Next year Japan will take another step forward toward strengthening the protection of the weaker members of society. The Diet has passed a law to prevent cruel treatment of the aged and to assist those taking care of them. Preparations are being made for implementing the law in April. Enactment of the law follows a separate one to prevent cruel treatment of children as well as a law against domestic violence.

The government’s move to further protect the human rights and dignity of elderly people is an encouraging development. Japan has been said to be three decades behind Western Europe and North America in legal and institutional measures to protect such people.

Awareness of the problem heightened after the introduction of the nursing-care insurance system in 2000. As home helpers began visiting the homes of aged people in need of nursing care, they found elderly people suffering from cruel treatment. Because of the absence of a relevant law, however, officials of local governments have been reluctant to intervene.

Before enactment of the law, some local governments — such as Yamaguchi, Okayama and Aomori prefectural and the Yokosuka and Kanazawa municipal governments — had carried out surveys or distributed manuals aimed at preventing cruel treatment of the elderly. The new law, which was jointly submitted to the Diet by the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito and the Democratic Party of Japan, is a culmination of these past efforts at various levels.

According to a survey by the Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry, one of every 10 aged people believed to have experienced cruel treatment during the year through October 2003 was in danger of losing his or her life. The average age of sufferers was 81.6 years, and 77 percent were women. Thirty-two percent of those believed responsible for cruel treatment were sons of the victims; 21 percent were wives of the sons; and 20 percent turned out to be the victims’ spouses.

Factors cited by the ministry as those that drive people to treat elderly family members cruelly included “fatigue on the part of those nursing family members for a long time,” the “human relationship with the elderly person,” the “character of the victim,” and “victims’ confusion due to senile dementia.” Some perpetrators did not even seem conscious of their cruel behavior.

The new law defines cruel treatment of the elderly (people at least 65 years old) as: failure to take care of elderly people, such as leaving them alone or unattended for long periods and decreasing the volume of meals to the extent that their physical condition weakens; psychological maltreatment through abusive language; violent acts by family members or workers at care facilities that cause external injuries; sexual maltreatment through obscene acts; economic maltreatment such as disposing of, or appropriating property, including pensions, without the elderly person’s consent; and acts that drive elderly people themselves to desperate behavior.

The law calls on anyone who notices cruel treatment of aged people to report it to the municipal government. If there appears a strong likelihood that the situation could lead to serious injury or death, people have a legal obligation to report it. Local government officials will be empowered to enter the residences of sufferers to collect information. They can also ask police for help. Those who refuse to let such officials into their residences may be fined.

The law further stipulates that the management of a facility for the aged cannot dismiss or take other punitive measures against workers who have served as whistle-blowers to municipal or prefectural authorities in cases of cruel treatment.

Municipal governments will advise citizens on how to lower the burden of nursery care and to prevent cruel treatment of elderly people. As an emergency refuge measure, victims of cruel treatment may be placed in a special nursing home. Family members’ right to meet victims at such a facility will be restricted if they are thought to be the victimizers. Comprehensive community support centers, to be established under the revised nursing-care insurance law, will also provide consultation services.

With the passage of the new law, the responsibility of municipal governments has increased. To prevent cruel treatment of elderly people, they need to educate citizens about the issue and make them aware that human rights apply to the aged, too. The guardianship system for adults should be used to the maximum, especially to protect the property of elderly people who have lost the ability to make important decisions for themselves. Ordinary citizens can help by assisting families who are nursing elderly people, including those with senile dementia.

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