The rise of 'corona divorce' amid Japan’s domestic violence shadow pandemic

By Suki Chung, East Asia Campaigner at Amnesty International

The pandemic was a kiss of death to my friend’s already troubled marriage. When her abusive and controlling husband had to work from home in April and May during the COVID-19 national emergency, she was forced to spend long hours with him in their home in Kanagawa Prefecture.

“I’ve had enough,” she told me crying, after he’d kicked her in the leg and back during an argument over shrinking family income. She said she was not brave enough to end the relationship, but believed that easing lockdown measures would bring society and her family back to normal.

But what is normal?

Prior to COVID-19, the number of women contacting domestic violence services in Japan had been on the rise for 16 consecutive years, reaching an all-time high in 2019. With people confined to their homes under the pandemic in the last few months, many more women reached out for help.

Over 13,000 women reported that they experienced domestic violence in April alone, which is 1.3 times higher than in the same period last year. Like all statistics on domestic violence, however, incidences can be vastly under-reported, especially because seeking help for "family matters" is still a taboo in Japanese society.

In April, a famous Japanese actor, Makoto Sakamoto, was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. He allegedly assaulted his wife and her mother in their Tokyo home. In May, Japanese TV martial artist Bobby Olugun made headlines after he was arrested for punching his wife in the face at their residence, reportedly in front of their three children.

The executive director of UN Women has described the global and sudden upsurge of violence against women triggered by the coronavirus lockdown as the 'shadow pandemic'.

Millions of women worldwide have reported domestic abuse this year. In Asian countries and territories, such as Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, gender-based violence and social and economic inequalities faced by women are among the most severe consequences of COVID-19.

In Hong Kong, the city I call home, a local women’s hotline received twice the number of calls on domestic violence during the beginning of the pandemic (January to March). Over 70% are cases of physical abuse, with the rest mainly emotional and verbal.

In April, a social worker in Japan launched an online petition. More than 30,000 people supported calling on the governor of Tokyo to establish emergency shelters for homeless people and those fleeing domestic abuse during the pandemic.

A new term “corona divorce” (コロナ離婚) is now commonly used on Japanese social media to describe the spike in divorce and grievances of couples during the confinement period.

It is, however, not simply the case of the virus causing divorces. The pandemic has exposed the deep-rooted problem of gender inequality in our societies, including income disparity, uneven political and socio-economic representation, and harmful cultural and social stereotypes. Women and girls, for example, are often hit the hardest in this health crisis, as evident in U.S. employment figures showing that millions of women have lost their jobs at a higher rate than men.

In recent years, advocacy for women’s rights in East Asia was boosted by the global #MeToo movement, with brave women going public in high-profile cases of sexual abuse, such as Seo Ji-Hyun in South Korea and Shiori Ito in Japan. There have been more positive examples of women change-makers in the region and more discussions around sexism and violence against women.

Despite such positive developments, the current health crisis reminds us how much still needs to be done. While women and girls are stepping up to lead, supporting each other and helping their broader communities, governments have an obligation to do more to put women at the centre of decision-making so that they can finally reinvent this broken system.

The vaccine for COVID-19 may still be unknown, but the solution to the "shadow pandemic" is clear: We need gender equality to be at the heart of building a safer future for all of us.

This article was originally published in Japan Today