating Yuki Okawara, 26, a patron of the bar, in March 2015.

The four of them, including the eldest daughter and Hazuki, moved into a new apartment in May that year.

The man was later sentenced to 12½ years in prison.

Hazuki is said to have loved playing with dolls and soap bubbles, and often spent time on equipment at the playground at a nearby park.

About four months passed before she began to be abused once they began living together.

In comparison to the obedient older daughter, the cries of the smaller Hazuki apparently grated on the ears of Ayaka and Okawara.

"Hazu [Hazuki] is louder than usual."

"I'm doing 'mouth,' so it isn't as bad as usual."

The two discussed their plans for abuse over the free messaging app LINE.

"Mouth" referred to stuffing Hazuki's mouth with cloth and taping it shut.

"Why don't you just chain her up like a dog?"

On Ayaka's suggestion, they wrapped a chain around Hazuki's neck and stuck her in a closet.

Meals were given to her once a day, and on some days, she was given nothing at all.

ALL CONTACT CUT OFF

Okawara did not like Ayaka meeting with her friends.

During her trial, Ayaka testified that because Okawara was "jealous and extremely controlling, I stopped going out."

Ayaka herself also disliked Okawara meeting his parents and acquaintances. In a letter sent to a Yomiuri Shimbun reporter during his detention, Okawara revealed that "my parents opposed me dating Ayaka, and even meeting my parents caused [Ayaka] to become irritable."

They asked each other to stop meeting family and friends. As a result, they became extremely isolated from those around them.

In the winter of 2015, they even became estranged from Ayaka's mother, who until then had made regular visits.

Okawara, who agreed to an interview at his detention centre in June, stated: "I wasn't able to put priority on Hazuki. I knew it wasn't a good thing, but I couldn't talk about it to anyone."

A 22-year-old female acquaintance of Ayaka remembers seeing wounds on Hazuki's face, and noticed an apparent fear of her mother.

Yet, the woman said she "couldn't imagine Ayaka would let her own child die."

Thus, she did not go so far as to report the incidents to facilities such as a child consultation centre.

A man, 66, who runs a store next to the family's apartment, also often heard Hazuki's cries.

However, he said, "It's common for children to cry, so I didn't think I will report it."

Hazuki was considerably weakened by malnutrition immediately before her death.

But the ruling in Ayaka's trial acknowledged that "if Hazuki had been treated by a doctor three or four days before her death, it would have been quite possible to save her life."

Ayaka's mother also noticed the swelling of Hazuki's lips.

Even now, she regrets keeping her distance from her daughter's family after losing her temper at Ayaka's refusal to heed her efforts to persuade Ayaka to leave Okawara.

The mother, who now takes care of the eldest daughter, said during Ayaka's trial, "I should have insisted on going to [Ayaka's] house."

Okawara's parents also stated in an interview: "We should have gone to the house at least once. We regret that."

CITIZEN UNSURE TO CENTRES

The Child Abuse Prevention Law, which came into effect in 2000, urges citizens to report known instances of child abuse to a child consultation centre or similar facilities.

However, there have been a large number of incidents that have resulted in criminal cases without any such reports.

Therefore, the scope of the law was widened in 2004 to urge reporting to these facilities, even in cases where abuse is only suspected.

In a survey in fiscal 2014, about 60 per cent of respondents said they were "aware" of the obligation to report.

However, of the 43 abuse cases that year, excluding cases categorized as double suicides, only seven were reported to these facilities.

It is likely the absence of certainty is an underlying factor in the hesitancy to report. In 2015, the government introduced a nationwide telephone number 189 (meaning in Japanese "as soon as possible") for reporting child abuse, and is encouraging active reporting.

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