A few days ago I received copies of newspaper articles from a friend in Japan that reported on the case of a female defendant accused of murdering her abusive partner. Although the Nagoya District Court found the woman guilty of using excessive force in the act of self-defense, it did not sentence her to any prison time.

    The Nagoya decision sets a remarkable precedent. Until now, the courts have been reluctant to admit self-defense claims by female defendants whose crimes were committed in the context of domestic violence, and have usually imposed prison terms in self-defense cases involving excessive force.

    While supporters in Japan had hoped for full acquittal, I doubted that the court would understand this murder’s context of abuse, as male judges are deeply influenced by the patriarchal structure of Japanese society. Yet in a surprising decision, the court did not condemn her and in fact sincerely empathized with her tragedy, a highly uncommon attitude for a Japanese court to adopt. The court found that the accused woman had been abused many times by her partner during their seven- year relationship, and that many of her bones including her ribs had been broken. In fact, she had been so often severely injured that she required treatment by a doctor eight times. As a result of these injuries, the woman decided to leave her partner and asked for help from an official organization for women. However, she eventually found that she could not remain separated and returned to the abusive relationship. Ultimately, on the day of the fatal incident, her partner stabbed her in the neck with a knife while drinking, then passed out. When she saw her abuser deeply asleep, she then stabbed him, killing him so that he could never harm her again. Later, he died as a result of his wound.

    The favorable outcome in the Nagoya court contrasted with a similar case of mine six years ago. In that case, I failed to establish self-defense for my client, another abused woman who had killed her violent husband while he was sleeping.

    At the time, I did not exactly know what kind of problem domestic violence was, nor how it should be dealt with in legal and social contexts. Preparing my client’s defense in Japan, I could find only one book about domestic violence, a Japanese translation of the development of a battered women’s shelter in England. With this one book I could give the judges and prosecutors little information on domestic violence, and they never seemed very interested in the topic anyway.

    Furthermore, the concept of domestic violence as a social problem did not even exist in the Japanese language. I only knew the words “battered wife” or “battered women” in English. Consequently, I was frustrated in my attempt to make the court understand the nature of this case. My client was sentenced to a seven-year prison term even though the court recognized that she had constantly suffered violence at the hand of her husband.

    Looking back, I am deeply impressed with the rapid progress in Japan’s recognition of domestic violence. The landmark decision by the Nagoya District Court is a notable outcome of Japanese women’s action on the issue of domestic violence in recent years. Even though Japanese women have just begun to combat domestic abuse, we are still far from our goals: a social environment where women can live and work safely, and a court system which no longer ignores domestic violence and recognizes its victims. Yet I sense that profound changes are occurring in Japan in both the social and legal understandings of domestic abuse.

    Organizing Begins

    Before Japanese women raised the issue of domestic violence, we struggled for the legal recognition of sexual harassment, long a severe problem for many Japanese women. In 1989 Japan’s first sexual harassment case was filed, and feminist activists formed a grassroots movement to support the plaintiff in this lawsuit. Since the courts had never recognized the issue before, we collected evidence to show the prevalence of sexual harassment in Japan and the severity of its impact on working women. We submitted the results to the court as evidence for the plaintiff, who eventually won a settlement of 1.65 million yen. The result was widely covered by the Japanese media, and SE- KU-HA-RA, an abbreviation of the English sexual harassment, became a household word.

    That same year we received a delegation from the Japan Pacific Resources Network (JPRN), a group working for women’s and minority rights in the United States. Meeting with Japanese women’s groups, the JPRN presented a series of workshops on sexual harassment and provided important contacts with the international women’s movement.

    Then in April 1992, the second Asian Women’s Conference was held in Japan, where our group held a workshop entitled, “Patriarchy and Violence Against Women.” Although domestic violence had existed in Japan for a long time, the workshop helped participants consider the issue from an explicitly critical, feminist point of view.

    In Japan, domestic violence is so pervasive that it is considered a normal part of marriage, never recognized as a serious social problem, and lacking even an appropriate term in the Japanese language. Moreover, battered women have been deprived of any social institution where they can confront domestic violence.

    In order to effectively combat domestic violence, we must closely examine why our society has ignored or denied this issue. The most important reason is that in Japan men and women are not equal socially, economically or politically, in both private and public life. This inequality reflects the strong patriarchal structure of the family and society as a whole. Once a woman marries, she becomes a member of her husband’s family. As a result, she is considered a possession of her husband, sometimes even a possession of her husband’s family. Many Japanese use the verbs of giving and obtaining when referring to a bride. Japanese courts and many major legal scholars support this concept of possession of a wife, affirming that marital rape is not a crime, or a rape at all, but simply the exercise of the legal power of a husband. This concept of possession has also been strengthened by the extremely precarious economic status of women, who typically earn half the income of men. This unequal status continues despite a constitution which clearly guarantees equality between the sexes.

