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Battery Behind the Shoji Screen

After new legislation, Japan finally faces up to the prevalence and horror of domestic abuse.


TOKYO — 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.

When he wasn't abusing her body, he tortured her spirit, making her feel ugly, awkward and worthless and forcing her to attend to his every whim.

"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%, 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.

"The idea is finally spreading that you don't have to put up with DV, that it's all right to speak out," said Mariko Mitsui, chief of a government Gender Equality Center in Osaka.

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 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.

"Many people still view women as property of their husbands," said Kazuhito Shinka, a deputy director with the central government's Gender Equality Bureau. "There's been a view that legal issues shouldn't intrude on the family."

Japan found itself rather embarrassed on this count three years ago when Shuji Shimokochi, then a 51-year-old consul general, was charged with punching his wife in the face during a fight at their residence in Vancouver.

Questioned by Canadian police, he reportedly dismissed the incident as "a Japanese cultural issue," claimed that his wife deserved to be struck and told officers that the matter was not serious. Domestic violence experts say the mind-set of Shimokochi, who was shipped off to a think tank affiliated with the Japanese government, is all too common.

Noriko Yamaguchi, an official with the Batterer Intervention Assn., a Tokyo civic group, blames in part a system that offers almost no counseling or treatment for the abuser. Japanese men are brought up not to show emotion or reveal weakness, Yamaguchi said.

"If they finally do show something of themselves, it all too often comes out through anger," she said.

There also is a long-held misconception in Japan that domestic violence is largely a problem of the poor and uneducated.

"In fact, it's often lawyers, policemen, bureaucrats and professionals doing it," said Stephanie, a counselor for Japanese and foreign victims at Tokyo's HELP Asian Women's Shelter and hotline, who asked that her last name not be used out of concern for her safety.

Hiroko Sato once told reporters that she had been beaten repeatedly by her husband, former Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, who in 1974 received Japan's only Nobel Peace Prize.

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. Spousal rape, which is a crime in all 50 American states, is not illegal here.

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