Battery Behind the Shoji Screen


Kimiko tells her story with calm detachment. How her husband beat her dozens of times during their 32 years together, raining blows down on her face, thighs and stomach, pounding her back with wooden boards, kicking her hard enough to break a rib.

When he wasn’t abusing her body, he tortured her spirit, making her feel ugly, awkward and worthless and forcing her to attend to his every whim.

“I was a slave,” says Kimiko, who asked that her last name not be used out of fear that her ex-husband might track her down. “No, it was worse than that. Even slaves have more freedom than I had.”


Until recently, abuse victims such as Kimiko were all but invisible in Japan, ignored in a society in which laws are largely made by middle-aged men and people learn not to notice bruises, sunglasses and other telltale signs of domestic violence.

Late last year, however, Japan became the last major industrialized nation to formally recognize the problem, enacting legislation aimed at preventing such violence and protecting its victims.

Particularly shocking for many Japanese as the issue has gained prominence is how widespread domestic violence--known here as DV--is and how high up the social ladder it extends in a society long proud of its civility, refinement and understated emotions.

Japan’s first nationwide survey on the topic, done by the government Cabinet Office in 1999, provided a wake-up call when it revealed that one in 20 Japanese wives had suffered life-threatening violence at some point during marriage, while four times as many had endured some sort of physical abuse.

Since the new law went into effect Oct. 13, complaints to police have jumped 50%, to about 1,500 a month. Some of the cases can be attributed to stress caused by higher unemployment, experts say, but a larger factor in the increase appears to be a greater willingness to report abuse.

“The idea is finally spreading that you don’t have to put up with DV, that it’s all right to speak out,” said Mariko Mitsui, chief of a government Gender Equality Center in Osaka.


Changing the law is one thing. Changing culture and social traditions is quite another. At the root of Japan’s long-standing myopia toward domestic violence, say counselors, activists and victims, is a conspiracy of silence, an assumption dating back to samurai days that the way a husband treats his wife behind the shoji screen is his business.

Japan’s tepid first steps toward recognizing and treating domestic abuse--decades after its Western counterparts--are part of a sea change here. Experts say shifting values and social structures are gradually empowering weaker members of society, encouraging some to question male-dominated traditions and the often-substantial social price Japan has paid for its material success.

“Many people still view women as property of their husbands,” said Kazuhito Shinka, a deputy director with the central government’s Gender Equality Bureau. “There’s been a view that legal issues shouldn’t intrude on the family.”

Japan found itself rather embarrassed on this count three years ago when Shuji Shimokochi, then a 51-year-old consul general, was charged with punching his wife in the face during a fight at their residence in Vancouver.

Questioned by Canadian police, he reportedly dismissed the incident as “a Japanese cultural issue,” claimed that his wife deserved to be struck and told officers that the matter was not serious. Domestic violence experts say the mind-set of Shimokochi, who was shipped off to a think tank affiliated with the Japanese government, is all too common.

Noriko Yamaguchi, an official with the Batterer Intervention Assn., a Tokyo civic group, blames in part a system that offers almost no counseling or treatment for the abuser. Japanese men are brought up not to show emotion or reveal weakness, Yamaguchi said.

“If they finally do show something of themselves, it all too often comes out through anger,” she said.

There also is a long-held misconception in Japan that domestic violence is largely a problem of the poor and uneducated.

“In fact, it’s often lawyers, policemen, bureaucrats and professionals doing it,” said Stephanie, a counselor for Japanese and foreign victims at Tokyo’s HELP Asian Women’s Shelter and hotline, who asked that her last name not be used out of concern for her safety.

Hiroko Sato once told reporters that she had been beaten repeatedly by her husband, former Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, who in 1974 received Japan’s only Nobel Peace Prize.

Women’s groups say the new law leaves much to be desired. It carries no penalties, leaves treatment to a legion of competing agencies, provides little new funding and limits restraining orders to cases of physical abuse, not sexual or psychological damage.

Furthermore, it protects only battered wives, not their children, opening the door for husbands to grab offspring and use them as leverage. Spousal rape, which is a crime in all 50 American states, is not illegal here.

System of Shelters Far From Sufficient

The nation’s shelter system also is woefully inadequate. Japan plans to set up a nationwide network of government facilities in April by converting existing halfway houses for prostitutes. It also plans to hire more outside counselors after complaints that bureaucrats doing the job are cold, insensitive, even reproving of victims.

But many of the new government shelters are expected to continue housing prostitutes as well, adding to the social stigma felt by abused wives. And the locations will be well known to batterers as well as victims because the shelters are frequently in prominent government buildings.

Until now, the vacuum has been partially filled by about 35 nonprofit shelters nationwide. Some are little more than an extra room in someone’s house, and most lack basic security systems. Visitors to these tiny enclaves, when allowed in at all, are required to cover their eyes and endure maze-like trips designed to hide the location from violent husbands.

“Financially, we face great difficulty,” said Kazuko Hirakawa, founder of the modest Feminist Therapy Center and shelter in Tokyo. “Compared to the U.S., we’re working with almost nothing.”

The HELP emergency shelter, located in an older neighborhood of Tokyo, houses as many as 15 women and children. The bedrooms are small, many lined with bunk beds. Victims are sometimes forced to double up. Yet this is one of Japan’s best and largest facilities.

Finding the courage to leave an abusive husband and being lucky enough to secure a spot in a shelter still leave many hurdles to be surmounted. In Japan’s recession-battered economy, women often have few skills employers want.

Ritsuko Nomoto, a longtime victim of domestic abuse and now a counselor, recently started a small restaurant called Saya-Saya to give battered women jobs, but it’s a drop in the bucket.

“Every woman thinking of leaving worries about finances,” said Nomoto. “Women find themselves forced back into abusive marriages because they can’t earn a living.”

Beyond that, most landlords won’t rent to a single mother; such discrimination is widely tolerated in Japan.

Over several hours, 61-year-old Kimiko, a mother of two grown daughters, described in measured phrases her three decades of abuse.

Family court records in Japan are confidential, and Kimiko refused to provide her husband’s whereabouts, given her deep-seated fear that any contact could lead to his finding her. She said she hopes to die without ever speaking to him again.

Details of her story, however, matched those provided by a longtime confidant. Her attorney said the court agreed to handle all financial negotiations without direct contact between the parties because of the obvious trauma Kimiko had endured. Domestic violence counselors say stories such as Kimiko’s are increasingly common as more people seek professional help.

“I just want other women to avoid what I went through,” Kimiko said.

The problems started shortly after her arranged marriage in 1965 to a hard-working, seemingly responsible man. He started breaking things--a transistor radio, plates, a rice cooker. Then he began throwing objects at her. Eventually, all pretense of decorum broke down as he attacked her physically, a pattern that would define their marriage.

At various times, he choked her, swung her by the neck and threatened her with a kitchen knife before stabbing a box of tissues and telling her, “Next time it’ll be you.”

“Sometimes he beat me once a year, sometimes several times,” she said. “If he’d been violent all the time, I would have left him much earlier.”

But the psychological abuse was unending. He was possessive and watched her every move. He complained about the way she spoke, what she wore, how she comported herself and the way she served meals. Virtually every night after work, he cross-examined her about whether she had left the house that day, when she had returned, whom she had seen.

To make sure she stayed in the house during the day, he made her tape a long list of television programs and called at random times. When he was home, incoming calls were an immediate cause for suspicion. He would drill her about who called, what they talked about, why a conversation lasted so long. He accused her of laughing at him behind his back. A look he didn’t like was enough to set him off.

Each night he drank, forcing her to sit attentively as he rambled on or snapped at her, his words slurred by alcohol. She risked a beating or verbal attack if she read, looked away or hesitated when he demanded more sake or fresh ice.

Once, after a rare visit to her family, she returned to find he had cut up her clothes with scissors. Particularly humiliating was his habit of making her kneel before him for no apparent reason.

Shame, Fear, Reticence All Protect a Secret

Shame and fear on her part and an unwillingness to speak out--shared by those around the couple--protected their secret. He upended a huge cupboard one day, and the entire family--including his mother, who lived with them--acted as though nothing had happened.

Although neighbors in the upscale, densely populated community must have heard the blows, crashes and screams coming from the house over the many years, Kimiko said, they never asked what was wrong.

“It’s such a delicate matter in Japanese society to intrude,” she said. “It’s part of Japanese custom.”

One day, Kimiko’s then-teenage daughter worked up the courage to call the police, but Kimiko forced her to hang up, fearing her husband’s retribution. The police traced the call, and she told them her children had been playing with the phone.

Over the years, she developed survival tactics. Foremost among these was doing what her husband wanted, averting her gaze, remaining as inoffensive as possible.

Now and again, she thought about leaving, but she worried about money, what the neighbors would think or--even well after her daughters had moved out of the house--how it would affect the children. The prospect of giving up everything was simply too daunting.

“I was cornered,” she said.

Even death started to look attractive.

“I hoped that he or I would die, get cancer, have a terrible accident, that something heavy would fall on his head,” she said. “That was the only way I could imagine getting away from the suffering.”

When her husband retired in the mid-1990s, Kimiko convinced herself that their problems would disappear once his work stress was gone. Instead, things got worse. His time at work had at least given her a few hours of peace each day. Now she found herself subject to abuse for most of her waking hours.

Studious by nature, her husband filled his days with economics courses, reading and playing go, a Japanese game of strategy, all on a strict timetable. And she respected his diligence and desire to improve himself. But he refused to extend her the same courtesy, preventing her from attending classes or joining a club, discouraging her from seeing friends and relatives.

One day, he punched holes through her guitar with a large pair of scissors and threw it out the window. About the same time, he flew into a jealous rage after she ran into a friend, kicking Kimiko repeatedly and breaking one of her ribs.

Those two events convinced Kimiko to escape. Deciding to start life over in her late 50s was incredibly difficult. But in times of doubt, she stood before the bathroom mirror and asked herself whether she wanted to be battered into her 60s and 70s.

She set a date several months in advance. A brochure she had read advised battered women to leave in warm weather, so she chose a spring day, started reading psychology books on the sly and got in touch with a psychiatrist. As her deadline approached, she sent a few boxes of clothing and photo albums to close friends and relatives.

A Heart-Pounding Final Departure

Putting money away in advance would have tipped her husband off, so she waited until the day she left to withdraw several thousand dollars from a savings account. That day, she dutifully prepared lunch for her husband and his mother and left just before noon for a “dental appointment,” carrying only a small shopping bag and a day pack. Her heart pounded as she walked out the door, terrified he would notice something was different.

She stayed in a shelter for five months, started receiving counseling and attended support groups. She found a small apartment and took vocational training courses.

After months of searching, she found a job as a building superintendent earning $800 a month--not enough to live on. Her lawyer successfully pressed her husband to provide $1,050 a month in support, and her financial dependence on him has so far kept her from suing for divorce under Japan’s less-than-generous laws.

Kimiko remains afraid of her husband. She hasn’t even told her daughters where she is.

But she also feels free for the first time in decades.

“I feel so happy that I’ve escaped a life of terror,” she said. “I’m free. I’m free.”


Makiko Inoue in The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.