In the United Kingdom, United States and other developed countries, abused or neglected children are often sent to live with a foster family. But that rarely happens in Japan, one of the world's wealthiest and most progressive societies.

Close to 90 percent of Japan's troubled children are placed in state institutions - out of sight and out of mind.

Some 33,000 children currently live in such institutions in this society that frowns upon the use of foster care. But critics say the excessive reliance on 131 child nursing homes across the country represents a form of abuse in itself.

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Inside these institutions there are babies as young as six months old, and institutionalised children spend on average five years in the nursing homes. This is despite United Nations guidelines stipulating that alternative care for children under the age of three should almost always be in family-based settings.

Human Rights Watch found that Japan's alternative child care system suffers from overly large institutions where physical space is limited and chances for bonding are scarce. There are poor conditions of the facilities; physical and sexual abuse, by both caregivers and other children, occurs; and there are insufficient mechanisms for children to report problems.

"It's heartbreaking to see children crammed into institutions and deprived of the chance for life in a caring family setting," says Kanae Doi, the Japan director at Human Rights Watch.

Critics say the overwhelming use of institutions instead of family-based care is failing thousands of vulnerable children by not preparing them for independent, productive lives in Japanese society. They are calling for the Japanese government to overhaul its alternative care system, which they say harms the well-being and healthy development of children and infants, and contravenes international children's rights.

Foster care has not emerged as a viable alternative for abused children in Japan because governments have failed to properly train carers, monitor the placements, or adequately educate the public about its benefits. As a result, one-quarter of the children placed in such settings return to institutions.

In the Japanese child welfare system, biological parents retain all legal rights over their child even if they have an abusive history - leading many to have very unstable childhoods.

"I think the government completely lacks the concept of children's rights. The number of children receiving alternative care is extremely small so they are a minority. So the thinking is that it doesn't matter what happens to those kids, they have no one to speak up for them," says Tetsuo Tsuzaki, a child protection expert from Kyoto Prefectural University.

With child abuse cases rising to a record 73,000 cases last year, the problem of institutions and where to place troubled children is unlikely to go away.

101 East gains unprecedented access to these institutions and investigates Japan's hidden shame: the neglect of its most vulnerable children.

What can be done to improve the lives of 33,000 child abuse victims living in Japan's state institutions? #ThrowawayChildren on @AJ101East

Reporter's blog

By Drew Ambrose

In Japan, when a child is removed from his or her parents due to neglect, they are more likely to be placed in an institution, rather than a foster home.

Japan strongly values blood ties, so welcoming a stranger’s child into a family seems unnatural to many people. Some parents believe a foster family could steal their son or daughter forever, so choose to send them to an institution instead.

Mothers are clueless about child-rearing. But there is no institution where they can learn about it and that is why the chain reaction of abuse cannot be stopped.

Yuki Okada, musician

As a result, a staggering 85 percent of children in Japanese institutions are victims of physical and sexual abuse.

In my home country Australia, foster care is thought to be the best course of action for children who have suffered at the hands of their parents. So in Japan, seeing children housed in facilities that often look like run-down orphanages seemed strange given how progressive and modern the country is.

But for government welfare bodies, these institutions are a reliable and safe place to put a child in crisis.

Reports of child abuse in Japan are on the rise, reaching record levels. Over 73,000 cases were recorded by authorities last year.

Japan is also a country where speaking out about child abuse causes great shame, which is why I was struck by Yuki Okada, a Tokyo musician who is one of the few child abuse campaigners talking openly about her life growing up in a violent family.

“I experienced physical, psychological and sexual abuse." she told me. "My brothers often hurt me and one time they tied me against a pillar in the house and my mother just cheered them on. When I cried loudly, my parents would gag me so neighbours couldn’t hear. I thought I’d choke to death but it also crossed my mind that dying would make things easier for me.”

Yuki then told me that when she became a mother she went on to abuse her own son.

To try and understand, I asked her why victims often become abusers. Yuki said she never had a positive parental role-model and that is what led her to go down the same path.

“You love your child because he is so adorable but the more I loved the child, the more my own inner child sprung back in me. The voice inside me said, ‘Why do you get all this love when I didn’t? Why are you getting everything?’

Musician Yuki Okada counsels Nami, a 24-year-old woman who is pregnant with her first child

"I want to love my child, but my past cannot let me do that. Victims of abuse tend to think this way … they are torn by maternal affection and a meaner, victimised self that comes back.”

Today, Yuki is fighting to save children from a fate like hers, by educating mothers in parenting skills. She says Japan is focused on putting children in institutions, yet few organisations are available to help young women become good mothers.

“Mothers are clueless about child-rearing. But there is no institution where they can learn about it and that is why the chain reaction of abuse cannot be stopped.”

Yuki confronted her demons by writing a book about her past called Ugly Ducklings.

She has counselled 5,000 women over the years who have survived troubled childhoods. We sat in on a session with Nami – a 24-year-old woman who is pregnant with her first child and worries that she will abuse her daughter.

During her tumultuous childhood, singing was a way that Yuki helped alleviate the stress in her life. Now she performs as a singer on the live jazz music scene in Tokyo. As I watched one of Yuki's live performances, she sang about love, and I wondered about the fate of the 33,000 children in institutions across Japan, and whether her message would reach them.

"If you can care for others and have compassion towards them, then it will lead to better understanding about children who are abused and parents who abuse them,” Yuki says.

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