TOKYO -- A victim of domestic violence manages to get away, to move out and banish their tormentor from their life. Then, one day, their abuser suddenly reappears. This kind of scene has played itself out multiple times across Japan, after government offices handed victims' new addresses over to the very person they were trying to escape.
Victims can apply for a domestic violence support scheme that bans local governments from disclosing information about their new residence to their abuser. But there are endless cases of governments leaking that information to offenders. In at least one case, a woman was killed after a local government told her stalker where to find her.
One domestic violence victim, whose new address was leaked to her ex-husband due to mismanagement by a Tokyo ward office, revealed her painful experiences to the Mainichi Shimbun.
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The woman decided to get divorced due to domestic abuse. To protect her child, she could not leave them alone at home, and had to quit her job. After several months, she was able to finalize the divorce and leave her partner. Luckily, soon after the divorce, the woman was able to find a job as a regular employee and an apartment she could afford, and she began a new life.
As there was danger that she could be abused again if her ex-husband found out about her new address, she quit posting on social media and took thorough steps to keep her location secret. After moving into a new home, she applied for the domestic violence support scheme at the local municipal government office.
Victims of domestic and child abuse, stalking and other types of violence can apply for the support scheme forbidding local governments from providing certificates of residence and other papers with their new address to abusers and related parties. After receiving an application, municipal governments consult police, child welfare centers and other authorities to determine whether it's necessary. When an abuser or their agents tries to get a copy of the residence certificate or family register, or applies to see the basic resident register, a warning appears on screen, restricting the information they can access.
The woman successfully completed all the procedures, and recalled thinking, "Now I can finally live in peace. Though I'm never going to be free of anxiety, I'm hidden for now."
The woman was beginning to adapt to her new job and settle into her new life. Then one night in the summer of 2019, she recalls, the video intercom bell rang right before she put her child to bed. Through the monitor, she could see her ex-husband at the door. Her heart was pounding, and her mind went blank, not knowing why he was there.
The intercom bell kept ringing, and she could hear the man thundering, "Come out here!" It seems that her neighbors called the police, and the woman's ex-husband went away. But she was in a state of utter panic.
A police officer told her, "I'm sorry but I can't ensure your safety here. It would be troublesome if something serious happens. If you're going to stay here, you can't go to work or school. You'd have to live behind closed shutters. I'm sorry but you have to leave."
The following day, the woman packed her belongings in a suitcase and a paper bag and went to an acquaintance's house.
Wondering why her ex-husband knew her address, the woman asked the municipal government. An official told her that "it was a mistake made by Tokyo's Meguro Ward," where her ex-husband lived. According to the official, a tax department official working on returns had sent documents with the woman and her child's new address to her former partner to confirm his dependents' information without checking whether the woman had taken steps to be protected under the municipal government's support scheme. That, it seemed, was how he had found her.
"I had trusted the local government office. My body was shaking from anger," she said. Meguro Ward's tax department chief and other officials later visited the woman to offer an apology, but to her it sounded like they were pushing the excuse, "It was a mistake in the system."
The woman and her child had to stay at a hotel until she found a new home, and though Meguro Ward covered the cost, they had to move rooms once every three days due to scant vacancies. Because there was no kitchen, they had to buy readymade dishes at the convenience store or from the supermarket and microwave them. "I wasn't even able to make lunch on my child's sports day," she said.
There also wasn't anything for her child to play with except for a paper origami crane in the hotel room, because she couldn't go back home to get toys. She noticed that her child's behavior was shifting, never wanting to leave her side, even coming along with her to the bathroom and laundromat, apparently because they were scared.
After finding a property, the woman went back to her erstwhile residence for the first time in two months. Because the rooms had been closed up for all that time, the futons, clothes, kitchen cupboards -- everything was covered in mold. She took a few usable items to her new home, but she found tiny insects infesting her makeup.
As the family had to move again, her child had no choice but to transfer schools. Presumably due to huge changes in their living environment, the child's behavior continued to change. They hated loud noises, and were frightened by car and motorbike sounds.
"When we went to see an illumination event, my child even got scared and ran away after hearing sound effects," she told the Mainichi.
The woman also became unsettled. Though she has been taking mood-stabilizing medication to treat a stress-induced hearing impairment, since her ex-husband's uninvited appearance, she's had bouts of sudden, uncontrollable weeping. She cannot stop the tears from falling at work or when talking with a ward office worker. Amid the chaos, her child is what keeps her going.
