Breaking the web of abuse and silence: voices of battered women in Japan.

Author:Yoshihama, Mieko

Around the globe, violence against women by their partners (domestic violence) is prevalent and threatens women's well-being (Heise, 1994; United Nations, Centre for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs, 1989). In the United States research on this topic has proliferated over the past 2[1/2] decades, documenting the high rates of domestic violence (Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980; Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998). Studies have identified ways in which male domination in private and public spheres perpetuates men's use of violence against a female partner (for example, Martin, 1981; Schechter, 1982). Although domestic violence is prevalent across national and cultural boundaries, substantial variations have been found in the rate and severity of violence occurring both within and among countries (Counts, Ayers, Brown, & Campbell, 1992; Levinson, 1989). For example, in the United States, higher rates of domestic violence were found in states where greater disparity existed between women and men in economic, po litical, and legal spheres (Yllo & Straus, 1990). Cross-cultural and cross-national studies of the relationship between domestic violence and women's status relative to men's, however, are limited primarily to those conducted by Western anthropologists (for example, Levinson) or to surveys using Eurocentric methodologies without regard for sociocultural variations (Kumagai & Straus, 1983). Through focus groups, this study investigated the ways in which women in Japan respond to domestic violence. Designed as an action research project, the study resulted in the formation of a community-based support group for battered women. Its results add to the growing body of knowledge on women's experiences of domestic violence around the world and have implications for practice and research in the United States among Asian/Pacific Islander populations.

Domestic Violence in Japan

Earlier studies of domestic violence found a lower rate of domestic violence among Japanese couples compared with those in the United States (Kumagai, 1979; Kumagai & Straus, 1983). Researchers attributed this lower rate to "a quiet, nonexpressive Japanese culture as opposed to a verbal, expressive American culture" (Kumagai, p. 91) and to "the movement towards equal rights between the sexes" (Kumagai & Straus, p. 385) in the United States. Available statistics, however, point to the serious nature of domestic violence in Japan, illuminating some striking similarities to statistics on domestic violence in the United States. For example, approximately one-third of female murder victims in Japan are killed by their male intimate partners (Keisatsucho, 1995), a proportion similar to that found in the United States (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1995). Husbands and boyfriends are the most common perpetrators of assault and battery against family members in both Japan and the United States (Craven, 1997; Keisat sucho).

However, the institutional responses to this grave social problem in the United States and Japan present stark differences. The former is characterized by the gradual development over the past 2[1/2] decades of social policies and services. Until passage in Japan of the Law Relating to the Prevention of Spousal Violence and the Protection of Victims (Domestic Violence Prevention Act, hereinafter) in 2001, no social policies or services existed that specifically addressed the problem of domestic violence (Yoshihama, 1998, 2002). In the absence of specialized services, Japanese women seek refuge from their male partners' violence at public women's centers or homes for mothers and children. On average, battered women make up one-third of women using these facilities in Japan (Nihon Bengoshi Rengokai, 1995). Predicated on the residual model of social welfare, these public programs for women offer only a limited range of predominantly rehabilitative services. In fact, public women's centers were originally establi shed under the Prostitution Prevention Law of 1956 [Baishun Boshiho] to rehabilitate "women in need of protection" from prostitution and other "deviant" or otherwise undesirable behaviors. These public women's centers, like other public assistance programs that impose stringent eligibility criteria, are viewed as the last resort after all informal sources of support have failed. Little, if any, attention is paid to eradicating the root causes of domestic violence or other social problems that led to the clients' service needs. Neither promotion of women's self-determination nor empowerment is emphasized.

