Terror in the Shadows

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On a hot summer's night in 1998, Kyoko Kusaka awoke to find the nightmare that has haunted her for 26 years. I love you, whispered a voice she recognized all too well. Standing above her futon was the man, a distant relative, who had been stalking her, leering at her and forcing kisses on her since she was a teenager. This time he went further, jumping on the bed and trying to rape her. She was saved when her dog, hearing her screams, started to howl. Startled, the intruder loosened his grip long enough for her to flee barefoot from the house.She called the police the next morning, but only after agonizing all night: in Japan, causing the community to lose face by fingering a relative or neighbor is often seen as worse than the crime itself. A few months later, a judge handed down a year-and-a-half prison term for sexual misconduct, but it was suspended. Kusaka's assailant went free.

Then one day she read that a kabuki actor had sued an overzealous fan who wouldn't stop following him. That's when the light went on: instead of waiting helplessly for the next assault, she realized she could fight back. She won a modest $14,000 settlement in her civil suit last October, but she found the effort worthwhile. Says Kusaka: It taught me that I could also assert my rights to enjoy a peaceful life.

In Japan, as elsewhere, women have long had to endure the creepy, unsolicited shadowing of stalkers. Although the country has been particularly slow to deal with the phenomenon, some Japanese women, like Kusaka, are starting to fight back. At the same time, police and lawmakers are shedding their traditional reluctance to get involved with what they once saw as essentially a private matter. Crimes against women are on the rise, concedes Keiji Goto of the National Police Agency. It's a huge problem. Since the agency started keeping relevant statistics three years ago--after the translation of a U.S. book on stalking triggered a media storm--an average of 6,000 complaints have been reported each year.
A shift in attitude toward crimes against women is evident in the fall from grace of Knock Yokoyama, a flamboyant comedian twice elected governor of Osaka. An election worker last year accused him of fondling her. Yokoyama denied the charge, called the woman a liar and didn't contest a civil suit she filed. But after he was indicted in December on criminal charges, Yokoyama resigned. (A female candidate, Fusae Ota, won a special election earlier this month for the vacated seat.) Women's educational backgrounds and careers have made them stronger, says Tetsuo Sakurai, a professor of sociology at Tokyo Keizai University. They have begun to say 'no' to men like Yokoyama.

For every woman like Kusaka who prevails in court, there are hundreds of victims like Michiko Araki. The 48-year-old Tokyo nurse couldn't get anyone--not even her mother--to take seriously her complaints about a stalker who she says followed her, sent unwanted mail and phoned her late at night. In desperation, she quit her job and moved to an undisclosed location. I didn't know where I should go for help, she says.

Japanese tradition gives men the upper hand in dealings with women, but that can't excuse the excesses. Female commuters are often fondled by strangers on subways. Women employees are harassed, verbally and physically, by bosses and colleagues. That boorish behavior reflects a possessiveness Japanese men feel toward the opposite sex, especially their own partners. Situations when women are leaving their boy-friends or husbands are potentially dangerous because men don't want to let women out of their control, says Yukiko Tsunoda, a lawyer who has represented victims of sex crimes and stalking.

Such impulses may never be eliminated, but authorities are starting to provide some options to victims. In October, Kagoshima prefecture enacted Japan's first anti-stalking ordinance, which imposes fines and prison sentences on convicted stalkers. Two other prefectures passed similar laws in December, and Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara says he supports such a measure for his city. In December, the National Police Agency ordered local departments to crack down on stalking and assign more female police officers to handle victims' complaints. But under most existing laws, stalkers can be arrested only when they are likely to cause extreme danger, a condition only vaguely defined. The reality is that stalking cases don't usually go that far, says Fumi Akioka, representative of a Yokohama-based group of stalking victims. We need new laws so police can tackle these cases more flexibly.

Stopping determined stalkers is not easy. Kusaka's tormentor disappeared after the lawsuit. But although she won her court case against him, she failed to get an order barring him from entering her property. Worse, her battle wasn't taken seriously in her small village in Okayama prefecture in southern Japan. Villagers sympathized with the stalker, not Kusaka. You've gone too far, a woman told her. In the end, Kusaka had to leave the village to escape accusations she had shamed herself and her neighbors. You can't tell who the victim was, says Kusaka sadly. She won't disclose where she lives now: the stalker is still out there.