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Learning to stand up to domestic violence in Japan

A number of organizations are offering programs for perpetrators of abuse, with the aim of nurturing understanding of the exact definition of domestic violence and the impact it has not just on partners but on children as well

by

Special To The Japan Times

Satoru Tanaka tentatively pulls from his briefcase a well-thumbed sheet of plain paper, onto which has been sketched three smiling faces along with a simple but astute message: “Daddy’s promise,” it begins. “Always smile, and if you feel the urge to fight, take a deep breath.”

As he reads the message, written not by a life counselor but his 10-year-old daughter, Tanaka (not his real name) lets out a faint sigh as he recalls one of the times he abused his wife.

“I hit her three times and abused her incessantly, badgering her and manipulating the conversation in a one-sided way to get my point of view across,” says Tanaka, 50, his hands clenched tightly together in his lap. “The next day when I saw her, she was clearly sick with fear.”

Tanaka’s soft-spoken, gentle demeanor belies what is an almost Jekyll and Hyde persona that afflicts tens of thousands of men who habitually abuse their wives and partners.

According to a Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office survey, 1 in 4 Japanese women were subjected to abuse at the hands of their partners in 2015, the most recent data available.

While this represents an improvement over the 1 in 3 reported two years earlier — the validity of which some experts question — national police figures reveal that the number of consultations regarding acts of domestic violence that same year reached 63,141, an eighteenfold increase since 2001, when Japan ratified its first anti-domestic violence law some three decades after similar legislation came into force in the United States and Britain.

Meanwhile, the number of calls made by abused women to official domestic violence support help lines in 2015 reached 109,629, more than triple the number of 13 years earlier — 35,797 — when such data was first released.

What’s more, of the 6,542 cases of murder, rape and assault between couples in 2015, 93 percent of the victims were women, police data shows.

Until the enactment of Japan’s 2001 Act on the Prevention of Spousal Violence and the Protection of Victims, the “domestic” in DV — the acronym commonly used in Japan to refer to abuse in a relationship — often took precedence over the “violence,” meaning police intervention was unlikely until it was far too late. In the five years leading up to the enactment of the anti-domestic violence law, between 100 and 120 women were murdered by their spouses annually.

Even since the enactment of the law, which was originally proposed not by the government but a group of nonpartisan female lawmakers, the notion that what happens in the home should stay in the home has prevailed, although three revisions in 2004, 2007 and 2013 have sought to address sometimes gaping holes, such as what exactly constitutes domestic violence.

As of 2004, nonphysical violence — including verbal abuse and economic privations — is now officially recognized, while former spouses, offspring and even foreign residents also fall under the jurisdiction of the legislation.

However, the law only applies to “spouses,” meaning unmarried women subjected to abuse in the form of “date rape,” for example, are still only protected by the 1957 Anti-Prostitution Act, which, until 2001, was the only legislation protecting abused women, according to Futoshi Taga, a professor specializing in gender issues at Kansai University’s Department of Education and Culture.

Another shortcoming of the original 2001 Spousal Violence Act was that while help lines and other support systems for victims gradually became a part of the response system, there was a complete lack of any programs to educate perpetrators and prevent re-offending.

Tadashi Nakamura, a sociology professor at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, pointed out at the time of the law’s enactment that unlike the United States, where convicted offenders are ordered by the courts to undertake corrective guidance, no such provisions existed in Japan, meaning convicted perpetrators could seek revenge upon release.

Recognizing the need to fill this gap, several privately run organizations — including one started by Nakamura — began offering programs for offenders, with the aim of nurturing understanding of the exact meaning of domestic violence and the impact it has not just on wives and partners but on children as well.

“(Domestic violence) is a social problem that occurs amid a backdrop of a male-dominated society that discriminates against women,” says Noriko Yamaguchi, founder of one of those organizations, AWARE, and a campaigner for gender equality for more than 40 years. “In Japan, there is still a lack of social awareness that domestic violence is a criminal offense, and while domestic violence by men toward women is often thought of as being a women’s issue, I would argue that it is first and foremost a men’s issue.”

At a session in AWARE’s cramped counseling room in central Tokyo, it’s not difficult to grasp why that concept might take some time to catch on.

Ten men sit in a circle on plastic chairs with small Formica folding tables, which are littered with role-play and other educational materials. They exchange stories of the past week, offer advice, criticize and laugh. There’s a variety of ages, although most are in their 30s and 40s, and while a few are blue-collar workers, others hold positions of considerable responsibility — doctors, lawyers, civil servants, even a police detective has been known to join their ranks.

Their voices never rise above a decibel level that would be considered inappropriate — in fact, they come across as being quiet, unassuming, well-mannered individuals, whose varying backgrounds are bridged by a chilling commonality: they are serial wife abusers.

Among those who have attended the meetings, one has sexually assaulted his partner, while another has beaten his with a baseball bat. Indeed, many have physically assaulted their partners, while mental abuse, intimidation and humiliation are almost the norm.

Among some there is also an inability to grasp the wrongness of their doings, or indeed the perspective of their partners. During the three two-hour sessions observed by this writer, the comment “I thought that was just a normal part of relationships” is repeated on several occasions.

It becomes evident that nobody has ever questioned — nor has anybody near them ever really challenged — their “king of the castle” delusion. Until now.

