In November 1980, a murder in Kanagawa Prefecture just south of Tokyo stunned the nation. It involved a 20-year-old student who beat his parents to death with a metal baseball bat.

Books and televised dramas followed in an attempt to comprehend the crime or capitalize on its horror. But it wasn’t until November 1996 that another horror story involving a metal bat again shocked Japanese society into realizing the scale of dysfunctionality in households across the country.

Back then, Japan was still reeling from a double shock: the Great Hanshin Earthquake that claimed more than 6,000 lives in and around Kobe in 1995; and that year’s nerve-gas attacks on Tokyo subways by the homegrown religious terror cult, Aum Shinrikyo. As well, by the autumn of 1996, Japan’s economy had been stagnating for nearly five years, and people’s confidence was at its lowest ebb since 1945’s traumatic defeat in World War II.

The so-called Metal Baseball Bat Murder Incident of 1996 differed from the similarly named 1980 crime because in the latter case it was a father — a graduate of the top-flight University of Tokyo, no less — who battered his teenage son to death.

In that case, it transpired that the boy had come to see his father as a “weakling” and had begun taunting him and his mother. He made his father kneel while he kicked and beat him with a plank of wood. He also kicked his mother in the face, breaking her teeth. And all the while, this boy — described by school friends as “cheerful, if spoiled” — wept while abusing his parents.

In those not-so-distant days, the police tended to avoid getting “mixed up in private family affairs”; and doctors were often reluctant to delve into the deeper medical problems underlying the symptoms of such acts. In fact, the father who eventually killed his son had gone to a psychiatric clinic, but was told, “You should think of your being his slave as a technique to make him better.”

In a society as gossip-phobic as Japan’s, the shame associated with domestic troubles was monumental. All measures were taken — by family members, victims and victimizers alike — to prevent discord from becoming public.

It was the incident in 1996, however, that triggered public awareness of kateinai bōryoku — a term that has since been replaced by the katakana version of its English equivalent: domestic violence.

With the growing awareness that all was not safe in what had been considered the safest of all societies, the media finally began to take up in earnest the issues of spousal and child abuse.

People at long last realized that Japan had not been free of domestic violence — but that society had shunned recognition of it. Consequently, for generations women and children had been victimized without any societal or legal recourse.

Things have changed, at least as far as recognition is concerned.

Japanese government surveys and National Police Agency statistics show that approximately one-third of women have “suffered physical assaults, psychological threats or sexual coercion from their current or former partners.”

The Cabinet Office has also noted that half of such victims had never spoken a word about these incidents before being surveyed.

And, even more disturbing, Cabinet Office research found one-third of the victimized women blamed themselves.

Thanks in part to a growing awareness of the prevalence of domestic violence (DV) in Japan, the government has considerably toughened the legislation. Since October 2001, courts have been able to impose restraining orders on abusive husbands, and in March 2007, this was extended to include all partners.

Also, in 2007, the Cabinet Office’s Council for Gender Equality recommended that intimidation be considered a kind of DV, and that victims’ relatives and supporters be protected. Intimidation in the council’s view can include: serial phone-calling, sending unwanted faxes or emails and other forms of harassment.

That year, 54.3 percent of victims reported that the perpetrators had gone to their parents’ or friends’ houses.

Since 2001, it has become compulsory for prefectural and local governments to establish means to deal with DV in its five manifestations of violence: physical, psychological, sexual, economic and social.

Economic violence includes the use of coercion to stop women from working outside the home; while social violence consists in restricting a woman’s freedom of association.

Behind these forms of DV has been a traditional society’s deeply ingrained prejudice against women’s freedom to have equal access to means of personal development and independence.

Cities and towns across Japan now operate offices to aid women in need.

The Nagoya International Center even provides a lifeline to foreign residents, advising them to “have at least three places in mind that you can go to if you leave your home, and to leave extra clothes, keys, money and copies of important documents with someone you can trust.”

Kyoto Prefecture’s support network is extensive. In March 2006, a policy was formulated and implemented there “to realize a society that will not tolerate domestic violence.” That policy is supported by educational drives at schools and cooperation with local governments and nonprofit organizations (NPOs).

It is, perhaps, NPOs that have done most at the grassroots level — with the Japan Women’s Shelter Network (JWSN) among the most active. The network runs a 24-hour toll-free consultation hotline (in Japanese, Thai, Tagalog, Korean, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese and English) for abused women and children, and has the resources to take DV victims into their care and away from the reach of perpetrators.

Moreover, the JWSN is raising the awareness of all Japanese to some of the sinister, if subtle, causes of DV. “One of the biggest problems,” says Mie Ueda of the JWSN, “is that the commercialization of women’s bodies is taken for granted in Japanese society.”

Her colleague at JWSN, Keiko Kondo, points out that, “In the more than 10 years we have been in operation, no matter how difficult the situation is, no matter what emotional state they fall into, we have seen women recover … (and) we will continue to steadfastly support them.”

Such determination and forward thinking gives hope to thousands upon thousands of women who face the terror of an abusive partner every day of their lives.

It has been estimated that, in 60 percent to 70 percent of households where women are abused, there will be harmful and lasting psychologicical effects on children — while 20 percent to 30 percent of children from such households will themselves become abusers in later life.

Shocking and dramatic incidents like the baseball-bat murders of 1980 and 1996 may be few and far between, but the routine horrors that unfold daily in homes where there is abuse rarely make the news.

Becoming conscious of the scale and the horrific toll such abuse takes on the entire nation in the present and future is the first step on the road to eliminating this crime in all its manifestations.

Officials at the Shizuoka City support network for victims of DV have stated, “Until recently the recognition of DV as a crime has been feeble, and society at large has not paid much attention to it.”

Now, though, there are lawyers, nurses and counselors at various shelters available to victims. But, before the situation becomes so threatening, both society and victims must recognize DV when they see or experience it — and thankfully, that recognition is finally dawning in Japan.

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