Domestic Violence in Japan

Tokie Takahashi



Domestic violence (DV) is increasingly emerging from obscurity to be a serious issue in Japan. There is growing recognition that a number of Japanese women are victims of DV. According to a survey on DV conducted among 4500 people in 1998 by the Prime Ministerfs Office, one third had experienced DV and 5 percent of the women who suffered from DV felt in danger of death.[1] As a result of this increasing awareness of DV, in April 2001 the Domestic Violence Prevention Law was enacted in this country.

It is said that Japanfs education system has been highly egalitarian since the end of World War II. Many highly educated women have participated in the workforce and they seem to have become more financially independent than women in prewar Japan. Women marrying later, the declining birth-rate, the increasing divorce-rate and also number of unmarried couples living together show us that womenfs lifestyles and choices are changing.


Although men have been educated under the newly introduced egalitarianism as well as women, it does not seem that they have changed as much as women have. Of course, DV is not a new problem: it has been around, concealed or condoned, for a long time, but it has only recently become a topic for discussion. The current attention on DV cases might reveal the incompatibility between changing lifestyles and attitudes of women and menfs continuing belief in their essential superiority in a still male-dominated Japanese society. Therefore, gender perspectives must be taken into account in looking for the causes of the problem of DV and where changes need to occur, to encourage for more understanding between the sexes. This essay examines and analyzes the issue of DV in Japan from the viewpoint of radical feminism.[2]


Reproduction as the cause of womenfs oppression

Radical feminists[3] assert that womenfs oppression in modern human society originated from biological differences between the sexes. For example, in The Dialectic of Sex (1979), Shulamith Firestone[4] claimed that the systematic subordination of women under patriarchy is rooted in a particular belief, that there is a biological inequality of the sexes. This argument is certainly applicable to the situation in Japan before World War II. Women were regarded as inferior to men in those days, and, women submitted themselves quietly to ill-treatment, while carrying the hard burden of domestic jobs and caring for family members. It was widely accepted that wives should always obey their husbands, and even if a husband hit his wife, nobody was concerned about it. Nobody doubted that the battered wife was wrong because she had made her husband angry. Nobody accused her husband of violence because his wife belonged to him. In other words, it was common for a housewife to endure the tyranny of her spouse. She tended to blame herself for being selfish or defiant towards her husband. This belief that men had a right to abuse women perpetuated offensive situations. It is said that once this kind of relationship is established, people tend to become conditioned to accepting violence as a reasonable means of settling conflicts inside the home, which creates a vicious cycle of DV. Therefore violence itself went generally unrecognized and underreported. It was considered a private matter so the actual state of DV cases went on behind the paper screen and was not brought into the open.


However, the tide has turned. Thanks to the declining birthrate and the spectacular economic development of Japan, more and more young women have had access to higher education and learned the rights of equality and entitlements under post-World War II conditions. Women now represent 47 percent of the working population.[5] They are willing to enter the workforce and acquire an independent spirit and financial power. They have stopped being hesitant to speak out, expressing their own opinions and put a higher value on self-fulfillment. In the process, many women have become less patient and less tolerant than they used to be about tyrannical or unreasonable treatment while many men have held onto the illusion that they are superior to women and can control their wives, without realizing the change in womenfs attitudes and ways of thinking. This discrepancy between men and women is one of causes that have brought DV into the open; DV is now finally being recognized, and DV cases are now on the news program. According to a survey conducted among 4500 women in Tokyo in 1998, one third of them experienced domestic violence.[6] The skeleton in the closet has been exposed at last.


Changes in society and among men have not matched the changes occurring among women. Though the Constitution guarantees equality of the sexes, a male-dominated society cannot change overnight. Womenfs anticipated liberation has not become reality. It can change only little by little, and for a number of reasons. Firstly, the number of female policy-makers in government is far smaller than men in that position. This is not surprising when one considers that pre-war women had no rights of suffrage.@ Secondly, the Constitution guarantees a married couple the right to choose their family name from either of their existing surnames, but in spite of that right, almost all women adopt their husbandsf surnames when getting married. It shows us that the traditional patriarchal system has persisted, though some married couples are recently requiring separate surnames within families. Thirdly, the ratio of womenfs average wages to menfs is 63.1 percent[7] and the majority of women workers are part-timers who work outside the home in addition to their gtraditionalh housework. Almost all wives are still supposed to do the housework while men are compelled to concentrate on their work in the Japanese industrial structure, so as a consequence, many husbands are indifferent to housework as a womanfs chore. This indifference illustrates unchanged systematic discrimination against women as a part of the workforce and also in society. The main family breadwinner is the husband.


