By Carolyn Bick
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Shortly after he came to Washington to serve as the Consul General of Japan in Seattle, Yoichiro Yamada learned that there were literally hundreds of women asking for the consulate’s help to escape domestic abuse situations.
“[Our attorney] said the number of such inquiries and requests for help amounts to anything between 100 and 200 a year … and that is a big number,” Yamada said. “It has been like this for many, many years.”
But the abuse these women face isn’t specific only to Japanese wives who have come to the United States. It is pervasive amongst wives of foreign nationals both in and out of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. However, their plight has received less attention, because they are often green card holders, Yamada said. Their legal status is only threatened if they divorce their husbands — which is one of the ways their husbands keep them compliant and quiet.
Since learning about the problem, Yamada said he has been reaching out to organizations and legislators to try to win state-funded assistance for the women who call the consulate. The office is there to provide assistance to Japanese nationals, he said, so, beyond fighting against a glaring human rights violation, it is “in the legitimate interest of our office to talk about this issue, and discuss this, particularly with the State Legislature.”
API Chaya is another resource that is working on the ground within the AAPI community to help people out of domestic violence situations. It also works to end human trafficking within the community. API Chaya Director Joanne Alcantara said that while immigrant men may also experience violence at the hands of a partner, it is usually immigrant women who are subject to the often literal blows, especially if they lack English skills and don’t have family in the country. This helps to keep them isolated and quiet, two key factors in keeping these women under their oppressors’ control.
But abuse doesn’t always involve direct physical violence, Alcantara said. She recalled a woman who was filmed for the organization’s gala last year, whose initial meeting with the man she had been arranged to marry went well. But after they were married, that changed.
“He would just abandon her for days, weeks, however long at a time in their apartment,” Alcantara said.
“She wouldn’t have access to getting food. She wouldn’t have access to going anywhere. She wouldn’t have access to taking care of herself, really, because she didn’t have a job, she didn’t have friends, she didn’t have a bus pass, and so she was just kind of stuck in this apartment.”
The abuser may also focus on a victim’s specific fears, Alcantara said. In many of the cases the consulate handles, it is the fear of never seeing one’s children again. Yamada said many of the women who reach out to the consulate have been threatened with deportation, if they divorce their husbands, so they often choose to stay and continue to suffer abuse, rather than escape and risk the loss of their children.
Because they are so desperate not to lose their children, these women may also inadvertently make themselves indigent, Yamada said. If they work up the courage to file for divorce, with plans to take their children with them back to Japan, their husbands may engage attorneys who threaten them with the loss of custody of their children, unless they sign over their legal rights to the property acquired while married.
Under Washington state law, parties who divorce are entitled to equal halves of any assets acquired, during the time of the marriage. But if these women do not know this — or even if they do — the idea of losing custody of their children frightens some into relinquishing all property and funds, effectively leaving them impoverished and unable to care for themselves, much less their children, Yamada said.
“She becomes a food stamp collector, or she goes to church to receive food. She uses the shelter or sometimes I’ve heard that she is homeless,” Yamada said. “She sometimes has to resort to prostitution, because that is the only way to raise cash. … They are very powerless.”
API Chaya’s helpline number is 877-922-4292 or 206-325-0325, and accepts calls between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
The Japanese Consulate may be reached at 206-682-9107.
Carolyn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.