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Wednesday, March 7, 2001

Domestic violence bill on Diet agenda

Lawmakers worried that efforts to protect victims may not be enough


Staff writer

The increasing problem of domestic violence is being addressed by a nonpartisan group of female lawmakers who plan to submit a bill to the Diet next month aimed at protecting victims.

While legislation and institutions to fight domestic violence have been in place in the United Kingdom and the United States since the 1970s, Japan has lagged behind these and other countries as the problem has traditionally been seen here as a domestic issue between husband and wife.

But Masako Osada, a counselor at the Kawasaki Municipal Gender Equality Center in Kanagawa Prefecture, pointed out that women in this situation are genuinely powerless. She cited the example of a young housewife whose office-worker husband gives her only 50,000 yen per month for groceries to support them and their 1-year-old daughter.

Osada said that when the woman asks for more money, the husband would yell such responses as "Why can't you manage with the money I gave you. I am feeding you. You should not complain!" -- and then punch and kick her.

"Many victims believe their husbands are violent because they themselves are imperfect," Osada said, explaining that victims often blame themselves for what their attackers call their "faults."

"Therefore I first tell the women that it is not them but their husbands who should be blamed," Osada said.

A 2000 survey by the Prime Minister's Office of 1,464 married and divorced women shows that around 5 percent had been physically assaulted by their husbands to the extent that they feared for their lives. Of the 1,333 men surveyed, only 0.5 percent voiced similar fears about their wives.

Despite the prevalence of this type of violence, the arrest rate is low because the violence usually occurs behind closed doors, with police intervention usually only coming when the bashing escalates to murder. Between 100 and 120 wives were killed each year over the past five years by their husbands, police said.

Tamie Kaino, a professor of social science and family studies at Ochanomizu University in Tokyo, reckoned domestic violence has been a widespread and serious problem in Japan for a long time but has never been sufficiently addressed.

"Domestic violence is a problem of human rights that has existed for a long time. People in this country have just started to realize it is a problem," Kaino told a forum to discuss the proposed bill late last month.

The bill defines domestic violence as violence by spouses or live-in partners of both sexes, but states in its preamble that most victims are women. The bill will empower district courts to impose six-month restraining orders on offenders and force them to vacate their homes for two weeks to protect the victims.

Failure to comply with an order will result in a maximum 12-month prison term or a fine of up to 1 million yen.

The bill also expands the role of counseling centers for women operated by prefectural governments to make them serve as public shelters.

The bill also proposes freeing doctors of patient-doctor confidentiality rules to encourage the identification and protection of victims.

The bill will go before the Diet next month after lawmakers further discuss its details, especially the currently proposed procedures for obtaining court orders to protect victims that some have criticized as being unrealistic.

According to the bill, when victims apply for restraining orders to ban their partners from approaching them or to forcibly evict them, the victims must submit to a district court a report of violence issued by police or counseling and support centers that have helped them at least once in the past.

A victim who has never consulted with police or a support center must submit a written statement detailing the violence issued under oath by a public notary.

Women's shelter workers say this procedure is unrealistic.

"I think the situation of a woman in an emergency is not really understood," said Kyoko Hasegawa, one of the lawyers who helped compile the original bill and submitted it to the lawmakers.

Hasegawa pointed out there are only 298 public notary offices nationwide, with some prefectures having only a few.

Mizuho Fukushima, a former lawyer currently serving in the Diet and championing the bill, said that while she understands the criticism, the public notary clause was needed to persuade the Justice Ministry and the Supreme Court to introduce the protection-order system.

"The protection-order system is a new one that involves both civil affairs and criminal affairs. It took a long time for us to persuade (the ministry and the court) that the system is indispensable to protecting victims," the Social Democratic Party lawmaker said during a symposium in Omiya, Saitama Prefecture, late last month.

The short duration of just two weeks for forcible eviction orders against perpetrators of violence has also come under fire.

Hiroshi Iguchi, a lawyer who coordinates groups demanding legislation to protect domestic violence victims, explained that the two-week stipulation was pushed for by the Supreme Court to give the victim time to move out before the abuser returns. The court was concerned that eviction orders may have violated the property rights of those who perpetrated the assaults.

Iguchi, however, insisted that the period of eviction should be six months, the same as that of a restraining order. "Why should a victim leave her home?" he asked. "It is the perpetrator who should move out of the home."

In addition, women's shelter workers insist that restraining orders should also cover children as the perpetrators of violence often try to locate their spouse by questioning their children.

Shelter staff also want the planned legislation to apply to divorcees, because there are many instances in which women are assaulted by their former husbands.

Lawyer Hasegawa said a temporary court-order system should also be introduced. She said that it often takes several months for courts to examine a case and issue protection orders.

"Because the victim continues to be in danger of assault by the perpetrator for that period, the court needs to issue a temporary protection order that does not require a trial," Hasegawa said.

Tadashi Nakamura, an assistant professor at Ristumeikan University in Kyoto, believes education programs for perpetrators of violence should also be introduced. He pointed out at a symposium in Tokyo's Kasumigaseki district late last week that U.S. states mandate such programs for convicted offenders and that the proposed bill in Japan mentions no such program.

"If perpetrators are just punished, their hatred against their partners will grow in prison, sometimes leading to revenge when they are released," he said.

Yoko Komiyama, vice chairwoman of the Diet group, acknowledged that the bill is imperfect but noted that amendments will be possible three years after its introduction.

"Now we are trying our best to submit the bill to the current Diet session," said former journalist Komiyama, a Democratic Party of Japan member of the Diet. She said the most important thing is to swiftly enact legislation, albeit imperfect, in an attempt to offer some protection to victims.



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