It seems that these conditions allow men to maintain the illusion of their superiority over women. It is easy to imagine what may happen between an old-fashioned arrogant husband and an assertive gender-conscious wife who has become aware of her rights. The man resists the disposal of his vested privileges while the newly awakened woman insists on her rights. Arguments between unyielding couples may tend to escalate to DV. Even though women begin to be conscious of their own value, they are still weaker and more powerless physically and financially than men, at least for the present.


With the increasing disclosure of DV cases, more people have begun to realize that this problem is a serious one. Violence against women used to be a hidden epidemic. Now many victims have dared to bring it out into the open and deal with it seriously, and not be daunted. Such women have even sued their own husbands for violence against them. Thanks to the brave actions and efforts of victims and supporters, at last the law against domestic violence was enacted in October 2001. Under this law, violence by a spouse is regarded as a crime for the first time, though the penalty for the crime is minor. For court judgments of DV cases in 2000 involving gseriously injured from long term abusesh, the average penalty was only seven to eight months imprisonment.[8] But it still represents one big step towards preventing DV, for it publicly asserts that those who must be blamed are not battered women but battering men. Revealing a hidden stigma to the public through legitimate intervention initiates awareness that can act as a form of deterrence against DV.


Biological Revolution

Radical feminists argued that the roots of womenfs oppression are biological and concluded that a gbiological revolutionh[9] was needed to liberate women. They claimed that women must seize control of their bodies and thus the means of reproduction in order to eliminate the sexual class system to deconstruct relations between men and women as oppressors and the oppressed. They dissuaded women from being a sex of child-bearers[RC1] . They thought it was the clearest way to emancipate women from the heavy domestic burden and from the humiliating state of being second-class citizens in society. They argued that women should renounce natural maternity and recommended advanced medical technology such as test-tube babies, egg or sperm banks and artificial placentas to directly control the power of reproduction. Radical feminists assert that the role of females in the reproductive process will become as minor as that of the male. Genital heterosexuality, which institutionalizes sexual intercourse as means of ensuring human reproduction, will disappear. The demise of the heterosexual patriarchal family as a reproductive unit will follow. If these conditions achieved, then more women could enter the workforce without any obstacles. If it were not for distinct reproductive and productive roles, it would be possible to overcome gender discrimination. Biological motherhood is not only the root of oppression but also the vice of possessiveness. To put an end to the divisive hierarchies, it is necessary to discard this biological chain. DV originates from the malesf dominance over females, taking advantages of womenfs sex. So this measure is the first step not to give rise to DV. It might not work as a sovereign remedy, but will have an effect, slowly but surely.


It may seem that this feminist argument is too extreme to immediately implement in reality. Women in general rarely think to use such modern technology and instead, maneuver to give birth naturally, except couples who are suffering infertility but longing for a baby. Young women, however, have indeed begun to notice that marriage and having children constrain them socially. With this realization, besides gaining economic power, women today want to ward off such burdens and postpone the time to marry or reject marriage or childbirth. It used to be said that marriage was a lifelong job, the only way to survive for women. However, now Chizuko Ueno argues that gthe phenomenon of staying unmarried longer and having fewer children is a kind of silent resistance against male-dominated society, refusing to play the submissive role in life.h[10] Now girls have begun to want to live their own lives by not victimizing themselves. Changing attitudes of Japanese women are signs of independence from men and a stand against menfs tyranny, to prevent male dominance.



