When a group of female bipartisan political leaders in Japan joined forces to call for an anti-domestic violence law in 1998, they faced fierce resistance by a majority male diet. It wasn’t until 2001 that politicians were shaken from their state of denial by a cabinet-sponsored survey revealing one in 10 women had experienced serious violence at the hands of their spouse. At this point only a grim 10 percent of abused women shared their experience with a second party.
Fast forward almost 20 years and Japan’s National Police Agency released data from 2018 showing 77,480 calls to local police related to domestic violence and gender-based matters. It’s the 15th consecutive annual increase since records began in 2003. Based on those figures, police took action against 9,088 cases of domestic violence across Japan — an increase of 666 cases from the previous year.
But the police haven’t always been helpful. Mainstream attitudes toward household violence traditionally treated it as an invisible issue that simply did not exist. Kanoko Kamata, an associate researcher at the Japan-U.S. program of Harvard University, says the problem went blatantly disregarded. “The majority of politicians are generally socially conservative and it was thought Japan did not suffer from the same social problems as the West because Japanese men were not violent,” she told The Diplomat. There was a lack of awareness that domestic violence is an infringement of human rights and women were expected to keep silent.
In Japan the idea of domestic violence traditionally conjured the image of violence endured by parents from their rebellious children. Kamata said law enforcement was reluctant to interfere in household affairs as it was typically believed that marital problems were not worth bothering about. This meant pleas for help by desperate women were neglected by law enforcement and local police were discouraged from reaching out to battered women. She said this is further exacerbated by family members encouraging women to be better wives.
Kanata pointed to the creation of the National Shelter Network as a defining moment where private women’s shelters across Japan raised political clout and infiltrated the policymaking process, which relied heavily on scholarly opinion instead of victims’ voices. Since the domestic violence prevention act was first enacted in 2001, Kamata explained, the legal definition has steadily grown more comprehensive, covering non-physical acts such as psychological and financial abuse alongside molestation, stalking, forced sexual intercourse, and physical blows as actions that warrant police consultation.
Before 2001 there were under 20 women’s shelters clustered around dense cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Yokohama. After the domestic violence law’s introduction, each prefecture was required to provide financial assistance to women’s domestic violence services. The government now boasts 107 privately run shelters throughout the country. In Tokyo posters advocating against domestic violence can be seen in public libraries, public toilets, and city halls.
But Kamata said the real issue is that under the current law domestic violence is not treated as a crime but rather a civil code. “Without criminalizing domestic violence, perpetrators are not reprimanded and face no criminal punishment,” she said. There is no mandatory counselling aimed at preventing perpetrators from reoffending, unlike in other developed countries such as the United States.
Ryukoku University Professor Masahiro Tsushima told The Diplomat that police have begun to treat domestic violence reports seriously and such cases have been included in national police records.
However, Tsushima believes that women in Japan are still less likely to report domestic violence compared to women in the EU. “It’s not surprising that female victims are reluctant to contact the police since the police force remains largely male-dominated with less than 10 percent of female officers,” he said.
Japanese people also carry a sense of distrust toward the police. “Our previous survey research on trust in the justice system shows that the level of trust in the police in Japan is as low as that of Russia, and lower than that of most European countries,” Tsushima explained.
National Police Agency data showed that while 80 percent of domestic violence victims were women, the cases of male victims also tripled to 15,964 between 2014 and 2018. Spouses and former partners represented the main bulk of perpetrators, with stalking and revenge porn cases being high on police radar.