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World Perspective | JAPAN

Anti-Stalking Law Helps Boost Women's Rights

The threat of arrest and humiliation is a strong deterrent for would-be violators, but activists still struggle to change public attitudes on the issue.

February 24, 2001|MARK MAGNIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Akiko Kobayakawa endured three years of living hell when a male stalker called her as many as 50 times a day, followed her relentlessly, hit her, broke windows and threatened to burn down her office, prompting one fearful co-worker to stop menstruating.

Police ignored the businesswoman's pleas, arguing that no laws were broken and the matter was a private dispute. Terrified, Kobayakawa finally found a security firm to chase the man away.

The feeling of helplessness so unnerved her, however, that last March she opened Humanity Co., an anti-stalking service offering counseling, legal assistance and bodyguards. A few months later, Japan recognized the long-ignored problem by passing an anti-stalking law that allows police to act on threats rather than waiting until a victim is maimed or murdered.

Although the law is only 3 months old, supporters say it is helping to strengthen women's rights here.

"Japanese society has long ignored these very serious human rights violations, treating them as domestic issues," said Mizuho Fukushima, a lawmaker in the nation's upper house. "Now stalking is finally recognized as a crime."

Penalties are relatively light by Western standards--a maximum of one year in jail or an $8,700 fine compared with as many as 20 years in some U.S. states. But lawmakers say the threat of arrest and public humiliation is a strong deterrent in a nation where shame remains a powerful social force.

Still, women's rights advocates face an uphill battle in a society that frowns on upsetting the wa, or group harmony. Japanese art and history often draw a blurry line between the passionate suitor and the psychopathic stalker. The Konjaku Monogatari tales written around 1120 detail an aristocrat's lengthy obsession with a beautiful court attendant who is forced to devise intricate strategies to avoid his advances.

The new law was spurred by the 1999 murder-for-hire of 21-year-old Shiori Ino after she was stalked for 10 months by a former boyfriend who later committed suicide. The police repeatedly ignored her pleas and then allegedly forged documents to cover up their dismissive response.

The incident sparked awareness of the problem--there were 11,543 stalking complaints in the first half of last year compared with 8,021 for all of 1999--and sent a message that it's acceptable to fight back. One survey found that 25% of women in their 20s and 30s had been stalked.

At the AXIS.K studio here, martial arts expert Kazue Higashiyama leads classes called "Goshinbics," or "Anti-Stalking Aerobics," a program she created after being threatened by several men.

"Men's fingers can be quite stiff, so twisting them can be very effective," she told a class of thirtysomething women, running them through feints, kicks and punches. "Bend his arm, pin him against the wall, then yell for help."

Companies, meanwhile, are reporting strong sales of chemical sprays, pocket alarms, stun guns, spy cameras, wiretap detectors and caller ID and detective services. Two insurers have sold thousands of anti-stalker policies that pledge to identify violators, tap the customer's phone, record or videotape stalkers and pay as much as $75,000 if the insured is killed--for $450 a year.

Elsewhere, hundreds of Web sites have sprouted, offering protection and comfort. "We'll solve your stalker problem," says the House of Stalker Busters Co. "Turn anxiety into security. Free consultation."

Security company Stalker 110 offers something for every budget: $478 for a one-week investigation, $808 to confront your tormentor, $1,286 to collect evidence using hidden cameras.

Other sites offer helpful tips: hang men's underwear on the line, add a man's name to the mailbox, use male voices on your answering machine so stalkers think that you're living with someone.

In the end, though, most of these only exploit women's fears without addressing the real problem, says Humanity Co.'s Kobayakawa. Her service counsels the victim, targets the stalker and exploits his weakness, which may include a call to his wife, boss or parents.

If all else fails, she hires bodyguards, orchestrates police warnings, recommends lawyers and provides after-care counseling.

"Controlling women makes some Japanese men feel better about themselves," she said. "The law doesn't fix everything. But it's become much easier for women to raise their voices."

*

Hisako Ueno in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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