Face-to-Face with Japan’s Female Leaders

Domestic Violence Expert Nobuta Sayoko: How Many More Deaths Until We See Change?

Society Health Family

Clinical psychologist Nobuta Sayako has tackled issues of domestic violence and family matters for many years. In May 2021, Nobuta appeared on a current affairs program about child abuse that asked if children could rightfully abandon their parents, provoking considerable reaction. Inuyama Kamiko, founding member of Kodomo Gift, a funding project supporting victims of child abuse, talks with Nobuta about the handling of domestic violence in Japan.

Nobuta Sayoko

Certified clinical psychologist. An advisor for the Harajuku Counseling Center and spokesperson for the NPO Respectful Relationship Program Study Group . Engaged in programs to rehabilitate perpetrators of domestic violence and group-counseling for adult survivors of child abuse and victims of domestic violence. Writings include Kagaisha wa kawareru ka? DV to gyakutai o mitsumenagara (Can Perpetrators Change? Focusing on Domestic Violence and Child Abuse). Her most recent publication is Kazoku to kokka wa kyōbō suru: Sabaibaru kara rejisutansu e (Family and State in Collusion: From Survival to Resistance).

Slow Progress in Domestic Violence Law Reform

INUYAMA KAMIKO  I wanted to talk with you after I heard your online seminar in May 2021 entitled “Victims of Domestic Violence.” I’m engaged in volunteer activities for the prevention of child abuse, while you’re deeply involved in abuse and domestic violence, but in Japan, the compartmentalized bureaucracy separates handling of these issues.

NOBUTA SAYOKO  You’re correct. Currently, domestic violence requires a formal complaint from the victim in order to prosecute, the same as sexual assault. If the victim stays silent, it is not considered a crime. For over twenty years, victim support groups such as mine have been calling for changes to the legal system so that the police can arrest someone on suspicion of domestic violence. If such laws were in place, perpetrators could be required by court order to undergo rehabilitation. But at present, there’s no change in sight.

INUYAMA  We’re lagging far behind the rest of the world.

NOBUTA  Well, we’ve made a little progress. Domestic violence is under the jurisdiction of the Cabinet Office. Their 2019 report stated that “Rehabilitation programs for perpetrators could be indispensable in victim support.”

INUYAMA  Only “could be!” The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare is responsible for the area of child abuse—is there any coordination between these authorities?

NOBUTA  You no doubt recall the 2018 child abuse case in Meguro, Tokyo, when a five-year-old girl died, allegedly after being abused by her parents. This was followed in 2019 by the case in Noda, Chiba Prefecture, where a ten-year-old girl was found dead at her home, and her father was charged with inflicting bodily injuries resulting in death. In 2020, soon after these two incidents, I served on a committee launched to coordinate between those handling domestic violence and child abuse. We developed a handbook explaining how to deal with situations such as when a mother is the victim of domestic violence while her child is in the custody of a child consultation center. Unfortunately, none of it is enforceable.

INUYAMA  I see. But it does show that your years of effort are starting to have a wider impact.

NOBUTA  I certainly hope so. I ask myself how many more victims will die before things change. It feels like they are human sacrifices.

Nobuta Sayoko. (© Uwadaira Tsunebumi)
Nobuta Sayoko. (© Uwadaira Tsunebumi)

Mothers Are Not to Blame

INUYAMA  Nothing happens until a young girl dies. When an incident occurs, I sense the media’s misunderstanding of domestic-violence-related issues. People ask why the mother didn’t leave, or suggest that she could have escaped easily. While these misconceptions endure, victims of domestic violence are blamed, and it makes it harder to care for the children down the track.

On a different note, in your seminar, you spoke about sophisticated power harassment and sophisticated sexual harassment. These two terms you coined left a strong impression on me.

NOBUTA  I also speak of sophisticated domestic violence. For example, a man may stealthily isolate his wife and deliberately badger her, causing her to lose her temper with their child. He records this and alleges that it is child abuse. When they divorce, this is used as evidence to revoke her right to custody. Transcriptions are made of large amounts of recordings—all planned out.

INUYAMA  They ensure that the victim is silenced. What’s your advice if someone you know is subjected to bullying or domestic violence? What can an individual do? I’m sure many readers would like to know.

NOBUTA  I created a list classified by the key complaint. For example, in cases of violence, in addition to the perpetrator and victim, there is another category, “concerned onlookers.” These people are not directly involved, but are on the periphery, wondering if they can help. Their presence is crucial. I want to better educate these people about domestic violence and bullying. I understand the urge to tell someone to leave their partner, but without understanding what it’s like to be a victim of domestic violence, it’s hard to know what steps to take. Firstly, I teach them that even financial pressure is a form of domestic violence.

INUYAMA  It’s true that some victims deny their situation.

NOBUTA  That’s because of the common belief that domestic violence requires separation. It’s only normal that a housewife raising children is unable to leave. It’s this that leads women to makes excuses for their husband, for example, claiming that he has a developmental disorder, so his behavior can’t be helped.

INUYAMA  Yes, I see.

NOBUTA  That’s why I want women to know that separation is not the only solution for victims of domestic violence. If their husband undergoes rehabilitation and is able to change, it’s not imperative to separate. I also want concerned onlookers to understand this. Their best option is to help their friend to get in touch with a reliable third-party organization.

INUYAMA  To clarify, nobody comes forward admitting that they are a perpetrator of domestic violence, right?

NOBUTA  Of course not. They come begrudgingly, even with a sense of victimhood. In nine out of ten cases, they claim that their wife is the perpetrator, but that they were forced to attend a rehabilitation program or their wife wouldn’t come back, and they couldn’t see their children again.