"Because of my child, I can keep on working hard. My child is the biggest victim of all this. I want to help them forget about this as fast as possible," she said.
The woman thought Meguro Ward would immediately announce the information leak, but there was no sign it was about to come clean even after ward assembly sessions in February and June last year, making her even more distrustful of the authorities.
The incident finally came to light after a member of the ward assembly asked about it at an assembly session that September. Meguro Mayor Eiji Aoki offered an apology, saying the case had remained behind closed doors because "there was concern that it would trigger (the abuser) and it could not be denied that the victim may be endangered, so it was decided that we would respond cautiously until the incident had been solved to a certain extent."
The woman fumed. "They're saying the victim could be endangered, but they just didn't want to reveal their mistake. They just wanted to brush it under the rug. I think there are many others like me in horrifying situations. Because it's terrifying to make them (information leaks) public, there are probably many people who give up and cry themselves to sleep."
She added, "Information was leaked, just when I finally began my new life after working so hard. I just want to get the life I had at the time back. Do you understand how it feels to be suddenly deprived of a peaceful life?"
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The Mainichi interviewed the Meguro Ward government about the events leading up to the leak.
The ward tax department sent documents to the woman's ex-husband to confirm his number of dependents, without checking if the woman was being protected under the domestic violence victim support system. Those documents included her new address.
Whether a person is under protection can be confirmed using a system linking local governments. However, the ward tax department did not have any procedures in place for checking if personal information should be withheld when sending out the forms to confirm the recipient's dependents. Since the woman's case came to light, the department says it has deleted addresses from these forms and amended its workflow to confirm whether a person's information can be disclosed.
The department chief explained, "There was a gradient in how nondisclosure was interpreted. It happened due to our inadequacy, and we take it seriously."
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Incidents like this have been happening across Japan.
According to the Residents Administration Policy and Management Division of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, since fiscal 2011 there have been at least 63 cases of information on domestic violence victims being protected under the support scheme being leaked to their abusers. At least one victim was killed as a result.
In November 2012, a 33-year-old woman in the city of Zushi, Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, was killed by her stalker, an ex-boyfriend. The woman had applied to have her information protected, but a Zushi Municipal Government official provided the woman's address to a private detective posing as the woman's husband.
In fiscal 2019, there was a record high of 18 incidents, and seven cases by the end of October in fiscal 2020. The internal affairs ministry has been issuing proper information management notifications to local governments since 2014, but there have still been information leaks every year.
In one recent case, the city of Mitaka in Tokyo announced in June 2020 that it had mailed a copy of a family register with a domestic violence victim's information after being asked by the abuser. Though the city office computer displayed a warning that the woman was being protected under the nondisclosure system, a worker reportedly said, "I thought I was under instructions to make copies of documents even if a warning was displayed."
In July the same year, an official of Niigata's Higashi Ward accidentally sent documents with the new address of a domestic violence victim to her husband, from whom she was separated.
Moreover, the leaks revealed by the internal affairs ministry is apparently actually not the total figure. According to the Residents Administration Policy and Management Division, the tally only covers incidents related to residence certificates and "My Number" ID cards, which it oversees. There is apparently no system to count incidents where information was leaked during procedures that the division doesn't cover, such as those relating to taxes and family registers.
As information leaked by Meguro Ward was related to tax affairs, the woman's case is not included in the 63 cases tallied since fiscal 2011. Meanwhile, the number of people under the domestic violence support scheme is increasing every year, with 137,796 people filing applications as of December 2019 -- about 4.3 times the figure in 2009. There is an increasing need to grasp the actual situation and implement measures to prevent more leaks.
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Experts are demanding that cooperation within local government administrations be strengthened to prevent more incidents. Tamie Kaino, a professor emeritus of gender and law at Ochanomizu University who is acquainted with domestic violence issues, pointed out, "Though it has been 20 years since the anti-domestic violence law was enacted, in actuality there is not enough understanding within government offices."
She added, "I think they lack the very significant awareness that it could cost the domestic violence victim's life if information about them is leaked. Consultants at welfare offices and elsewhere are the first ones to directly interact with the victims, but there are many cases in which there is not enough coordination between administration officials in charge and the consultants after that. Officials need to imagine what kind of lives victims are being forced to live."
Kaino, stressing the need for swift improvement, said, "Cooperation within government offices across various departments is necessary. Not being able to do that is just making excuses. It's too late to take action once an incident turns serious."
(Japanese original by Harumi Kimoto, Integrated Digital News Center)