KUMAMOTO, JAPAN (AFP) – Inside Mr Koichi Miyatsu’s blue, child-sized backpack are neatly folded cartoon-print sweatshirts and a pair of white sneakers – all he has from before he was left at Japan’s only “baby hatch”.

He was only a toddler when he was placed in the hatch at a hospital in southern Japan’s Kumamoto, where children can be left anonymously by desperate family.

“These are some of the clothes I was wearing when I was left there,” said the 18-year-old. “They are the oldest memories I have of my childhood… so I’ve treasured them ever since.”

This year, Mr Miyatsu became the first person to speak publicly in Japan about being abandoned in the hatch, which first opened in 2007, modelled on a German programme.

His comments have rekindled debate about a scheme described by supporters as a last resort for marginalised women, but criticised by opponents as encouraging the abandonment of children.

For Mr Miyatsu though, there is no question. “The day I was left there was the day a new chapter of my life began,” the university freshman said. “I owe what I am today to the baby hatch.”

Catholic-run Jikei Hospital in Kumamoto launched the programme to provide an alternative for those struggling to parent and unable or unwilling to seek formal solutions like giving children up for care. They argue it can prevent the abuse and even death of children, and in 15 years, 161 babies and toddlers have been left with them.

Soon after a young Miyatsu was found sitting uncomprehendingly in the hatch, he was taken in by Yoshimitsu and Midori Miyatsu in rural Kumamoto.

Parents of five biological children, the couple have also fostered over 30 others and did not hesitate to take in the young boy.

“I thought an angel was sent our way,” Mr Yoshimitsu Miyatsu, 65, said recalling the young child’s arrival.