Japanese women used to be forced to live in a patriarchal and hierarchical society, enduring persistent oppression from men and society until the end of World War II. Society was not at all concerned with the plight of women suffering from DV as it was viewed as private. Many victims had no way to escape from violence at home because they could not survive alone without any economic power. They endured silently, resigning themselves to their fate. However, along with other significant social changes that have taken place in post-war Japan, women have changed gradually, with access to higher education and to the workforce as the Japanese economy developed. They have begun to realize that there is no reason why they must accept unreasonable treatment at home or in the workplace. They have begun to defy their mothersf precepts of a good mother and a good wife. They understand that they cannot move forward as long as they are confined to a traditional subservient womanfs role obediently in silence. More and more victims have begun to reveal their DV cases, without flinching. More than 10,000 women filed divorce suits on the basis of their husbandsf violence, according to the Annual Statistics of Administration Justice in 1997. Their predicaments have become widely known and society gradually has begun to pay attention to them and perceive that DV is not a private matter but a crime. As more and more women began to confront and deal with this problem bravely, Japanese society finally recognized the need to save the victims. The Domestic Violence Prevention Law was enacted in April 2001. It determined that each local government should run more than one public shelter as a minimum requirement. Shelters were set up nationwide as temporary evacuation centers for victims of DV. There are more than 45 private shelters in 2001, up from only 7 in 1995. These changes show great progress over the past ten years.


More and more young women have begun to choose their own way of living independently and freely, choosing a single life or career life. Women have begun to realize their own power under these movements and efforts. They should decide and choose their own lifestyle themselves and place value on their individual dignity. Stephanie Coontz[11] said, gThis trend is irreversible,h in her lecture about the importance of our adjustment to the new living environment at a seminar held on 24th of November in 2002 in Nagoya. Womenfs decisive attitudes towards such issues as breaking the silence about DV, not enduring irrational treatment and advocating their own rights are necessary in Japan to raise public awareness of the concept of equality of the sexes. Now is a transitional period in a long and painful process toward womenfs liberation.




Chunichi Shinbun Newspaper, eIzon to enjo wa atarimaef (It is a matter of course to depend and support each other), February 3, 2004.

Domestic Violence, <http://law.ris.ac.jp/ilc01/contents/991100043/> on Feb/5/2004 at 10:23 a.m., Japan time.

Firestone, Sulamith (1979) The Dialectic of Sex, The Womenfs Press: London.

Higuchi, Yoichi (2001) Five Decades of Constitutionalism in Japanese Society, University of Tokyo Press: Tokyo.

Okamura, Hitomi (1998) Kazoku to iu shinwa (Myth of family), Chikumashobo: Tokyo.

The Japan Times online, <http://wwwjapntimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/geted.p15?eo2002818a1.htm> on Feb/5/2004 at 10:47 a.m., Japan time.

Tong, Rosemarie (1984) Women, Sex and the Law, Roman & Littlefield Publishers inc: Maryland.

Tong, Rosemarie (1989) Feminist thought: A comprehensive Introduction, Unwin Hyman: London.

Urufu-kai (1971) Onna kara Onnatachi he (From a woman to women), Godo-shuppan: Tokyo.

WOM: Japanese Women Now, <http://wom-jp.org/e/JWOMEN/dv.html> on Feb/2/2004 at 9:45 p.m., Japan time.



[1] Domestic Violence, <http://law.ris.ac.jp/ilc01/contents/991100043/> on Feb./5/2004 at 10:23 a.m., Japan time.

[2] Radical feminism rose in the 1970fs in the U.S. Its argument is womenfs oppression is originated in patriarchy and sexism.

[3] Typical feminists are Sulamith Firestone in the U.S. and Mitsu Tanaka in Japan. They claim the emancipation from the men-dominated society and from the role of reproduction.

[4] Firestone, Sulamith (1979) The Dialectic of Sex, The Womenfs Press: London.

[5]Rodosho-no-seisaku gaiyo (An outline of the Labor Ministryfs policy) 3, <http://www2.mhlw.go.jp/topics/seisaku> on Feb./4/2003 at 11:21 p.m., Japan time.

[6] Domestic Violence, op. cit.

[7] Higuchi, Yoichi (2001) Five Decades of Constitutionalism in Japanese Society, University of Tokyo Press: Tokyo.

[8] WOM: Japanese Women Now, <http://wom-jp.org/e/JWOMEN/dv.html,> on Feb./2/2004 at 9:45 p.m., Japan time.

[9] Tong, Rosemarie (1989) Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction, Unwin Hyman: London.

[10] Chunichi Shinbun Newspaper, eIzon to enjo wa atarimaef (It is a matter of course to depend and support each other), February 3, 2004.

[11] Coontz, Stephanie, professor of the Evergreen State College and the author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, Basic Books.

 [RC1]I donft understand this phrase


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