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July 01, 2002

Domestic Violence and the Rights of Women in Japan and the US

by Juley A. Fulcher

Violence against women is a violation of a woman’s physical and mental dignity as well as her freedom of movement, and as such is a grave infringement of a woman’s human rights.

— Mioko Fujieda, from Some Thoughts on Domestic Violence in Japan, Rev. of Japanese Culture and Soc., Dec. 1989.

Domestic violence went largely unrecognized by Japanese society and unaddressed by the Japanese government until the early 1990s. Through a couple of highly publicized cases of extreme violence against women, advocates finally began to capture the attention of the country. The Domestic Violence Action and Research Group, a nongovernmental group of activists, practitioners, and researchers seized the opportunity to conduct a nationwide survey of the experiences of violence in women’s lives. The results demonstrated what Japanese women had known for years—that domestic violence is a serious problem in Japan.

This certainly garnered the attention of the Japanese public but it was the influence of the international community and the framework of women’s rights as human rights that arguably fueled the beginnings of policy changes in the Japanese government. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted at the 1993 United Nations World Conference on Human Rights explicitly recognized domestic violence and other forms of violence against women as human rights violations. In the years that followed, Japan began paying greater attention to women’s issues and domestic violence, in particular. An increasing willingness to fund services for women led to the current operation of more than forty shelters and eighty-seven counseling centers for battered women throughout the country. Though this number is admittedly small in a country with one-quarter the population of the United States, it is part of the growing system of services available to battered women in Japan including legal services and crisis hotlines.

In 2000, Japan’s Council for Gender Equality (a government office that has since been elevated to its current position within the cabinet office of the prime minister) issued a report defining violence against women as a violation of Article 14 of the Japanese Constitution guaranteeing equal rights between the sexes. The Council’s report cites to numerous United Nations documents as a basis for its approach, including The Vienna Declaration of Human Rights and Programme of Action (United Nations, 1985), the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (United Nations, 1995), and Further Actions and Initiatives to Implement the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (United Nations, 2000).

By all accounts, the United State’s system is years ahead of the Japanese system in addressing domestic violence. The first state laws specifically making wife beating illegal were passed in 1871 (though proliferation of laws to all states and enforcement of those laws lagged very far behind). The first battered women’s shelter opened in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1973. A nationwide Domestic Violence Awareness Month public education campaign has been an annual occurrence during the month of October since 1987 and today, more than 2,000 shelters providing services to battered women are in operation across the United States. Yet, domestic violence continues to occur. Nearly one in three women in the United States experiences at least one physical assault by a partner during adulthood (American Psychological Association, 1996). According to the National Institute of Justice Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 4.8 million intimate partner rapes and physical assaults are perpetrated against U.S. women annually (Tjaden & Thoenes, 2000). And, like in Japan, one-third of women killed each year in the United States are murdered by their intimate partners (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2001 and Yoshihama, 2002). Clearly the United States has, so far, been unsuccessful in its efforts to eradicate domestic violence.

Perhaps the problem lies in the framework. Efforts to change laws and policies in the United States have relied on the politically palatable frameworks of criminal justice and family values, both of which fail to adequately address domestic violence at its core. The idea of family values is often rooted in a patriarchal notion of chivalry—the husband and father as protector of the family. Wife beating and child abuse are therefore viewed as cowardly actions in which a man violates a sacred trust by preying on those who rely on his protection. This framework is anathema to viewing women as equal to men. It propagates the defined gender roles that batterers often use to defend their actions. The family values approach also fails to adequately conceptualize the diversity of intimate partner violence. Such violence can and does occur in dating relationships (both adult couples and couples in which one or both partners is under the age of eighteen) in which there may be no economic reliance or legal relationship to the batterer. It also occurs in same-sex relationships and in relationships that have long since been severed by divorce or the end of cohabitation. The result is that many state and federal laws and policies have failed to adequately address the populations victimized by domestic violence. In fact, half of the states currently do not have laws making the full range of domestic violence protections available to victims in dating relationships.