    Research on Domestic Violence in Japan

    As a first step towards publicizing this issue, we knew we needed to document the reality of domestic violence in Japan. Thus members of the workshop undertook a review of court documents and then planned a nationwide survey on domestic violence in Japan. Domestic violence research was unprecedented in Japan, especially research explicitly designed to help protect women.

    In our review of statistics compiled by the Japanese Supreme Court, we found that abuses against women were among the leading motives of women filing divorce petitions in family courts. Among all causes of divorce, physical violence by the husband was second only to irreconcilable differences, while men’s emotional violence against their wives ranked fifth. Yet we must be cautious about placing too much emphasis on the numbers from annual court reports since more than 90 percent of divorce cases in Japan are settled by mutual agreement outside the family courts. As a women’s rights lawyer, I have dealt with many divorce cases and can attest that almost all of these cases involve physical, emotional, or sexual violence or some combination of these. Lawyers who deal with divorce cases confirm this pattern.

    Armed with this data, we initiated a non-representative survey of battered women in order to define this problem of domestic abuse. We wanted not simply to collect statistics, but also to raise consciousness of domestic violence as a social problem so that women could begin to exercise their rights to live in safety. We stated our purpose in literature accompanying the questionnaire: 1) to determine the reality of violence against women, 2) to illuminate how severely violence had impacted women physically and emotionally, 3) to know how women perceive the violence which they have suffered, 4) to find out what kinds of social support women victims of domestic violence needed in order to survive, 5) to make clear that domestic violence is not a private issue but a public one, 6) to propose what steps should be taken to resolve this issue, and 7) to give women the most basic recognition of their abuse, by means of the opportunity to respond to this questionnaire.

    Before our survey, certain myths codified a folklore about domestic violence: fortunately domestic violence exists only in the United States; Japanese women should recognize that they live in a very safe country unlike the United States; and if domestic violence exists in Japan at all, it only occurs in low-income households and among the uneducated. Yet another tenet was that victims of domestic violence are economically dependent homemakers or else they would escape from their abusive husbands. However, the results of our survey contradicted all of these myths.

    After pilot testing, we distributed 4,675 anonymous questionnaires throughout a wide-ranging network comprised of lawyers, social workers, women’s shelters, community service centers, and women’s rights groups, many established during the first sexual harassment lawsuit. After seven months, a total of 708 questionnaires had been returned to us. Many respondents were battered women. Other women gave their opinions on societal responsibilities on the issue of domestic violence.

    Through their responses, many women told their stories of abuse for the first time. These accounts would hardly have been taken seriously if they had been told to an acquaintance, even a relative. Half the women were still involved in abusive relationships, yet courageously responded to the survey. Many more were eager to give opinions about how to prevent domestic violence or about the kinds of support they needed in order to survive.

    The Hidden Stories

    The 708 women who responded to the survey ranged in age from 20 to 80, most in their 30s and 40s. Respondents tended to have slightly higher levels of education than the average for Japanese women, with the majority having college degrees. Seventy percent of the women were employed, although few had well-paying jobs by Japanese standards. Still, half the women came from households earning more than the national average.

    A distinct profile of the abuser emerged. Fully 86 percent of the women were abused principally by their husbands, 13 percent by lovers or boyfriends. With respect to their job situations, almost all the abusers were employed when they had acted violently. Only 13 percent were blue-collar workers, the rest working in clerical, sales, management or the professions. Almost all the professions were represented in the batterer class, from national university professors, to doctors, lawyers, executives and even a religious minister. These results refute the myth that domestic violence in Japan exists solely in a working- class environment.

    The questionnaire included inquiries about three categories of violence: physical, emotional, and sexual. The majority of respondents suffered all three types. The tables in the box on this page summarize the types and frequencies of violence suffered by the respondents.

    What happened in terms of medical treatment for these injuries? More than 40 percent of the injured did not visit a doctor despite the severity of their wounds. Some undoubtedly failed to report injuries because they felt ashamed about being injured by their husbands. But we must also note that some husbands had banned their wives from access to a doctor. For those who did visit a doctor, they spent an average of 22 days under treatment (not including cases where the injury was permanent). Fully 12.4 percent spent more than two months in treatment.

    No one doubts that if these injuries had been caused by anyone other than the victims spouse, the abuse would have been considered a criminal act. Even though many respondents were severely injured, about 25 percent of the women never told anybody about their experiences before this survey.

