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With a series of shootings apparently related to an underworld gang battle taking place in various parts of the Kanto area and a constantly rising volume of illegal stimulant drugs to deal with, Japan’s police forces would seem to have a busy enough summer ahead of them. That may be why some observers are reacting quizzically to the news that the police are poised to become involved in what has traditionally been considered the normal battle of the sexes. Domestic violence in Japan is no laughing matter, however.

The National Police Agency’s instructions to police officers throughout the country to intervene in such cases — when requested to do so — represent a decided and overdue shift in official policy. In Japan’s male-dominated society, the police have long considered physical abuse, by men against their wives or domestic partners to be a private matter in all but the most serious cases, such as those involving murder or injury resulting in death. This has continued to be true despite mounting evidence of the need for steps to protect women — and children — who are subject to repeated domestic physical violence.

If the extent to which children are abused in their own homes here is one of the nation’s best-kept secrets, the prevailing attitude that men are somehow entitled to inflict violence on their spouses is another. Is that a partial explanation for the cautious new police policy of intervening in domestic violence cases only when requested to do so? Unlike many other industrialized countries, Japan still lacks laws to adequately punish those who inflict the abuse and to fully protect the women and children who are its victims. There are, for example, no legal means of stopping a husband from visiting a physically abused wife even when she is supposedly under the protection of a support facility.

Press reports have made much of the attitude toward domestic violence in the West represented by the case earlier in this year in which Japan’s then consul general in Vancouver, Canada, was charged with assaulting his wife after he punched her in the face at home. Although he later pleaded guilty and has since been dismissed, he first described the incident as an example of “cultural difference s” and tried to treat it as entirely a matter between a husband and his wife. Legal experts and others who have studied the situation abroad are aware that change was often slow in coming to other countries and that the police abroad were also reluctant to intervene. New legislation was partly responsible for bringing about necessary change.

But so was the development of a new willingness by battered women to speak up, and move out if necessary, to end the cycle of violence against them. The entry of a growing number of women into the workforce doubtless played a part. There now are a few hopeful signs that some women here, too, are beginning to come forward about domestic violence. Women who have no means of supporting themselves, however, often find it difficult to act in their own best interests, and experts say that husbands who are habitual abusers are all too aware of that fact.

This may be why police-agency officials believe that a large number of cases of domestic physical abuse go unreported. The incidents that are recorded are certainly appalling enough. Among those the NPA cites for last year were 129 murders, 273 cases of bodily injury resulting in death and 33 instances of assault. That the problem is far from minor was clearly indicated one year ago in the results of a Tokyo Metropolitan Survey, the first-ever large-scale study of violence in the home. Fully one-third of the Tokyo women responding reported being physically abused by their spouses or partners at least once, while one-fourth said they were subjected to such treatment regularly.

Proof of how much still needs to be done to assist such women lies in the fact that only 15 percent of those who acknowledged being abused spoke to anyone else about it, while nearly 40 percent kept silent about their experience — and almost as many chose not to respond to the question at all. Japanese society is failing these women if the prolonged conspiracy of silence continues.

New moves by the police to intervene when asked to do so are only a first step. Public assistance for abused women’s support groups and for programs to educate men against resorting to violence is also needed. So are tough new laws that treat spousal abuse as a criminal offense, albeit different from assault by a total stranger.

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