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TOKYO (Reuters) - When a newborn baby girl was left in Japan's controversial "baby hatch" last week, the child's life may have been saved, but her chances of finding new parents were slim due to a cultural aversion to adoption in Japan.
The baby is one of four tots -- one of them three-years-old -- so far left at the "stork's cradle" baby hatch at the Catholic-run Jikei Hospital in Kumamoto, southern Japan.
A small door in the outside wall of the hospital opens to reveal a tiny bed inside, allowing parents to leave their child safely and anonymously. Once they do, an alarm goes off to alert hospital staff to the new arrival.
Similar facilities exist in Germany, where babies are offered for adoption after an eight week period during which birth parents can change their minds.
But the many vocal critics of the first "baby hatch" in Japan are afraid it may encourage parents to opt out of their responsibilities. And legal barriers and prejudice against adoption in Japan may mean that children abandoned in the "baby hatch" will be raised in institutions rather than by adopted parents.
"There is a feeling that it is somehow natural for children who can't live with their parents to be in an institution," said Masaki Takakura, a journalist and author of a book on adoption.
"This is a hangover from the post-war years, when children whose parents had died were rounded up and sent to orphanages."
Local officials will not comment on specific cases, but if Japanese courts do not define the "baby hatch" children as officially "abandoned," they may be left in children's homes for years, theoretically awaiting the return of their birth parents.
The vast majority of the 30,000 children in Japan's children's homes -- which are struggling to cope with increasing numbers of abused youngsters -- will stay put until they are old enough to work.
Research shows growing up in an institution often leads to disadvantages in emotional development as well as education and employment, which is why many say attitudes towards adoption need to be changed in Japan.
"I used to have a very negative image of adoption and I think a lot of other people do too," explained 38-year-old housewife Tomoyo Suzuki, adding that her thinking changed after she went to a seminar about it. She and her husband went on to adopt two babies now aged three and one.
"I think a lot of people are concerned about blood ties."
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe -- who criticized the "baby hatch" for encouraging parents to opt out of their responsibilities -- and his wife, Akie, themselves rejected the idea of adopting.
Last year, Akie went public with her fertility problems and said her husband had suggested they adopt.
"I could not accept this and was not confident about bringing up an adoptee properly, so it did not happen," she told a Japanese magazine.
Those who do adopt often move house immediately afterwards to cover up their child's origins, said Kazuko Yokota of Motherly Network, a volunteer group that supports women coping with unexpected pregnancies and arranges adoptions.
Attitudes are shaped by everything from Confucian teachings to a detailed household registry system that can dog unwed mothers for their entire lives, even if they give their child up for adoption.
Confucianism, which spread to Japan from China and Korea more than a thousand years ago, emphasizes the importance of a child's relationship with its birth parents and reverence for ancestry.
"Children in need of adoption have been stigmatized by notions of pure and impure or good and bad blood," Peter Hayes of Britain's Sunderland University and Toshie Habu wrote in their book "Adoption in Japan."
For much of Japan's history, adoption has therefore remained within the extended family, with childless couples often taking in a nephew or other relative to carry on their family name or business, rather than because the child was in need of care.
"Special adoption," of needy non-relatives was not introduced until 1989 and only a few hundred cases are approved each year, compared with three to four thousand in the United Kingdom, which has around half Japan's population.
The difference lies not only in the shortage of willing parents, but also the small number of available babies, many say.
When women give birth they must enter the child's name on their family register, a powerful incentive for single women to end a pregnancy or even abandon a newborn rather than risk its being discovered by a potential employer or future husband.
"We have campaigned at least for minors to be able to leave this information off their registers, but we have been told it won't happen," said Yokota of Motherly Network.
Children's homes, which are subsidized by the government according to the number of children in their care, are partly to blame because they are reluctant to recommend candidates for adoption, says sociologist Roger Goodman of Oxford University.
"We need to spread the message that adoption is an important tool for helping children. How do we do this, given that there is no background of Christian values here?" said author Takakura.
Shocked by the fact that some adoption agencies charge huge fees to introduce Japanese babies to adoptive families abroad, he is working with sympathetic members of parliament to try to pass a law encouraging more Japanese to take in unwanted children.