    Women also reported many types of emotional and sexual abuse. These results reveal the hidden lives of battered women, but more importantly they show that domestic violence is a public issue that must be confronted by Japanese society as a whole. Domestic violence has long been considered a matter between spouses alone, so that in order to respect marital privacy, neither the government nor the society should intervene in such disputes. Yet only two percent of the respondents agreed with this shopworn opinion. The victims themselves eagerly desire help from society to effectively combat domestic violence.

    Activism Pays Off

    When we released our preliminary report in 1993, it sent shock waves throughout Japan. Although the news media covered the story, the national government did not take any concrete action to protect battered women. In response to central government inaction, some local governments and women’s organizations started projects to aid victims of domestic violence.

    Women not involved in the study called or wrote to tell us of their own experiences. Others expressed great empathy with other respondents. These reactions convinced us of the pervasiveness of domestic violence in Japan.

    We published our final results in April 1995, submitting them to the Nagoya District Court as evidence for the defense of the abused woman who killed her husband. Our activism paid off when the court acknowledged the woman’s situation of domestic abuse and decided not to sentence her to any jail time. I believe that the court was unable to ignore the rising awareness of domestic violence, both in Japan and internationally.

    The Next Step

    In 1993 the United Nations held a World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, where the issues of violence against women and domestic violence were central items on the agenda. Our group, the Research and Study Group on Domestic Violence (Otto kara no Boryoku ni kansuru Chosa Kenkyu Group), attended this conference, and the experience helped us refine our efforts. Many Japanese womens groups began preparation for the U.N.’s Fourth International Conference on Women in 1995, where violence against women was again a central topic. In the wake of these conferences, Japanese women have allied with international groups, expanding their understanding of domestic violence, and increasing activities in Japan.

    Like U.S. women struggling for the recognition of domestic violence in the 1970s, Japanese women today want to develop enough power, both as individuals and as a group, to confront this problem. Unlike the United States, we still do not have any law specifically prohibiting domestic violence. We lack civil protection orders for battered women or criminal procedures which would guarantee their enforcement. And Japan still has no anti-stalking law, as Japanese law has no conception of the practice of stalking.

    We understand that such legal procedures have increased the safety of battered women in the United States, but for now we women in Japan must content ourselves with extra-judicial aid from small private organizations or women’s groups. Support for the victims of abuse today consists of only a few shelters for victims, a few hot-line counseling services, and other humble but necessary efforts. However limited our protection, our struggle against domestic violence has begun.

    We clearly know that domestic violence exists and that the standard myths about it are baseless, inaccurate and harmful. We continue to benefit from the knowledge and experience of many women from all over the world. During my stay here at the University of Michigan, I have been researching judicial procedures, social programs and other policies introduced to address domestic violence in the United States over the past twenty years as a research fellow at the Law School. The various tactics and solutions we have proposed, and sometimes have succeeded in implementing, are the legacy of dedicated activists and countless victims working together to eradicate these social ills. We now understand quite clearly what we must do to combat domestic violence.

    Despite our new awareness, the reality for most battered women has yet to change. It is time for Japan to implement what many respondents asked for in our survey: appropriate and efficacious policies that will protect women from domestic violence and assist them in achieving true equality in society and in their personal lives.


    These numbers reflect a non-representative sample of Japanese women, many of whom had sought help for abuse. They are intended to give the reader a sense of the kinds of abuse most common in Japanese society

    Survey results by type of violence suffered (n=708)
    Physical violence 76.2%
    Emotional violence 85.3%
    Sexual violence 77.2%
    Women who report suffering all three types 57.4%
    Frequencies of those reporting physical violence (n=467)
    Slapped or hit with a fist 85.2%
    Kicked, stomped or thrown around 67.5%
    Grabbed, shaken or arms twisted 56.5%
    Hit by thrown objects 56.1%
    Frequencies of injuries of those reporting physical violence (n=285)
    Bruises or black eyes 64.9%
    Cuts 20.0%
    Bone fractures 15.4%
    Broken ear-drums 9.8%
    Frequencies of those reporting emotional abuse (n=523)
    Repeatedly ridiculed, belittled, insulted 74.2%
    Verbally threatened with divorce, physical harm or death 31.7%
    Restricted or prohibited from contact with family or friends 43.8%
    Shown little empathy while sick/pregnant 41.7%
    Forced into humiliating, degrading acts 20.5%
    Frequencies of types of abuse of those reporting sexual abuse (n=473)
    Forced to have sex with the abuser 81.4%
    Forced sex while family members home 40.2%
    Sexual performance/appearance criticized 26.4%
    Forced sex involving physical violence 25.2%
    Partner refused to use contraceptives 30.2%
    Forced to view pornography 13.5%

    (Survey information provided by the author)

    Yukiko Tsunoda was a visiting research scholar at the University of Michigan Law School in 1995. She is also a practicing attorney in Japan, specializing in gender discrimination and domestic violence.