A 32-year-old Chiba woman was sentenced to a 2½-year jail term Wednesday, suspended for 5 years with probation, for assisting her husband in assaulting their daughter and thus contributing to the child’s death earlier this year.
The horrific death of 10-year-old Mia Kurihara, whose bruised body was found in the bathroom of her family’s home in the city of Noda, Chiba Prefecture, in late January, has drawn huge media attention in and outside Japan.
The case has highlighted loopholes in the country’s child abuse prevention system, with Mia’s pleas to her mother Nagisa and her elementary school for help regarding her abusive father having gone unheard.
Mia’s father, 41-year-old Yuichiro, has been under arrest for allegedly assaulting Mia including on the day she died, but an autopsy has failed to determine the cause of her death. He is awaiting trial.
But the police established that Nagisa was at home when her husband assaulted Mia and suspected that, by her husband’s orders, she also inflicted bodily injury on the child herself.
Prosecutors had sought a two-year jail term for Nagisa but the woman’s lawyers asked for a reduced sentence, saying that Nagisa herself was also a victim of her husband’s domestic violence.
The Chiba District Court found Nagisa guilty of contributing to the child’s ordeal and raising the level of Mia’s stress, given the gravity of Yuichiro’s crime, calling the series of assaults on Mia “egregious.”
In explaining the ruling to the defendant, presiding Judge Kenji Koike said: “You were the only one (Mia) could rely on (in her ordeal). I want you to reflect on yourself and what you did (to Mia) while readjusting to society.”
Based on evidence and Nagisa’s testimony, the court said the woman knew about incidents in which her husband would wake Mia up in the middle of the night and make her stand or march in place for long periods, or douse her with cold water. Nagisa also admitted there were days when she gave no food to her daughter at her husband’s insistence.
Koike said Nagisa failed to stop her husband or even seek consultation on what was happening, which was “what should have crossed the defendant’s mind while watching Mia being harmed physically and mentally in front of her eyes.”
However, the Chiba court acknowledged as mitigating factors the woman’s exposure to abuse and Yuichiro’s intimidation of and control over the woman, as well as her poor mental health.
A number of legal experts in abuse cases agree with the decision to partially free the mother from responsibility for the child’s death, pointing out that other parties may also have missed signals that led to Mia’s death.
Masako Hayakawa, a lawyer with expertise in domestic violence, said that what comes under scrutiny in such cases, where a domestic violence victim assists in the assault, is whether the mother was actually able to protect the child. She believes Nagisa wasn’t.
“If (a woman) who witnesses abuse (on her child) is a victim of violence herself, she knows the abuser may then harm her and worries the abuser’s reaction to any attempt to stop the assault may end up in excessive anger,” she told The Japan Times. “So I don’t think (a domestic violence victim) in such a situation is capable of stopping someone from abusing the child, despite being in a position to act (as a guardian).”
Hayakawa, who runs a legal consultancy and support group for domestic violence victims in Kanoya, Kagoshima Prefecture, also pointed out that Nagisa was likely to have been unaware of being an abuse victim herself — another reason why her coming forward would have been unlikely.
“In cases of suspected child abuse, we should also suspect the child is not the only victim,” which is something that may have been overlooked in the Kuriharas’ case, said Tsuneo Yoshida, director of the Japan Network for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect.
Yoshida, who is also professor emeritus of law at Surugadai University in Saitama Prefecture, explained that under the child abuse prevention law, violence against the spouse is listed alongside attacks directly on the child, as a form of psychological abuse targeted at the child.
“The law has been written on the premise that child mistreatment usually accompanies domestic violence,” he said, explaining that in responding to alleged child abuse cases, child consultation centers should act based on this premise.
Local authorities had been alerted to the alleged abuse against Mia. Mia was temporarily taken into protective custody after she reported in a school questionnaire that her father “bullied” her, saying that she was jostled, beaten up and kicked by her father.
But after she started saying she wanted to go home, the center released the girl from protective custody despite suspicion that her father had also sexually abused her.
“It’s already been pointed out that what was lacking in the Kuriharas’ case was cooperation between institutions” that could have intervened, or acted more proactively, in protecting the child’s life, Yoshida said. “They may have missed the signs that led to the (fatal) incident.”