Inuyama Kamiko. (© Uwadaira Tsunebumi)
Inuyama Kamiko. (© Uwadaira Tsunebumi)

A Conscious Effort to Rationalize

INUYAMA  They don’t realize that they are the perpetrator. Many believe the abuse is a form of discipline.

NOBUTA  When I tell them they are the perpetrator without giving them a chance to justify themselves, they break down. Some respond by emphasizing how much they earn for the family. I challenge them: “What, about 200 million yen a year?” This puts them on the back foot. I don’t push it any further verbally, but I certainly say it with my eyes.

INUYAMA  [Laughs] A friend of mine is a full-time housewife, even when she was ill with a fever and the children were crying, her husband wouldn’t lift a finger to help with housework.

NOBUTA  That’s a recent story? Not samurai-era?

INUYAMA  Yes. [Laughs] But she believes she must do all the housework and raise the children, because she doesn’t earn anything.

NOBUTA  That’s not right.

INUYAMA  I tell her that, but she doesn’t get it. I suppose she’s convinced herself.

NOBUTA  Regardless of their personal financial resources, though, these women have studied and are knowledgeable.

INUYAMA  I was surprised to hear that many victims of domestic violence are actually cheerful and eloquent, and often give a logical explanation.

NOBUTA  They are constantly questioned by their husbands: “Why do you say that? Explain yourself,” so they become excessively logical. Even when I tell them “It’s fine, I understand you,” they blame themselves for expressing things poorly and being hard to understand. They’ve started to believe it after being told so by their husbands repeatedly. Even women who now have financial resources are subjected to harassment. In these cases, for some reason, the women feel themselves guilty. Also, the family court is tough on women who have their own financial resources.

The Family Court’s Outdated View of the Family

INUYAMA  Really?

NOBUTA The family court’s view of the family is decades out of date. When women have their own finances, the court’s preconception is that they are still mainly supported by their husband, or that they probably don’t raise the children properly. The conservativeness of Japan’s family court leads to over-protection of the husband’s position. The attitude underlying this is epitomized by the defense given by politicians for requiring the same surname for married couples: “husband and wife are one.”

INUYAMA  They certainly have a limited understanding of the issues. So it’s easier for a woman to move out and tell her husband that she won’t come home unless he undergoes rehabilitation.

NOBUTA  Exactly. It’s actually the husbands who call most loudly for a divorce who are least likely to actually want to separate. So when the chips go down on the table, they’re forced into action. That’s why I recommend women to have enough money for one night in a capsule hotel and to prepare a farewell letter. I included a sample letter in my book: “I believe your actions are domestic violence. It’s too hard for me to stay with you for now, so I’m moving out for a while. If you want to see me again, please call this number and join a domestic violence offender rehabilitation program. When I know you’ve taken the program, I might meet you again away from the house.” Many women have taken this course of action, with an 80 percent success rate.

INUYAMA  That’s amazing!

NOBUTA  They shouldn’t meet at the home, and should avoid saying they will return. The letter uses a few psychological techniques and is deliberately worded to remain noncommittal. Nevertheless, over half the women who stay at a domestic violence shelter go back to their husbands. Their husband shaves off his hair and sends a photo saying he’s sorry, and the wife gives in.

INUYAMA  But he’s not really!

NOBUTA  Still, the wives return. Then, about a year later, they’re back in the same situation. But she can’t stay at a shelter a second time.

INUYAMA  That’s outrageous.

The Impact on the Children

NOBUTA  One more thing to remember is that when the wife endures violence, it has repercussions for the children. Over the past five or so years, it has become clear that when domestic violence takes place in front of children, it has a deep impact on them. In the perpetrator rehabilitation programs, 60 to 90 percent of participants grew up witnessing their father’s violence toward their mother. Deep inside they know that they are acting the same as their father. Building on the belief that they were close to their father, they go on to conclude that it must have been their mother who provoked their father. Finding similarities helps them to believe that there’s nothing wrong with them.

INUYAMA  By justifying their father’s actions, they can justify their own?

NOBUTA  They say that the violence upset them when they were young, but now, “as a grown man,” they understand. I call it “joining hands,” but it represents a homosocial deal. Parental abuse of a child is very simple: adults only abuse a kid they know can’t retaliate. With a son, once he grows taller than his father, it stops. On the other hand, it never ends for daughters.

Abandoning One’s Parents

INUYAMA  I recall the huge reaction after you appeared on an NHK current affairs program in May 2021 that asked if children could rightfully abandon their parents.

NOBUTA  The reaction on Twitter was overwhelming.

INUYAMA  On the program, the daughter explained that, despite having been abused, as the only daughter, there was no one else who could care for her parents in their old age.

NOBUTA  What surprised me was that parents contacted me. They worried that they hadn’t heard from their children in years and asked if they’d been abandoned.

INUYAMA  It’s sad that their motivation is to ensure they get cared for.

NOBUTA  There’s no legal requirement of care giving. When parents and children separate, in the end, it’s a financial matter. According to an attorney I spoke with, the only requirement to sever the parent-child relationship is renouncing the right of inheritance. It dawned on me that parent-child ties are essentially just monetary. The Japanese system is relatively cut-and-dry. It just requires the courage to take that step.

INUYAMA  I see. I appreciate your advice on how to reach out to someone who’s in trouble. I’ll do what I can as a concerned onlooker. Thank you for your time.

(Originally published in Japanese. Written by Hayashida Junko based on the discussion. Banner photo: Nobuta Sayoko, at left, and Inuyama Kamiko. © Uwadaira Tsunebumi.)

marriage children domestic violence abuse divorce