TOKYO (WOMENSENEWS)–For seven years, Akiko Yanagishita, 35, endured her husband’s sexual violence, verbal taunting and other abuse that included spitting on her to make her feel worthless and ugly.
“He kept asking me about sex with my previous boyfriend and screaming he was going to get even with him. There were days when I couldn’t walk because I was bleeding so badly after forced sex,” she said.
Yanagishita left home with her two children one winter November morning two years ago, fearing for her life. “My husband expected me to be his slave and I thought I had to comply because that’s what is expected from women. After therapy I realized how stupid I had been,” she said.
Yanagishita discovered the counseling services offered by JUST, Japanese Union for Survivors of Trauma, a nongovernmental organization offering support for women who have been raped or sexually abused. The group, which began operating in 1997, this year became the first organization in Japan to offer an advocacy service for victims of sexual violence. The Tokyo-based group offers a telephone hotline, group and individual counseling and works with public-welfare officials to take abused women to doctors, hospitals and lawyers.
Helping to Break History of Silence, Repression
“When a Japanese woman is raped or sexually abused, most often she has no one to help her. The role of the advocate is especially important against this social backdrop,” said Yanagishita, now a counselor for JUST.
Among the annual 140 phone calls fielded by JUST are shocking revelations of women breaking almost 30 years of silence to talk about rape or other sexual violence.
“A woman in her 50s wept as she recalled been raped by her father when she was a teen-ager,” said Yanagishita. “By talking to me, she said she found some release for the first time in her life.”
Working on the basis of strict anonymity for their clients, JUST counselors say several middle-aged callers have talked of recurring nightmares, long depression and of not seeking help for fear of being exposed.
Figures compiled by the National Police Agency indicate that 2,238 cases of rape, or 10 percent of all serious crimes, were reported in Japan in 2001. If numbers for indecent assault are included–such as attempted rape, groping or harassment–the cases of sexual abuse rise to 43 percent of the total.
Yuko Yamaguchi, director of the Ishikawa Fusae Kinenkaikan, Japan’s oldest feminist organization, founded in 1962, said the reluctance to act against sexual violence in Japan can be tied to the society’s “traditional male domination and the pressure to understate individual emotions for the sake of group harmony.”
Seeking Changes in Lopsided Laws
Yamaguchi said these social values explain why victims rarely speak out against perpetrators or seek redress through Japanese laws that remain lopsided against women.
Lawyer Hiroko Sumita, a former prosecutor who has represented sexual-abuse victims in Tokyo’s courts, said Japanese laws are lenient on rapists. The typical rape sentence, she said, starts at three years, but seldom goes more than five, which is the average sentence for theft.
After intense lobbying by feminists, Japan passed the Law for Prevention of Spousal Violence and Protection of Victims in October 2001. Under the law, hitting a woman can lead to jail terms of up to a year or a $10,000 fine. Advocates say the law was the first recognition of domestic violence as a crime, instead of a private domestic matter. The law also recognizes sexual abuse as an aspect of domestic violence, but stops short of calling it spousal rape, a disappointment for activists.
Still Sumita, also a committee member for the Council for Gender Equality at the Prime Minister’s Office, said there have been some startling signs of encouragement in recent years. For example, the National Police Agency established a special rape unit in 2000 that employs female policewomen to help victims.
Another landmark was the December 1999 case of a 21-year-old woman pressing and winning a lawsuit against a heavyweight Osaka governor, Knock Yokoyama, for sexually molesting her in a van during an election campaign. The case was a major victory for women’s organizations not only because of the bold decision of the young woman to bring suit, but also for an unprecedented court order to permit the plaintiff to sit behind a screen during her testimony, respecting her wish for anonymity. Yokoyama at first denied the sexual-assault charge, but was ordered by the court to pay $110,000 to the victim.
“We almost cried with joy,” said Yamaguchi, referring to the decision and the new court procedure that protected the anonymity of the accuser. “By allowing her to testify behind a screen, Japan acknowledged the psychological pain of women when they are raped.”
A spate of sexual harassment legal complaints followed. Most recent was the February arrest of a politician after a hostess at a nightclub reported him to the police for raping and injuring her. According to police reports, the arrested man admitted to having sex but denied rape, claiming it was consensual. Activists cite the case as typical of male perceptions that female nightclub hostesses are expected to provide sex to men.
The gains, however, have exposed a new problem for advocates. “There is a backlash from older men, especially powerful male politicians who are now saying the issue of sexual rights endangers marital harmony and causes social breakdown. But we are determined to fight on,” said lawyer Sumita.
Suvendrini Kakuchi is a Sri Lankan journalist who has covered Japanese issues for more than 15 years.
For more information:
JUST: Japanese Union for Survivors of Trauma
International Labour Organization–
Council for Gender Equality — Japan: