The girl remained silent for four years before telling her mother that she had been sexually abused by her stepfather since she was 10 years old.

But her mother refused to believe what she claimed.

The girl then sought help at a child consultation office through her junior high school teacher. In a few days, the stepfather admitted to committing the abuse when confronted by staff.

The consultation office pushed the mother to file rape charges with police against her husband. But she did not want to see the family break up and the office could not bring the case to court on behalf of the victim due to legal constraints.

The couple are now separated. The girl is living with her mother and being treated by a psychotherapist.

This case is typical, according to a recent survey on sexual abuse conducted by the Kanagawa Prefectural Central Children’s Guidance Office, which refers to the hidden problem as “silent abuse,” because its vulnerable and young victims are so hesitant to come forward.

Among the 36 sexual abuse cases filed with the office during a three-year period through March 2003, 23 were committed by the victims’ fathers, though only two of the perpetrators were found guilty in court.

The study, which was carried out throughout Kanagawa Prefecture, except in the major cities of Yokohama and Kawasaki, is the first of its kind conducted by an administrative body.

“We are required to recognize the situation more carefully than we did before,” said Toshihiko Tsuchihashi, head of the office. “Sexual abuse can be the most physically and mentally damaging form of abuse.”

He noted that it can have lasting effects on the victims. “After growing up, victims have flashbacks of their ordeals in simple incidents such as being touched by a boyfriend. Once they are reminded, in most cases, they are no longer able to stop thinking about it and gradually suffer from mental instability.”

All of the victims in the survey were girls aged between 3 and 17. The highest numbers of cases involved the ages of 12 and 15, at six each, followed by age 8 with four cases.

Most had been abused by their fathers, including 13 abused by their biological fathers, nine by adoptive fathers and one by a stepfather.

The remaining 13 cases involved three common-law husbands of the mother, three older brothers, three grandfathers and one older brother-in-law.

The abusers’ ages were between 30 and 39 in 11 cases, with 40 and 49 in eight cases.

In 28 of the cases, the abuse involved touching and fondling. It escalated to sexual intercourse in seven cases.

Many of the victims came from violent or unstable homes. In nine of the cases, the mothers were reported to be victims of domestic violence, and in 11 cases the parents did not get along.

Mothers were found to be extremely economically or mentally dependent in nine cases.

Tsuchihashi noted that sexual abuse victims tend to hesitate to reveal their plight. But when they do, their mothers or others they look to for help often ignore them or do not believe them.

Mothers took action in 14 cases immediately after they found out about the abuse. But in seven cases, they reacted at first and then chose to ignore the problem, and in eight cases they completely ignored their daughter’s claims or punished the victims for “lying.”

The office’s study stresses the need to raise awareness about the problem, especially among child-care authorities and people who have close contact with children, and calls for setting up a legal framework so criminal charges can be filed on behalf of victims.

In Japan, problems inside the home have been traditionally regarded as a family matter and therefore police, neighbors and school authorities are reluctant to get involved if parents deny wrongdoing has occurred.

Under the current Child Abuse Prevention Law, authorities — including police and child welfare officers — cannot enter a home were abuse is suspected to be occurring without parental permission.

But the law has recently been revised to give authorities more power to pursue abusers. The revised law, which takes effect in October, will require citizens to report suspected abuse to authorities, even if they have no direct evidence but see signs such as bruises or abnormal behavior.

Victims face another major hurdle under the current law in that only they or their parents can file charges. In most cases, the victims refuse to take this route for a variety of reasons, including the fear of seeing a parent arrested, bringing shame to the family or having to testify in court.

“That’s natural. But we must deal with this problem,” Tsuchihashi said. The report meanwhile notes the “limited” options that child-care authorities have at their disposal to pursue charges against abusers.

The report also calls on authorities to train teachers to identify victims quickly, and urges child consultation offices to improve their interview skills, and parents — especially mothers — to pay more attention to children’s pleas for help.