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TOKYO, Dec 5 2010 (IPS) - Japan’s prolonged economic woes seem to have helped worsen the country’s problem with domestic violence.
Sociologists and other experts say that what was once considered an issue stemming largely from gender inequality has gained yet another horrific dimension as they note an increasing number of cases of violence against children and the elderly.
In effect, the traditional picture of domestic violence is changing from that of battered wives into a scenario that calls for new and diverse approaches.
“Our research shows that today, more children and older people face daily abuse or are at risk of such violence,” says sociologist Rika Inamura, a professor at Kogoshima International University in Kyushu, Japan’s main island in the south.
The country’s economic recession, which began in the 1990s and continues to bedevil the Japanese, is largely to blame, she says. This has increased poverty among Japanese households and has led to a breakdown of local community kinships, she says.
These, along with the rising demands of an ageing population on younger, struggling family members, are the most pressing reasons for the growing number of domestic violence cases, asserts Inamura.
The latest statistics released by the Cabinet Office show a record 73,000 people reporting some forms of violence in 2009. The figure is an increase from the 68,000 cases reported in 2008; it is also more than double the number recorded in 2002, when Japan enacted its first laws against domestic violence.
The latest numbers were issued on Nov. 25, which marked the international campaign day against domestic violence.
Women made up more than 80 percent of domestic violence victims in 2009, and their most popular means of seeking help was telephone consultation. The types of abuse reported were physical injuries, while one in three victims had suffered regular verbal and psychological abuse.
Police also carried more than 25,000 investigations under Japan’s revised 2002 Domestic Violence Prevention Law, which expanded protection from physical violence and threats (including harassment, such as stalking) from current and former spouses to partners and their children.
While complaints from senior citizens currently make up just around 300 cases of the 2009 total of reported domestic violence cases, counsellors working with the abused say they are dealing with an increasing number of elderly victims, indicating that the group is growing more vulnerable to abuse.
Among the most recent cases in Mimosa Association, which is a leader in its support for anti-domestic violence programmes, involve two couples in their seventies who sought help after enduring many years of physical harassment from their children, with whom they lived.
Child abuse cases have also soared to almost 45,000 consultations in 2009, according to the Health and Welfare Ministry. Counsellors say the abuses range from physical to sexual ones, and also include verbal assaults and neglect, such as non-giving of food.
Sociologists and counsellors say, though, that domestic violence may be even more serious than the statistics indicate, because the issue is still seen a private one by many Japanese.
Gender expert Junko Fukazawa of the non-profit group Human Service Centre in fact notes that up until the mid- 1980s, “domestic violence” was a phrase absent in the consciousness of Japanese government officials.
“Instead,” she has said, “people talked about middle-aged divorce or depression rates among married women. Nobody really linked these issues to violence against wives in the family.”
That domestic violence came to fore at all beginning in the 1990s was due to “international pressure on Japan” and the steadfast push by Japanese feminists to bring the issue into light, Fukazawa has also said.
At the very least, these days, there seems to be growing social support for women to stand up against violence, says Chie Matsumoto of the organisation Purple Parade, which works with other groups to raise public awareness about domestic violence.
Matsumoto says “the public is aware of domestic violence”, a significant trend in a country like Japan where gender equality is low. “There is sympathy for the victim. Still there is a need now to start education on domestic violence at schools, universities, and hospitals to spread the message of support.”
Mimosa Association head Hisako Yasuda meanwhile says that addressing the root causes of domestic violence is necessary to bring about a long-term solution to the problem.
But she says practical steps, such as new housing allowances for domestic violence survivors, are as important since these help victims restart their lives.
Such allowances are now being given in Tottori prefecture in western Japan, where Mimosa is based. The local government there pays the rent for apartments for domestic violence survivors for up to six months to help them get back on their feet.
Yasuda says that the gesture boosts the confidence of domestic violence victims who need time to collect themselves after years of abuse. She points out, “Women, especially those over 60 years, need this financial support as many of them have not held steady jobs when they escape from their abusive husbands.”
Mimosa itself has helped more than 1,000 victims of abuse since it began operations five years ago. A counselling group, it supports anti-domestic violence programmes such as the setting up of shelters and funds for education.
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