Coronavirus: Rise in domestic violence victims, for whom home is not a safe place

Apartment buildings in Japan on March 6, 2020.
Apartment buildings in Japan on March 6, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - A night of conversation at home, over dinner and alcohol, turned tragic on Sunday (April 5) for a Tokyo couple who had followed advice not to go out due to the coronavirus outbreak.

A toxic mix of factors - inebriation from 5½ hours of drinking, the stress of spending hours cooped up at home and mounting pressure over household finances - led husband Kazuo Makino, 59, to snap when his wife, Miki, 57, told him her income would be hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We had an argument over our income and I lost control of myself," Kazuo, who was arrested, reportedly told investigators. He admitted to striking her, causing a fall that led to her death from a head injury.

In another case, Japanese actor Makoto Sakamoto, 42, who has appeared in drama serials like Liar Game (2007), was arrested for allegedly assaulting his wife and mother-in-law.

The women were not injured, and he has denied attacking them.

These cases raise concerns about domestic violence in Japan - and around the world - as people are asked to stay home to slam the brakes on the spread of the coronavirus.

The restrictions on movement have led to increasing social and economic strain, and United Nations chief Antonio Guterres on Monday (April 6) called on governments to include protections for women and girls as a key part of Covid-19 countermeasures.

"For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest: in their own homes," he said, noting a "horrifying global surge in domestic violence".

He suggested safe ways to protect victims from their abusers such as keeping shelters open, and setting up emergency warning systems in pharmacies and supermarkets.

The UN said that calls to helplines have tripled in China and doubled in Malaysia and Lebanon as compared with the same period last year.

No immediate figures were available for Japan, whose Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Tuesday that he "has not received any reports or indications" that domestic violence was surging domestically.

 
 

But he vowed to strengthen support for shelters for abuse victims, when asked about the threat at a news conference announcing state of emergency measures covering seven prefectures.

"We need to be vigilant, and we want all victims to report any cases of domestic or child abuse immediately."

Already, the number of cases of domestic violence has risen for 16 straight years and set another new high last year, National Police Agency data showed last month.

The police launched probes into 9,161 incidents last year, up 73 from 2018. Nine in 10 involved assault, while there were 110 cases of attempted murder and three murder cases.

Meanwhile, there were 82,207 consultations for domestic violence in total last year, an increase of 4,725 cases.

The rise in cases even without an unfurling pandemic is why support groups like the All Japan Women's Shelter Network are concerned over the potential threat.

Hiroshima University's Associate Professor Chisato Kitanaka, who heads the network, wrote a letter to the Cabinet Office last Tuesday saying: "Many consultation centres in local governments have cancelled in-person counselling, making it difficult to provide support at a time when domestic violence is worsening."

 
 
 

The letter cited one victim as saying that her husband, who is telecommuting, "became stressed and began to physically assault me and our children".

Prof Kitanaka said that the threat is made worse as victims now have few avenues to turn to if consultation centres and shelters are closed, and hardly any chances to seek help if they are at home all the time with their assailants.

An online petition by social worker Maki Sato calling for Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike to take urgent measures drew 30,000 signatures within one week.

"We must not overlook the fact that home is not a safe place for many people," said the 36-year-old.