Although conciliation is used in the United States and Japan as a means to resolve family disputes such as divorce, the role of conciliators differs cross-nationally, which has significant ramifications for the welfare of battered women in Japan. Under Japanese family law, conciliation is required if one of the parties refuses the other's wish to divorce (Kaji Shinpanho, 1947, art. 18). Only after conciliation fails to produce an agreement by both parties can a divorce by court decree be requested. Conciliators in Japan can exercise a considerable degree of discretion as to whether a divorce is granted (Bryant, 1988; Saiko Saibansho Jimusokyoku, 1990). In contrast, albeit variations exist among state statutes, conciliators in the United States mediate matters such as custody and division of property but do not influence whether a divorce should be granted. When their wish for divorce is denied by their abusive husbands, battered women in Japan request conciliation in the hope of securing an escape from an abu sive marriage. More women file for conciliation than men (39,074 versus 15,412 in 1997), and annually more than 30 percent of petitions filed by wives were because of husbands' physical violence (Saiko Saibansho Jimusokyoku, 1998). A study of conciliation cases elucidated the serious nature of husbands' violence, including hitting with a wooden stick, stabbing with a knife, and pouring heating oil on the wife and attempting to set her on fire (Kumamoto Family Court, 1991).

Changing Recognition

The limited institutional responses to domestic violence in Japan may reflect prevailing attitudes among public officials and the general public that domestic violence is largely a private, personal matter, as opposed to a social problem or crime. Studies have documented a high degree of tolerance for domestic violence in Japan. One comparative study of college students found that respondents in Japan were more likely to justify men's use of violence against female partners and to minimize the seriousness of such an act than their U.S. counterparts (Frieze & Zubritzky, 1987). In another study of a random sample of adult Tokyo residents, almost half of the respondents, regardless of age, gender, or socioeconomic status, justified men's use of violence against their women partners under certain circumstances (Yoshihama, 1993). The proportion of respondents justifying domestic violence in Japan was substantially higher than that found in similar studies in the United States conducted in the 1970s and 1980s (for example, 16 percent to 31 percent) (Greenblat, 1983; Stark & McEvoy, 1970; Straus et al., 1980).

Only recently has domestic violence slowly and gradually begun to be recognized as a serious social problem in Japan, a change attributable largely to the efforts of grassroots women's organizations. For example, a nationwide study conducted in 1992 by the Domestic Violence Action and Research Group (DVARG) identified the serious nature of domestic violence and how it cuts across socioeconomic boundaries. The study's findings were disseminated nationally and internationally, calling for changes in policies and for increased services to address this hidden social problem in Japan (DVARG, 1993, 1995; Yoshihama & Sorenson, 1994). With the rise of international movements against gender-based violence during the early 1990s, such as the Global Campaign for Women's Human Rights (Bunch & Reilly, 1994), there has been a steady increase in research, community forums, workshops, symposia, exhibits, and popular and academic publications regarding domestic violence in Japan. The national government, as well as local gove rnments, have begun addressing this issue by conducting research and establishing task forces (Sorifu, Danjo Kyodosankaku Shingikai, 1996; Tokyo-to, 1998). The first private battered women's shelter opened in 1993 in Tokyo, and currently there are more than 30 shelters nationwide. The central role that grassroots women's organizations have played in increasing institutional responses to domestic violence in both the United States and Japan, albeit almost 20 years apart, is noteworthy.

Need for Further Research

Although research and other consciousness-raising efforts in Japan have begun to increase societal awareness about domestic violence in general, more research is needed. Studies thus far have focused on estimating the proportion of women who have experienced domestic violence (for example, Tokyo-to, 1998) or analyzing the personal characteristics of women who have used public social services, private shelters, and telephone counseling programs (for example, Kanagawa Josei Senta, 1993; Nihon Bengoshi Rengokai, 1995). This type of research fails to elucidate women's subjective experiences, such as the ways in which women cope with the negative effects of a partner's violence. It also excludes perspectives and experiences of women who have not sought assistance. Consequently, barriers to seeking and using assistance programs remain unaddressed. In addition, little is known about the connection, if any, between the structural inequality in the public sphere in Japanese society and violence against women in the pr ivate sphere, in intimate relationships.

This study of domestic violence represents the first study in Japan to use face-to-face interviews with a community-based sample of battered women. Through...

To continue reading