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Japan needs to enact a law to recognize domestic violence as a crime and keep abusive husbands away from victimized women, according to the head of HELP Asian Women’s Shelter, a private organization that provides emergency refuge for abused women.

“In Japan, people tend to think domestic violence is a private matter of a married couple and do not treat it as a social problem,” HELP Director Keiko Otsu said in an interview. “We need to change our perspective so that we regard such abuse as a crime, but to do that, we need a law to raise social awareness of the issue.”

With Lower House election campaigning now under way, Otsu said she hopes lawmakers will present a domestic violence prevention bill in the next ordinary Diet session starting in January, taking into account that a group of female lawmakers in the Upper House is already working on drafting the bill.

With the passage of an antichild abuse law and legislation to prevent stalking last month, Otsu said the time is ripe for a new law against domestic violence.

She said the law should be something similar to the restraining and protection orders exercised in the United States. Under such orders, a local court, upon the request of a victim, can order an abuser not to come within a certain distance of the victim, with violations of such orders warranting arrest.

“If there were a law to curb domestic violence, it would make it much easier for abused women to come forward to call for help,” Otsu said. “It would also make it easier for police to treat domestic violence as a crime, whereas they often do not make it a case now.”

Established in 1986, HELP provides shelter for Japanese and foreign women, mainly from the Philippines, Thailand and other parts of Asia. During an average two-week stay at the shelter, the organization provides counseling and legal advice in Japanese, English, Tagalog and Thai.

Otsu said that in the 1980s and early ’90s, many of the Thai and Philippine women who came to the shelter had escaped from sex industries they had been forced into by their trafficking brokers. But today, about half the foreign women come to the shelter to escape their abusive Japanese husbands.

The situation is more serious for foreign women than Japanese women because some of them do not have a spouse visa, Otsu said. “Legally, these women are staying in Japan without a proper visa, so they cannot receive welfare or health insurance services,” she said.

It is especially difficult for those living outside big cities. Even when a foreign woman has a spouse visa, Otsu said, many local welfare service centers outside of Tokyo turn them down for assistance, citing a language barrier or other reasons, or simply because they do not take domestic violence seriously.

Along with the establishment of a new law, Otsu said the government should improve public welfare services, including better training of welfare personnel, and provide good translation services. It should also offer financial support for private organizations, she said.

Some 20 private-run shelters are operating across Japan, but no national government subsidies are offered to these institutions, according to Otsu. Although HELP receives funds from church donations and subsidies from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, most other groups are short of money and are mainly staffed by volunteers.

With governmental support, private organizations could provide services such as transitional housing in which victimized women can stay until they find their own apartment and job, Otsu said.

More fundamentally, the government should accept migrant foreign workers even for unskilled jobs and let non-Japanese women and men who have already established their lives here work legally in this country, she said. Currently, working visas are restricted to workers with special skills.

“If you have a proper visa, you can get a job and apply for health and welfare services,” Otsu said. “It makes a whole lot of difference, especially for foreign women who escaped from their Japanese husbands and want to re-establish their lives in Japan.”