“The average time (for them to reach an adequate level of acceptance) is 33 months,” says Masao Yoshizaki, managing director and a facilitator at AWARE. “(The length of time) usually correlates to the degree of concern felt by the partners, many of whom want them to keep attending these sessions as long as they [the wives] feel they are under threat of possible abuse.”

That period varies greatly among the abusers at AWARE. According to Yamaguchi, the shortest is around six months, the longest eight years. In all cases, the objective of the numerous role-playing exercises and self-reflection discussions is not just to put an halt to familiar expressions such as “I felt like punching her,” but to get them to think about and eventually understand their partner’s feelings, which can take time, she says.

“There are some organizations that will give attendees the green light after a matter of weeks,” says Yamaguchi, who is widely credited with introducing the term “date DV” to Japan. Such places even award a kind of graduation certificate, she adds — a gesture that would seem to send out the wrong kind of pat-on-the-back message.

The possibility of regaining trust and rescuing a marriage are the only prizes on offer at AWARE, which over its 14 years has seen more than 700 abusers pass through its program, which is based on an awareness-raising system Yamaguchi studied in the United States.

One of them is Toshiaki Shimizu (also a pseudonym), who is now in his seventh year of AWARE’s weekly program but still cannot convince his wife, Kanae, that he is not the same person who, shortly after they were married, dragged her from his car and beat her in front of a passenger friend for asking him to drive a little slower.

It was the start of a litany of transgressions, often accompanied by punching and kicking, largely resulting from nothing more than a feeling that his manly dignity was being undermined.

“At times it felt like at any moment I might step on a landmine,” says Kanae, who, despite the abuse, wanted to find a way to salvage their marriage. It was for this reason and her husband’s tendency to not face up to his wrong-doings that she sent him to AWARE.

“I’m embarrassed to say, but it became such a regular part of daily life, I don’t remember the details (of the abuses),” says Shimizu, who is in his early 40s. “It’s only when she points out things (I have done) in the past that I remember. I think it’s because I know those things are out of line, so I shut them away.”

According to AWARE’s Yamaguchi and Yoshizaki, around two-thirds of perpetrators at AWARE say they grew up witnessing domestic violence. Meanwhile, approximately 80 percent of program attendees were hit by their fathers and even their mothers, a background that leads some of them to believe that their own abusive tendencies are not only normal and acceptable, but something to brag about.

“Quite a few use that terrible childhood experience as an excuse for their own abusive acts, which they say are the only way they know to express their love,” Yoshizaki says. “We tell them that there are plenty of people who go through similar childhood experiences but cherish their partners.”

In such cases it is important to make the men realize that past experiences have instilled in them an attitude that abuse is acceptable behavior, but to use that as an excuse is not, adds Yamaguchi, who has written numerous books on abuse, including 2016’s “Ai wo Iiwake ni Suru Hito-tachi” (“Men Who Justify Their Abuse as Acts of Love”). This is particularly important when considering that around half of AWARE’s offenders also physically abuse their own children, both directly and indirectly, she adds.

“Recently ‘menzen DV’ (domestic violence against a spouse that is carried out in the presence of a child) has been recognized as child abuse, but so, too, is the atmosphere created in a home by acts of domestic violence. It’s really difficult (to get male perpetrators) to understand that.”

Yet, she believes that many Japanese men also suffer from a delayed, almost Oedipus complex-like subconscious phenomenon whereby abuse is meted out to wives who in some way fall short of the idealized roles that were played by their mothers when they were children.

Both Shimizu and Tanaka acknowledge that they experienced varying degrees of domestic violence as children.

“My father physically abused my mother, I saw it with my own eyes,” says Shimizu, adding that his parents eventually divorced and his last memory of his father was when he was about 8 or 9 and his father left home in a suit on his way to serving one of numerous prison terms. “I remember thinking for a long time, ‘I don’t want to wind up like that.’ In the end though, I ended up being exactly the same.”

Like many, however, for years he was unaware that much of his abuse — the nonphysical abuse in particular — was in fact a kind of domestic violence. It’s a point that Kansai University’s Taga believes has left Japan lagging woefully behind other developed countries.

“I think even now there are many Japanese men who think DV is not a Japan problem, it’s something that happens overseas,” says Taga, who is a founding member of the Japan chapter of the global anti-domestic violence movement White Ribbon Campaign. “I think there are still many Japanese men who instigate sexual or nonphysical violence without realizing that it is DV. Many men I have met say, ‘I don’t know of any domestic violence among my circle of friends.’ That’s not denial, it’s a simple lack of acknowledgement.”

Increasing that level of awareness is crucial, he says, and Tanaka, for one, agrees. When he first attended AWARE sessions four years ago, he was asked to circle from a long list the kinds of abuse of which he felt he was guilty. He circled three. His wife was asked to do the same. She circled 20.

Little by little he has slowly come to recognize the calculating, divisive nature of his abusive tendencies. After years of living apart, his wife has allowed him back into their home and he is now training to become an AWARE facilitator himself.

His daughter’s advice to take a deep breath is never far from his mind.

“If I hadn’t gone to AWARE, I would probably have no one,” he says, adding that the stress and turmoil he had brought to his household directly led to his daughter needing psychological help. “Before, I used to weigh up the importance of a relationship according to whether or not it benefited me. My child’s very existence has been a big part in changing that mind-set.”