Archive for Tuesday, February 12, 2002

Japan last industrialized nation to formally recognize spousal abuse with laws

February 12, 2002


— Kimiko tells her story with calm detachment. How her husband beat her dozens of times during their 32 years together, raining blows down on her face, thighs and stomach, pounding her back with wooden boards, kicking her hard enough to break a rib.

"I was a slave," says Kimiko, who asked that her last name not be used out of fear that her ex-husband might track her down. "No, it was worse than that. Even slaves have more freedom than I had."

Until recently, abuse victims such as Kimiko were all but invisible in Japan, ignored in a society in which laws are largely made by middle-aged men and people learn not to notice bruises, sunglasses and other telltale signs of domestic violence.

Late last year, however, Japan became the last major industrialized nation to formally recognize the problem, enacting legislation aimed at preventing such violence and protecting its victims.

Particularly shocking for many Japanese as the issue has gained prominence is how widespread domestic violence  known here as DV  is and how high up the social ladder it extends in a society long proud of its civility, refinement and understated emotions.

Japan's first nationwide survey on the topic, done by the government Cabinet Office in 1999, provided a wake-up call when it revealed that one in 20 Japanese wives had suffered life-threatening violence at some point during marriage, while four times as many had endured some sort of physical abuse.

Since the new law went into effect Oct. 13, complaints to police have jumped 50 percent, to about 1,500 a month. Some of the cases can be attributed to stress caused by higher unemployment, experts say, but a larger factor in the increase appears to be a greater willingness to report abuse.

Changing the law is one thing. Changing culture and social traditions is quite another. At the root of Japan's long-standing myopia toward domestic violence, say counselors, activists and victims, is a conspiracy of silence, an assumption dating back to samurai days that the way a husband treats his wife behind the shoji screen is his business.

Japan's tepid first steps toward recognizing and treating domestic abuse  decades after its Western counterparts  are part of a sea of change here. Experts say shifting values and social structures are gradually empowering weaker members of society, encouraging some to question male-dominated traditions and the often-substantial social price Japan has paid for its material success.

Women's groups say the new law leaves much to be desired. It carries no penalties, leaves treatment to a legion of competing agencies, provides little new funding and limits restraining orders to cases of physical abuse, not sexual or psychological damage.

Furthermore, it protects only battered wives, not their children, opening the door for husbands to grab offspring and use them as leverage.

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