The criminal justice approach has had similar drawbacks. Domestic violence is a pattern of behavior that takes place within an intimate relationship. The pattern often includes repeated physical violence, intimidation, threats (spoken and unspoken), economic abuse, emotional abuse, controlling behavior (limiting the victim’s ability to work or move freely in society), irrational jealousy, stalking, harassment at work or at school, and threats to harm the victims’ children, family members, friends, or pets. Our criminal justice system, on the other hand is designed to address single incidents of criminal behavior. In fact, principles of criminal justice demand that such incidents be considered in a vacuum, independent of past behavior of the defendant and independent of the prior relationship between the defendant and victim. It is little wonder that such a system has difficulty adequately responding to the pattern of behavior typical of domestic violence. Moreover, the criminal justice approach often leads to victim blaming. A system that thinks in terms of a single criminal act has difficulty comprehending a victim who does not immediately remove herself from a situation where she is likely to be victimized again. A system that is designed to deal with street violence among strangers is not adequately structured to respond to violence in families and intimate relationships.

Moreover, the criminal justice approach has resulted in the backlash of dual arrests—police arresting both parties when called on a "domestic dispute." The dual arrest problem was fueled by both an unwillingness of police officers to view domestic violence as a crime as well as poor legal definitions of domestic violence. Once the criminal and civil laws on domestic violence were created, years of struggle began to try to force the system to work including mandatory arrest laws, mandatory police and judicial training, and definitions and redefinitions of primary or predominant aggressor.

So laws, policies, and public education based on domestic violence as a violation of family values or as a criminal justice problem have not been adequate to end the violence or address the needs of victims. But what of the human rights framework? Take, for instance, Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Universal Declaration), which states that "[e]veryone has the right to life, liberty and security of person." Or, Article 13 of the Universal Declaration, which states that "[e]veryone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State." Or, Article 2 of the Universal Declaration which states that "[e]veryone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms [in the Declaration] without distinction of any kind." These rights are not unique to the Universal Declaration. They can be found in other major human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention to End All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Applied to domestic violence victims they can offer powerful protections.

What if we work from the basic assumption that it is the right of all individuals to be free from the violence, coercion, restriction of movement, and assault on dignity associated with domestic violence? Such an approach commands us to examine and address the heart of the problem, including those negatively impacted by it. The family values approach to domestic violence focuses on the negative consequences for a family and the criminal justice approach focuses on the negative impact on society, but the human rights approach focuses us on those whose rights are being violated, allowing us to develop solutions that keep victims’ experiences and needs at the forefront.

Domestic and sexual violence are human rights violations disproportionately committed against women. Domestic and sexual violence are integral aspects of the lives of women in the United States and around the world. Even if we have not been directly victimized by these crimes, we have been indirectly victimized—constantly aware of the dangers and adjusting our work, school, and social lives to guard against such victimization. CEDAW recognizes this and calls on governments to effectively address it. To date, 170 countries have ratified the treaty and are working under its framework to improve the lives of women and girls around the world. Shamefully, the United States is not one of those countries. Ratification of CEDAW would help both in protecting women’s human rights and in preventing violations of these human rights. Although CEDAW does not explicitly address violence against women, the CEDAW Committee, in General Recommendation No. 19, declared in Article 6 that "[t]he definition of discrimination includes gender-based violence, that is, violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately."

Japan is often considered by both Americans and Japanese to be less advanced than the United States in affording equal status to women. Certainly, Japanese laws, policies, and systems for addressing domestic violence lag far behind those of the United States. However, with a framework that includes the ratification of CEDAW and other treaties on women’s human rights, a cabinet level office on gender equality, and a governmental statement that domestic violence is a violation of the constitutional guarantee of equal rights for women, Japan may have set the stage for creating a more effective solution to the problem.

Author’s Note: At the time of writing this article, Juley A. Fulcher was conducting a period of residence in Japan studying the laws, policies, and systems relating to domestic violence under a fellowship from the Japan Society. The author acknowledges the commitment and dedication of the many women in both Japan and the United States who have devoted their intellects and their energies to creating the important advances for women in both countries that are so briefly described in this article. Hopefully, future advances will build upon their foundation.

Juley A. Fulcher

Juley A. Fulcher is the public policy director for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence where she works on federal legislation and policies that promote the interests of battered women and their children, as well as public education and initiatives to reduce societal violence and oppression.