Revised domestic violence law falls short

State, public still seem ignorant of severity, can't even call it a crime


Sachiko Nakajima was 20 years old when she began what should have been an ordinary college romance.

But it was anything but ordinary. The first time Nakajima’s boyfriend attacked her they had not even been together a month. Afterward, he cried, saying didn’t mean to do it, she recalled.

“He dragged me by the hair and repeatedly pounded my head against a concrete wall. He stopped only when I pretended to lose consciousness.” said Nakajima, describing just one of the many times he hurt her. “The beating and kicking took place so often that I lost count.”

The abuses Nakajima suffered should have been subject to a strict assault law, but such legislation is lacking.

A revised domestic violence law enacted in May took effect Thursday, but it is narrowly defined and pertains only to married and divorced couples, not unmarried couples living together, let alone dating pairs living separately. The definition of domestic violence was expanded, however, to include psychological abuse.

There are also new measures to prevent further abuse and to provide support services for the victims.

But the law, enacted in 2001, leaves out dating violence, which in many cases progresses into domestic violence if marriage occurs.

“The law may have been revised, but so many people like dating singles, gay couples and the elderly are excluded,” said Nakajima, who founded Resilience, a victim support group for domestic violence.

She explained that a law to protect married people is not enough, and that the definition of domestic violence should be broadened.

“The law needs to take effect (at the point when people start dating) in order to actually prevent domestic violence, because violence does not (always) begin with marriage,” she said.

Nakajima spent nearly five years with her violent boyfriend, in which physical abuse was only part of her ordeal.

He sexually abused her, forced her to get a student loan, which he spent, and threatened to kill himself or harm her family if she broke up with him.

Nakajima went through every type of violence imaginable — physical, mental, financial and sexual — and said her fear was so deep that she did not even consider leaving him until the day he told her that he had killed three kittens.

“I thought that if he could kill such small precious lives, he could kill our children” if we ever had a family, Nakajima said.

“I could not save myself, but I knew I had to leave for my future child.”

Even now, nearly 20 years later, Nakajima still has nightmares about him every few months.

“It’s often said that the scars of physical violence do not last forever, and I found that to be true,” she said. “It’s the scars on your heart that are difficult to heal.”

Nakajima stressed the importance of having a law cover psychological violence as well as physical violence, because not all abuse is visible.

The revised domestic violence law says the state must draw up a basic policy for helping victims recover and orders each prefecture to come up with its own plan.

Hiroko Goto, a professor of gender issues at Chiba University, said that while the revisions are a step forward, specific plans have yet to materialize.

“The law started out as a means of crisis intervention,” Goto said. “It was designed to help (authorities) decide whether to step in when a person was being abused. But what then became necessary was a way to support victims after such violence had occurred.

“I think such support should be treated as one component of (overall) support for crime victims. Awareness that domestic violence (should constitute) a crime is still very low in Japan, especially by the media.

“If a child died after being neglected at home, the media would call it child abuse. But if a woman kills an abusive husband in self-defense, his behavior toward her would never be termed domestic violence.”

To better protect the victim, the revised law extends the maximum period a court can impose a restraining order on the abuser to two months from two weeks.

It also states that courts can now order a perpetrator to stay away from the victims’ children, even if the kids were not also targeted with abuse.

However, Goto pointed out that since the clause does not explicitly strip offenders of their parental right to see their children, there is a contradiction in the law. She believes the child clause is not aimed at protecting the children; it is to stop the abuser from using them to get at the victim.

“There are limits to the law, because the law reflects public awareness,” Goto said. “I am afraid the public has yet to fully understand what domestic violence is all about.”

And this goes for offenders as well, according to Noriko Yamaguchi, founder of Aware, a Tokyo rehabilitation facility for abusive husbands established in 2002.

Yamaguchi has spoken with dozens of abusive husbands. “The offenders don’t realize they are being abusive,” she said. “Some say their wives ‘made’ them turn violent; others convince themselves that it was just a marital quarrel.”

According to Yamaguchi, abusers finally open their eyes when their spouses threaten divorce or move out of the house.

At Aware, abusive husbands are supposed to spend a year with Yamaguchi in weekly, two-hour group sessions.

Most men initially find it difficult to understand their problems, but they begin to realize the gravity of what they have done as they listen to the others, she said.

“But unfortunately, not many stick (with the program) for a year,” Yamaguchi said. “Some must travel from distant prefectures like Iwate, Nagano or Shizuoka, which is difficult. Others just give up.”

Yamaguchi said there is nothing she can do about it.

While an abusive husband can be arrested for assault, including that of causing injury resulting in death, Japan’s legal system does not outline specific penalties for perpetrators of domestic violence.

“The current (domestic violence) law is only for the victims,” Yamaguchi said. “But if they are to be really safe, a program for offenders should be included. These men need to be legally bound to mend their ways and learn to take responsibility for their actions.”