Stalking victims now legally recognized

by Mayumi Saito

A long-awaited law to combat stalking, which for the first time recognizes it as a crime and punishes offenders, takes effect today.

According to the National Police Agency, 346 stalking suspects have been identified in the first six months of this year. The number of cases in which people sought help totaled 11,543 during the period, a hefty rise from the 8,021 for all of last year, NPA figures show.

Observers said victims probably believe it is easier to report stalkers now that the phenomenon and the term have gained widespread currency in Japan. Others believe the number of stalkers is also increasing.

The new law defines stalking as repetitious acts, based on grudges, that fall into eight categories, including ambushing, intruding into a residence, demanding dates and making obscene or silent phone calls.

Under the law, victims can accuse the stalker directly and file a criminal complaint. If arrested and charged, convicted stalkers face a six-month prison term or a maximum 500,000 yen fine.

In addition, police who have been approached by victims, who decline to initially file a criminal complaint, can now warn the offender. Furthermore, if the stalker does not desist, the local security commission can issue a restraining order. Continued stalking in violation of the order will be punishable by a maximum one-year prison term or a 1 million yen fine.

Public fury and scrutiny of police handling of stalking cases erupted last year when police failed to heed a 21-year-old student’s complaint that she was being harassed and slandered by a former boyfriend, the owner of a so-called sex-shop. She was later stabbed to death in the city of Okegawa, Saitama Prefecture. “The law will make intervening easier for police,” NPA spokesman Masahiro Shishikura said. Until now, law enforcement authorities could not take action against a stalker until it became a clear-cut, criminal case.

Victims are encouraged to keep evidence, such as letters and faxes, and to record incidents for objective judgment. Police can also strengthen neighborhood patrols if detailed information is given, according to Shishikura. The NPA maintains a telephone hotline at 9110 for stalking and other cases.

“Stalking victims are now legally recognized as victims,” said Humanity Corp.’s Akiko Kobayakawa, who has been offering a member counseling service to stalking victims since March. Once a victim herself, Kobayakawa manages the company with Shinichi Fujita, a former detective and president of the Justice security service, and attorney Tatsuo Ishihara. They now have over 70 member clients.

Their services consist of counseling, on-the-street legwork and protecting the victim as well as followup care, including in the legal arena. Kobayakawa said the role of a private service like hers is to attack stalking at its roots, which administrators cannot cover.

Distressed victims’ faces light up during the counseling, as they find someone to talk to, according to staffer Hiromi Miyashita. About 30 percent of their clients are men, according to the firm.

Eighty percent of her monitored cases occur between acquaintances — former couples or lovers. Thus, Kobayakawa offers counseling to both victims and offenders. Eighty percent of offenders show up upon request, she said. Because they have their say, counselors hold a direct talk and build trust with them.

“We cannot (always) persuade them, but we try to appeal to their rationality and make them understand their behavior is a crime,” she said.

Kobayakawa, who has had therapist training, sometimes counsels members of the offender’s family as well. She explains that some stalkers stop when the family gets involved, but other cases drag on endlessly.

“People with underdeveloped personalities, who feel the need to cling to someone, are increasing. This is really a psychiatric field. Many cases just cannot be solved with my counseling alone,” Kobayakawa said.

She defined stalking as moral harassment. “The new law cannot prevent it,” she conceded, but said it is a step forward. “What was once considered to be a domestic problem is now understood as a crime.”