Staff writer

Several support groups have been set up in Japan for victims of violent crime, and the question they now face is what kind of support they can and should provide, an expert says.

Canadian trauma counselor Maggie Ziegler, who visited Japan recently, said the question “How can I help you?” is the most important one from the victim’s perspective. In 1992, Ziegler and a friend read a newspaper article about a women’s group in Croatia and wrote to the group asking how they could help. “They wrote back and said ‘We have received hundreds of letters of support, but none of them say how can I help,'” she said, adding that the group said many others simply offered the assistance they thought the group would need. She visited Croatia twice and trained the group how to help other women.

Ziegler, a clinical counselor at the Justice Institute of British Columbia since 1989, also said in a symposium held at Tokyo Women’s Plaza late last month that it is important for those who support victims of violence to listen to their stories without minimizing their experiences or stereotyping them.

Takako Konishi, a psychiatrist at Tokyo Medical and Dental University who has organized a support center there for crime victims, said counseling skills alone are not enough to help victims. “Victims of violence are forced to be subject to torture for no reason. In my counseling experiences, I’ve got to understand that what is important to help them is to give them the support they need,” she said. “Depending on the victims, we provide legal and medical information, listen to their stories and help them rebuild their confidence.”

About 120 people participated in the symposium to discuss support from a victim’s standpoint. The meeting was sponsored by the Asian Women’s Fund, an organization set up in 1995 to support former “comfort women” — women forced to provide sex to Japanese troops during the war.

In Canada, which has a legal system to support victims and punish abusers, about 33 percent of women and 16 percent of men were sexually abused as children, and about 25 percent of Canadian women have experienced violence, according to Ziegler. A 1998 survey conducted by Konishi’s center shows that 8.3 percent of about 430 women polled in Tokyo said they have been sexually abused, and 1 percent said they suffered such abuse as children. “Unfortunately, Japan has not conducted nationwide research on victims of violence. Most victims have remained invisible in Japan,” Konishi said.

The support center, which opened in 1993, dealt with about 1,000 cases in 1998, including 300 new cases, up about 50 percent from the previous year. “The increase can partly be attributed to the increased number of people who have come to know about our support activities,” she said. “The number of victims in the survey shows just the tip of the iceberg.”

A Japanese consul in Vancouver made headlines after being arrested by police there in mid-February on suspicion of assaulting his wife. He reportedly told police that wife beating was not a big deal in Japanese culture.

Ziegler said victims’ responses to violence are mostly universal, but cultural differences are often cited to excuse violent acts. “If society sees a particular kind of trauma as worth paying attention to, it’s certainly easier for the victims of that experience to heal,” she said.

Konishi said Japanese victims who seek counseling may be more outgoing than many others who remain silent about their experiences. “Ideally, related institutions such as police, doctors, counselors and self-help groups should form a support center at one place so that a situation in which victims have to go from place to place to get help can be avoided,” she said. “But we are far behind our Western counterparts. What we can do, at least for now, is to gain sufficient knowledge.”

No system has been established in Japan to support women and children who are victims of violence, and Ziegler said that in order to build a system that discourages such violence, people need to create an environment in which victims are encouraged to speak out about their experiences. “It will take a long time for all people to understand the importance of the system. Speaking up is the first step to realize it,” she said.

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