Mariko Bando

TOKYO (WOMENSENEWS)–Noriko aimed the camera carefully into the mirror, alert for any sounds that her husband was returning. Everything–her future, her children’s future–depended on the picture she was about to take. It showed Noriko’s face bruised and swelling from the most recent beating inflicted by her husband.

Noriko Shimada–not her real name–had already left him three times during their 10-year marriage, going to family and friends for help. But he always found her. This time, she was armed with determination not to return, help from the Feminist Therapy Center in Tokyo–and the picture.

It eventually helped convince the Japanese courts–often unsympathetic to the pleas of battered women–to give her protection and a divorce.

Noriko is a rare example of a Japanese woman who has prevailed against domestic violence in Japan.

"People don’t think it is a crime. (They think) it is a private matter inside the home," says Mariko Bando, director-general for Japan’s Gender Equality Bureau.

Now the Japanese have to think again. The country’s first domestic violence law, passed by the national legislature April 6, went into effect nationwide on Oct. 13.

Law Gives Some Protection, Does Not Make Domestic Violence a Crime

Advocates for women’s rights laud it as an important first step, but stressed that more legal protection for abused women is needed in Japan. The new law does not make domestic abuse a crime in a society in which, by tradition, men are considered superior to women, violence is a man’s prerogative, and domestic abuse is a private affair and no business of the police and criminal justice system.

The Law on Prevention of Spouse Violence and Protection of Victims allows district courts to issue six-month restraining orders against abusers and to evict abusers from the home for as long as two weeks. Abusers who violate the court orders can receive as much as a year in jail and a fine of up to 1 million yen (or about $8,000). Anyone who makes a false report of domestic violence can be fined up to 100,000 yen (or about $800). The law makes no distinction between couples who are legally married and those who are living together.

The new law also requires local governments to provide financial assistance to organizations that assist victims of domestic violence, and it provides for the national government to establish new facilities to help victims.

By April 2002, Bando expects each of Japan’s 47 prefectures (governmental entities roughly equivalent to U.S. counties) to have a government-funded counseling center up and running, with trained counselors available. The centers will serve as temporary shelters and counseling centers and provide resources to help women find jobs and places to live during court-ordered six-month reprieves from their husbands.

Kimi KawanaBefore the law passed this year, only about 20 private domestic violence shelters and about 50 multi-use government-funded women’s service centers existed in all of Japan. Most existing facilities are clustered in urban areas such as Tokyo, Osaka and Yokohama.

Six days after the new law went into effect, a man in his 60s from Osaka, Japan’s second-largest city, was accused of domestic violence and banned from his home for two weeks by a district court. His wife, a woman in her 40s who fled to a women’s shelter, also was given a six-month restraining order against the man. Among the abuse cited in court papers: He knocked out her teeth when he hit her in the face with a guitar in May.

"We expect to see more women trying to flee from their husbands if they can go to centers and get support," says Tomoe Matsuda, a counselor at the Feminist Therapy Center, a private shelter in north Tokyo for victims of domestic violence. The support, she says, is critical. Without it, women are financially dependent on their abusive partners.

A Tokyo woman also appealed for an order of protection against her husband in October, but she withdrew the complaint before the courts took action. Women’s rights activists said it is likely the woman acted in response to threats from her spouse or entreaties from the family to preserve its honor and keep family matters private.

"This is very typical," says Kimi Kawana, an editorial writer for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s largest daily newspaper. "The victim doesn’t have the knowledge that this is a crime."

Domestic Violence Existed in Shadows, Not Seen as National Concern

"For many years, domestic violence has existed in Japan, but in the shadows," she says. "What happened in the family was not supposed to be of national concern."

Last year, in a book called "Basic Ideas of Administrative Police Law," National Police Agency official Masahiro Tanaka wrote that police officers believe they should not treat domestic violence cases in the same way they would handle other violent incidents because family affairs have less influence on social order and public security.

One woman, a frequent victim of abuse, told Japan Times Online: "Once, a policeman went so far as to tell me that they cannot do anything until I die."

That attitude began to change, slowly, in the early 1990s as activists worked to raise public awareness of domestic violence in Japan.

A weak feminist movement has existed for decades in Japan and has worked to help victims of domestic violence in the face of deep cultural reluctance to address the issue. Some studies showed a widely held belief among the Japanese public that domestic violence was a problem in the United States and other Western countries, not in Japan. A few groups conducted studies showing domestic violence was a pervasive problem, but there was never widespread support for laws to prevent it or help the victims.

