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As I See It: Children exposed to domestic violence between parents need help

This photo shows a Tokyo Metropolitan Government pamphlet with information on the effects of domestic violence in front of children. (Mainichi)

Domestic violence between couples in front of their children was classified as psychological abuse under a 2004 revision to Japan's Child Abuse Prevention Act. While there has been a surge in the number of children exposed to such violence, too few people realize how it affects them. We have little information on the extent of the damage, so the government should conduct a survey. Psychological treatment for the children who have witnessed such violence and family support are also essential.

    In December last year, I sat in on the lay-judge trial of a 21-year-old man in Sendai who faced a charge of murdering his 49-year-old father when he was 19, after being exposed to domestic violence between his parents that extended over a period of about 14 years. Was it treatment that he needed, or a heavy penalty? In the end, the judiciary handed him 14 years' imprisonment.

    During the trial, the convicted man's unfortunate upbringing came to light. From a young age until his third year of junior high school, when his mother left the home, he was left frightened as he continued to witness the fights between his parents, which escalated to hurling a heater and unleashing flying kicks.

    Michiko Sakai, a 63-year-old clinical psychologist who has dealt with many children exposed to violence between their parents at home, commented that the sentenced man had been a victim of this kind of abuse. "A sound and safe environment is essential for children's growth, but there was always fierce fighting between his parents, leaving him tense. He probably lived while swallowing and suppressing his anger, sense of helplessness and uncertainty," she said.

    According to prosecutors' closing arguments in the man's case, his father began drinking almost every day from around the time his mother left the home. His father also began watching DVDs of idols at a loud volume. The son probably was unable to stand this lifestyle. He repeatedly slashed his wrists and was hospitalized on one occasion after attempting to take his own life.

    Then in December 2015 the crime occurred. The man, then aged 19, was studying on the second floor of the home when his father on the first floor began watching a DVD with the volume turned up loud. The son went down to the first floor, turned down the volume and returned to his room. When his father followed him upstairs he turned, trying to control his anger, and showed his father a knife, saying, "I'll count to three, so you go downstairs." His father, however, ignored the warning, and so the young man flew at him and attacked him.

    Yuki Sunohara, a 69-year-old professor emeritus at Musashino University who performs psychological counseling for children who have been in homes troubled by domestic violence, comments, "When children grow up seeing violence at home, they only learn that the sole way to solve problems is to respond with violence. The young man in this case repeatedly injured himself (inflicting violence on himself), and I can sense the deep wounds he acquired during his upbringing as a result of learning this method of solving problems through violence."

    Not only does domestic violence produce a chain of violence, research has shown the brains of children who witness violence in the home are physically altered.

    Akemi Tomoda, a 57-year-old professor at Fukui University versed in child psychoneurology, examined the brains of children who witnessed domestic violence on a daily basis in a joint study with Harvard University. The researchers found that the children's visual cortexes were smaller, and their memories and intellectual abilities were negatively affected. Furthermore, the brain damage from encountering violence between their parents was greater than that caused by physical abuse. In addition, the trauma symptoms from witnessing domestic violence were serious.

    There are many children like the man convicted in the Sendai case. Police departments across the country notified child consultation centers of 24,998 cases of suspected domestic violence in front of children in 2016, up 48.7 percent from the previous year -- and the number of cases each year has been on the rise.

    A lawyer for the convicted man in Sendai said that police officers had never visited his family home or his school and child consultation centers had never gotten involved. It is difficult to detect violence that happens like this in homes "behind closed doors" so the actual number of cases is likely much higher.

    Wanting to find out more about domestic violence in front of children, I visited one juvenile reformatory in the Kanto region.

    About 30 percent of the young people in the reformatory reportedly had witnessed domestic violence in their homes. One male worker commented, "They all lack expression as they grew up not being able to share their feelings to adults with peace of mind. There are many youths who cause trouble because their ability to empathize hasn't been developed, and they don't understand others' feelings."

    One youth who was exposed to domestic violence was unable to refuse others' orders, and got a tattoo after an older friend told him to do so. He went on to repeatedly engage in delinquent behavior.

    Satoru Takahashi, a 63-year-old professor at Tokyo Gakugei University who has provided counseling on the development of youths in reformatories, commented, "They have a low sense of self-affirmation, and being unable to provide good evaluations of themselves, they turn to delinquent behavior. There are many children who become withdrawn from society, injure themselves or fall into addictions because they have no models of good adults and are unable to paint hopes and dreams for the future."

    The children who witness domestic violence are robbed of the chance to experience healthy growth and development. Is a heavy criminal sentence really the right thing for children with damaged hearts who have committed crimes?

    If we lend support to the children and parents in the overwhelmingly large number of homes with domestic violence that have yet to rise to the surface, and provide psychological treatment for the child victims at an early stage, then we should be able to curb crimes. It's something we can do to save the many children who are suffering, like the young man convicted in Sendai. (By Mari Sakane, Lifestyle News Department)

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