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OSAKA — While Japanese society has finally started recognizing the rights of crime victims, people must now begin listening to their messages, according to Eri Atarashi, the author of a recent book on support for crime victims.

“Victims here suffer not only from actual damage caused by crime but also from a lack of support from their community and society in general,” she said in an interview. “Crime victims have long been ignored in Japan and few people understand their actual feelings and situations.”

Atarashi, a 27-year-old graduate student specializing in socio-criminology at Osaka City University, said the key to providing the right kind of support for people victimized by crime is to first understand their true state of mind. Japan, which some experts say is about 20 years behind other industrialized countries in its support for crime victims, enacted legislation in May to protect — for the first time — the rights of people affected by crime.

But that is just a “small step forward,” Atarashi said, and there remains great room for improvement.

For instance, while the new laws allow crime victims and their families to testify in court about their ordeals and to read and have access to trial records, the actual decision on whether such testimony is permitted in individual cases rests with the judge overseeing proceedings, she said. “The laws were created not to guarantee the rights of victims but out of sympathy for what they see as miserable victims,” she said.

Atarashi said she first became aware of the dire situation facing crime victims through friends who were sexually assaulted, which made her wonder about the situation in the United States.

So after hearing about the Crime Victims’ Center of Chester County, Penn., she wasted little time before knocking on the center’s door and asking if she could work as an intern. The center, set up in 1973 as a rape crisis council, is one of the most experienced victim support organizations in the U.S.

Some 20 full-time staffers and 30 volunteers — who are required to undergo intense training and pass qualification tests — handle more than 4,000 cases annually at the facility, which also holds seminars and organizes a range of events to raise funds and increase public awareness.

Atarashi’s experience at the center, between July 1997 and September 1998, as well as her descriptions of the support victims receive in the U.S. and Japan, materialized into her book, “Hanzai Higaisha Shien” (“Crime Victims Support”), published by Komichi Shobo.

The most impressive thing about the center is that it has developed its functions and policies by listening to the needs of victims, Atarashi said.

For instance, the center maintains a 24-hour hotline and ensures quick intervention — returning a call to a victim within 15 minutes and physically reaching that person within 40 minutes of receiving a call — free of charge.

The center also assigns a single staffer to deal with each case from start to finish so the victim does not have to repeat his or her story to different people.

Although it works closely with local police, prosecutors and hospitals, the center maintains its position of being 100 percent on the victims’ side, guaranteeing the confidentiality of all information concerning them. For example, even if a staffer found that an underage victim had been drinking, they would not inform police.

“In Japan, families and friends support crime victims,” Atarashi said. “(Through my experience with the center, however,) I’ve come to understand the importance of an independent third body with expertise that plays a role in supporting victims.”

Japan’s centers for crime victims — run by nonprofit organizations — were organized into a nationwide network in May 1998. Most of their activities, however, are limited to telephone and face-to-face counseling — not one center has a crisis intervention system, which is seen as key to victims making a rapid recovery — both physically and mentally.

Many victims have called on the government to provide greater financial assistance to people who have been the targets of crime, including medical care and unemployment benefits.

Although Japan has a system under which the government provides compensation for victims, the number deemed eligible is limited and the amount provided is small — 2 million yen on average for an individual who loses a guardian to a criminal act.

While acknowledging the need for a center like the one in Pennsylvania, Atarashi said Japan must start by better understanding crime victims.

After returning to Japan, she described her experiences to numerous organizations and was surprised to hear many people emphasizing the importance of understanding the offenders, particularly the social factors that lead them to commit crimes.

“I am not denying that efforts should be made to try to understand the offenders, but victims have no obligation to understand people who commit offenses against them,” she said.

Pointing out that victims are often unable to forgive a criminal, she said the additional idea of having to understand the offenders and their background increases that strain.

People — including criminals — may believe anger and hatred are the only emotions victims and their families have for people who commit crimes against them, but that is not always the case, Atarashi said.

Many victims are also afraid of being subjected to renewed assaults when the offenders are released from prison, she said.

“They want to be informed of their offenders’ release on parole,” she said. “They count the days and some even move away before the person who committed a crime against them is released.”

Victims of crime in Japan, for their part, are finally beginning to make their voices heard. A nationwide group was established in January, with their number rising from an initial 80 to 120 as of last month.

Welcoming the move, Atarashi said, “If we can create a society where victims of crimes feel safe to speak out, it would accelerate public understanding of crime victims . . . and help prevent them from being isolated within the community.”

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