In 1995, Japanese activists attended the United Nations’ Fourth Annual International Conference on Women in Beijing. Eradication of violence against women was a major focus, and the activists returned home energized and determined to make a difference, Kawana says. They urged the Japanese government to take action.

Government Study Says ‘Not a Moment to Lose’ to Tackle Violence

In 1997, then-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto asked the national Council for Gender Equality to study the issue of domestic violence. It studied and deliberated for the next three years, and in the summer of 2000 it reported that there was "not a moment to lose" in dealing with the issue and that public involvement to that point had been insufficient. The report was an affirmation of action already underway in national politics.

The previous year, 1999, the Japanese government bowed to increasing public pressure on the issue of domestic violence and conducted a nationwide survey on the subject.

"We found nearly 5 percent of wives experienced critical violence at the hands of their husbands–5 percent! That is not a small number," says Bando of the Gender Equality Bureau.

The study also found that one in seven women had received medical treatment as a result of spousal beatings. Many women also reported verbal abuse along the lines of, "Thanks to me you can live, you can eat." There were also widespread reports of wives’ mail and telephone calls being monitored by their husbands.

The abuses were demographically uniform: The survey found no differences in the types or levels of abuse suffered by highly educated women versus poorly educated ones, among poor, rich and middle-class women.

Osaka Government Study Finds Two-Thirds of Women Reported Abuse

A survey by the local government in Osaka, found that two-thirds of women there reported abuse by their partners.

Another study by the national government showed that about one-third of the women murdered in Japan each year are killed by their husbands, a proportion similar to the rate in the United States. Last year in Japan, 1,096 murders and injuries related to domestic violence were reported in Japan–almost double the number reported the previous year, according to the National Police Agency.

Responding to increasing pressure from the public, the National Police Agency has ordered police in prefectures to crack down on domestic violence and other crimes against women. A few police departments have established special departments to deal with domestic violence complaints or formed networks of medical providers, counselors, lawyers and police personnel.

By the time women legislators moved to make a national law protecting the victims of domestic violence in 1999, no widespread opposition materialized. However, editorial writer Kawana says there was still concern that police would be interfering where they did not belong–in Japanese family matters.

The right of men to use violence against their wives is ingrained in Japanese culture and is considered a normal part of marriage among much of the older generations. Numerous studies show that attitude is changing, with younger Japanese more likely to view domestic violence as a problem than their parents and grandparents. In one survey, about half of men and women in their 20s said they believe domestic violence is a problem in Japan. But attitudes are changing slowly, too slowly in the opinions of the victims and their advocates.

"There are still so many Japanese men who think the husband is superior to the wife," Bando says. "So if the wife will not obey, he uses violence without any guilty feelings."

New Law Has Many Flaws, Critics Say, Places Burden of Proof on Women

Domestic violence is not yet a specific crime in Japan. Men can be charged and tried in criminal court for assault and murder, but not for spousal abuse. But charges against husbands are increasingly being pursued, sometimes successfully, under existing laws for murder and assault.

The new law that went into effect in October establishes, for the first time in Japan, that spousal battery is something to be dealt with in the criminal courts.

But critics blast the law for requiring too much from the victims and not doing enough for them. To obtain a restraining order, the burden of proof is on the victim, who must notify authorities and submit either a notarized affidavit or reports from doctors, women’s shelters or police backing up the claim of abuse. The law does contain a provision for the courts to issue emergency injunctions against abusive partners without a hearing when danger is imminent for the victim.

There is also no recourse for women seeking relief from marital rape. On numerous occasions, the courts have upheld a man’s right to force or coerce his wife into having sex.

Despite these problems, women’s rights advocates hail the new law as groundbreaking in a country where women are still largely treated as second-class citizens. What is needed now, they say, is an educated and informed public that will not tolerate battery of half of Japan’s population by the other half.

"Education or enlightenment is very important to let them understand that hitting or harming family members are crimes," says the Asahi Shimbun’s Kawana. "So far, if you hurt other people it is a crime, but if you hurt members of the family it is not a crime. This must change."

Melinda Rice is a free-lance writer based in Texas.

For more information:

Gender Equality Bureau, Japan:

HELP Asian Women’s Shelter:

Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence:

Unites Nations Women Watch: