HIRAKATA, JAPAN — Having worked as a telephone operator for 40 years and raised three children, Mie Ueda, a resident of Hirakata, Japan, finally retired in December 1993to enjoy long-awaited free time.
Her days were filled with luncheons and teas with her friends, gym workouts, and water aerobics lessons. She and her husband traveled to hot springs and made occasional overseas trips. This is what many Japanese dream of after they retire.
Ms. Ueda, however, found it "boring." So she began thinking about using her work experience to fulfill a longtime dream - helping other women. As she was wondering how to do that, sheran into an old acquaintance - a city council member, who told her about the problem of domestic violence.
Little did Ueda, who had never before heard the term domestic violence, realize that she would soon become one of the most visible activists in the fight against a widespreadbut little-discussedproblem.
According to a nationwide government survey in 2000, 27.5 percent of Japanese wives said they had been beaten by their husbands, and 4.6 percent of women in another study said spousal abuse had put them in a life-threatening situation. (Estimates of domestic violence against women in the US vary widely, but tend to range from less than 1 percent to a little more than 3 percent, according to the Family Violence Prevention Fund.)
Experts and activists argue, however, that since many Japanese still regard violence against women not as a violation of their human rights but as a "family matter" - a quarrel between husband and wife - the actual number of cases in that country is probably much larger than reported.
In 1996, no publicly funded shelters existed in Japan solely for victims of domestic violence. (They were mandated by law in 2001.) There were probably fewer than 30 privately funded shelters to serve the entire country.
That April, Ueda established a group called Space Enjo (Assistance). She spent 45,000 yen (about $425) of her own retirement money every month to rent a two-room apartment as an emergency shelter for battered women in Osaka, the largest city in western Japan.
Soon she was swamped with pleas for help from victims, and was appalled when some women arrived with black eyes and purplish bruises. She knew then that the situation was more serious than she had thought.
Within two years, lack of shelter space for victims became an issue at Space Enjo. So, in 1998 she rented a second apartment. Then the need for better security became an issue when some husbands tried to get into the shelters. In 2001, Ueda borrowed 24 million yen (about $226,000) from the Government Housing Loan Corp. and from her husband and daughter to purchase a four-room condominium with a state-of-the-art security system.
The three locations can accommodate 10 women (and their children, if necessary) at a time.
Since it opened, Space Enjo has sheltered more than 300 women and children. Victims are of diverse nationalities, with ages varying from 17 to 78. Ueda and other volunteers help the women meet with lawyers, real-estate agents, government employees, and others who can help them. The organization also continues to provide guidance long after the stays end, so victims can learn to become more self-reliant.
Some battered women who come to the shelters have suffered from what Ueda calls a "full course" of domestic violence, in which the husband assaults the wife physically, psychologically, and economically.
One of the worst cases she recalls was that of "Sachi." (Ueda requested that Sachi's real name not be used.)
By the time she was in her mid-50s, Sachi had been smacked, kicked, and punched by her husband. He had twisted her arms, thrown her against the front door, kicked her out of the house, and left her lying there, too debilitated to move or even say a word.
He was so autocratic that she needed his permission just to go to the bathroom. Sachi, who weighed 110 pounds when she married, had lost 37 pounds.
Her husband, a government employee who worked in its welfare division, had a good reputation at work. He often invited his colleagues home, even late at night, and made her serve them a full-course dinner. One night she washed more than a hundred dishes. As soon as the guests left, he started punching her, yelling at her, "You humiliated me."
Sachi was finally able to divorce him after 25 years.
"For 25 years! She put up with such a husband for 25 years," Ueda exclaims, rolling her eyes. "And even served his guests with a full-course Japanese dinner like a high-class restaurant."
Such experiences have caused her to consider the causes of domestic violence.
A recent government report by the Justice Ministry's Research and Training Institute indicates that alcohol and drugs play a part. The six-year study reveals that 74.9 percent of perpetrators of domestic violence in Japan were habitual drinkers, 67.2 percent had consumed alcohol before an incident of abuse, and 15.3 percent had a history of drug use.
Ueda also wonders if society should share some of the blame. She points to studies that show that many batterers are in their 30s to early 40s, which means those in her age group raised them. This has caused her to reflect on her generation's child-rearing practices and values.
"Didn't we think that children were just fine as long as they kept good grades at school or they got a job at a so-called good company?" she asks. "I have to say our generation was at fault."
Ueda has two sons and a daughter. Her two sons graduated from American universities and now work in the United States. She has visited the sons there and likes to talk about them taking very good care of their babies and doing household chores well.
Nevertheless, she deeply regrets that she and her husband, like many parents, were too busy working to spare much time for their children.
She has also come to recognize that many Japanese parents fail to understand the importance of developing their child's self- esteem. "If you don't respect yourself, you are less likely to treat your partner well," she asserts. "If you have self-esteem, you are more likely to respect your partner and others."
Ueda's mother used to tell her as she was growing up that she would be happy as an adult if she married and depended on her husband for everything.
Ueda resisted that idea. "I found it unimaginable for me to depend on just one man for my fate," she recalls. That's one reason she worked all her married life.
But many Japanese women do believe that marriage is their main goal in life. "We very often hear that someone becomes a respectable member of society once he or she gets married," Ueda says.
So, in order to keep their marriage "stable," many battered women are reluctant to report their suffering.
"Some of them even blame themselves, not their abuser, saying, 'Some of the fault might be mine,' " says Kaname Tsutsumi, a professor at Kyushu International University. "Even when a victim consults with her family members and friends about her husband's abuse, some ... still say to her, 'You'd better be patient until a child grows up.' "
"They are excessively patient," Ueda contends. "So the first thing I tell a battered woman is, 'It's not you who are wrong.' "
Along with other activists, lawyers, and victims of spousal abuse, Ueda has prodded politicians into adopting laws that protect victims of domestic violence. In April 2001, the Japanese Diet finally passed a law, which went into effect in October 2001, that allows courts to impose restraining orders against batterers.
Despite the legislation's shortcomings, its passage was a significant event for Japanese women, Ueda declares, adding that it wouldn't have become law without the efforts of victims of domestic abuse. "They are resilient, tenacious, and courageous. Had they not come forward with their courage, the laws would have never been made.... They've taught me a lot about the world I did not know."
Having escaped from her violent marriage, Sachi attended night school and learned calligraphy at the age of 60. She sent some of her work to Ueda.
"Very beautiful, isn't it? I'm going to put it in a frame and hang it on the wall here," says Ueda, beaming while showing the piece of paper.
Does she have any regrets about giving up her quiet retirement to work with battered women? "No," she responds promptly.
"What I have gained through my activity has enriched my life. Even if I could spend the rest of my life traveling as much as I want, I would be never able to grasp this richness," she says, her smile echoing her words. "I never imagined I could have a very happy life like this in my 60s."