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Woman leads pioneering group to support families of criminal offenders, suspects

Kyoko Abe, director of the World Open Heart nonprofit group, tells students about how to support offenders' families in a human rights education class at Tokyo Gakugei University in the city of Koganei, western Tokyo, on Nov. 8, 2018. (Mainichi/Richi Tanaka)

SENDAI/TOKYO -- A woman in her 40s couldn't believe her ears when her ex-husband told her over the phone that he saw a TV report about the arrest of their eldest son. The son was accused of attempting to murder his girlfriend and the shocked woman didn't know how to react.

A call from police later in the day confirmed what happened, throwing the woman into a flurry of emotions. She wished it was just a dream, but she was also worried about her family's future.

In desperation, she contacted Kyoko Abe, the 40-year-old female president of World Open Heart, as suggested by one of her friends. The nonprofit organization based in the northern Japan city of Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture supports the families of criminal offenders and suspects. Abe explained to her what to expect, including details of criminal proceedings the son would go through.

What Abe is doing was something unheard of in Japan until she initiated the program 10 years ago. Her organization has since conducted some 1,300 consultations with those seeking help, offering them advice, or just opportunities to let out what's pent up inside.

Kyoko Abe, director of the World Open Heart nonprofit group, listens to a criminal offender's relative talk in the city of Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, on Nov. 17, 2018. (Mainichi/Richi Tanaka)

After the initial contact with Abe, the woman mustered the courage to report her son's arrest to her superior at her company and gained their understanding. Yet she still felt like she had been driven into a corner. "Am I allowed to eat, walk under the blue sky or even breathe?" she wondered.

The mother found some relief about one week later. At Abe's suggestion, she joined a gathering of families of criminal offenders and suspects, in which some eight people shared their feelings and experiences.

At the beginning, the woman just looked down and listened to other participants' stories. But eventually she was able to speak up and express her real feelings. "I felt like I'm not allowed to walk under the sun," she sputtered. The gathering became a place where she felt "it's OK to look up and face other people."

Her family members also gave her strength to cope with the reality. "My big brother injured someone. Why are we crying and defending him?" The question from her elder daughter was a wake-up call for the woman. "I will do whatever I can to guide him. He did something he should never have done," the mother told herself.

Following his arrest, the son was initially depressed but has since shown some signs of change, according to Abe. "The family still loves me despite what happened," Abe quoted the man as saying. "We believe that our support encourages the rehabilitation of offenders and to prevent a recurrence," said Abe.

--- Inspired by an encounter with a film

What led Abe into these uncharted waters was her encounter with a film. "Tegami (The Letter)," released in 2006, was based on a novel of the same title written by popular novelist Keigo Higashino. The work depicts two brothers' tormented relationship between themselves and with people around them after the elder brother committed murder and robbery to pay for his younger brother's school expenses.

Abe saw the film at her university seminar in 2007 when she was attending the Tohoku University Graduate School of Law in Sendai. Back then, Abe was interested in setting up a nonprofit organization focusing on suicide research, and she wanted to expand her knowledge about social minorities. The movie was shown by Masataka Saburi, 50, who was the professor in charge of the seminar exploring solutions for social problems such as suicide.

Masataka Saburi, director of the International Peace and Security Department at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, talks about the non-profit organization World Open Heart in Tokyo's Minato Ward, on Nov. 7, 2018. (Mainichi/Richi Tanaka)

Why did Saburi, now the director of the International Peace and Security Department at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, want his students to see the film? "There are things in this world that we cannot label as good or bad. In the film, the elder brother committed a crime for his younger brother, but as a result the younger brother's future was ruined," he explained. "The position of each protagonist has its own rightfulness, and I wanted the students to know that."

--- Learning from an ethnic Korean 'teacher'

Abe's eyes were opened to social minorities first by her meeting with a second generation Korean resident in Japan when she was 13. "Teacher," as Abe affectionately called him, taught Japanese to children of foreign nationalities. He revealed to Abe that he was left at a church when he was young after he lost his mother. The students also had complicated backgrounds, making Abe realize that families have many forms.

At around the same time, Abe learned of the suicide of a junior high school boy she had known -- one of the teacher's students. The boy had been socially withdrawn after he failed a school entrance examination but he sometimes talked with Abe, revealing his concern about his future. But one day, she heard he had killed himself.

"If I had talked with him more often, I could have stopped his suicide," Abe thought. This heart-wrenching experience of seeing someone close to her killing himself and leaving people around him in agony has since stuck in her mind.

--- Sailing into uncharted waters with new support group

In August 2008, Abe and her friends at Tohoku University established World Open Heart. They held the first gathering for the families of criminally accused in Sendai in the autumn of the same year, and her phone has since been effectively ringing nonstop with calls for help.

Abe has seen many family members going through hardships for just being related to criminal offenders. They were often forced to move to new homes or transfer to other schools because of slanderous attacks and the spread of their photos and home addresses on the internet. Some had to pay for damages after losing their jobs. Most of such family members considered killing themselves.

Abe has collaborated with a real estate agent, a social insurance consultant, clinical physiologists and lawyers in offering comprehensive support. The workers help the families learn how to deal with reporters, police visits and courts as well as interaction with victims' families. They also provide mental health care during regular gatherings. Consultations are free of charge, except for travel expenses and other fees. The group is run with the financial support of the Toyota Foundation, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Japan Inc. and Japan Post Co., as well as through private donations and membership fees.

Some people criticize the organization saying they should first support the victims. "Indeed, victims should come first. When that's done, we can help families of criminal offenders, too," Abe said. "Improving both support systems is the key."

--- Preventing recurrences and calling out for social support

In North America and Europe, charities have for decades supported the families of the criminally accused. In Japan, the criminal justice system has gradually been reformed to enhance support for crime victims and their families with the introduction of the Basic Act on Crime Victims and a lay judge trial system as well as the participation of victims in criminal trials. However, until World Open Heart emerged, no significant moves took place to support the families of criminal offenders.

"Supporting families with criminally accused members has two major goals," said Akihiro Shukuya, 41, associate professor of criminal law specializing in restorative justice at Tokyo Gakugei University. "One goal is preventing future offenses, and the other is to make society aware that family members shouldn't become targets of criticism just because they are related" to criminal offenders, he added.

"The support will lead society to an era where people don't attack others for no special reason, where people can feel connected with those around them," said Shukuya.

Kyoko Abe, director of the World Open Heart nonprofit group, advises participants including lawyers at a training session for would-be consultants for criminal offenders' families at the Yamagata Bar Association in the city of Yamagata, northern Japan, on Oct. 29, 2018. (Mainichi/Akane Matono, Yamagata Bureau)

In response to a growing number of inquiries from regions across Japan in recent years, World Open Heart has been branching out into other parts of the country, such as Kumamoto Prefecture in the south and Yamagata Prefecture in the north. In 2015, the Sukima Support Center, another nonprofit organization to support the families of criminals, was established in Osaka, western Japan. Its director Jingo Sato had learned about support methods from World Open Heart.

"I will never stop assisting the families of criminal offenders. We have a responsibility because we initiated the support. I cannot betray the people who believed in us," Abe said.

(By Richi Tanaka, Staff Writer)

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