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Strangers in a violent world

safety -- Delegation visits Washington County to learn about combating domestic violence
by: Courtesy Photo, A group of women seeking to combat domestic violence in Japan has forged strong ties with Washington County officials, thanks to one of their members’ college internship here.

Ten Japanese women are gathered around a table in a small conference room at in the Washington County Justice Services Building in Hillsboro.

On a white board behind them is a list of words and phrases, neatly written in orange marker, along with translations in Japanese characters.

'Probation.'

'Parole.'

'Family Abuse Prevention Act.'

Ericka Goerling, coordinator for the Center for Victims' Services, is describing how the county assists victims of domestic violence.

'A great deal of our advocacy is working with victims to get their cases prepared,' Goerling explains, passing a stack of color-coded brochures describing programs around the room. Sitting next to her in a pink t-shirt, printed with the word 'Resilience,' Sachi Nakajima translates into Japanese.

Everyone takes notes. Lots of notes.

It's Wednesday, July 26, and the delegation of Japanese women is on the fifth day of a week-long visit to Washington County to learn how the county handles cases of domestic violence.

The trip was organized by Resilience, a Japanese domestic violence advocacy group Nakajima founded in 2003.

The group includes domestic violence counselors, government employees, a junior high school teacher and a graduate student. Some of them are domestic violence survivors themselves. Over the week, they visited domestic violence resources around the county and the Hillsboro Police department.

When it comes time for questions Wednesday afternoon, the group has plenty.

'When you hold a panel, is usually one victim speaking or multiple victims?' asks Kazuko Mastumoto, referring to a county program were domestic violence victims speak with perpetrators. More follow, probing every detail.

'How long is session?'

'How do you select panelists?'

'What kind of feedback do you get?'

When Goerling answers, Nakajima translates, and everyone dutifully takes more notes.

Since founding Resilience, Nakajima has become a link between cultures on an issue so plagued by silence and taboo that discussion of it rarely crosses thresholds, much less oceans.

Born in Japan, Nakajima moved to Oregon with her family when she was 13. She attended Portland State University and received a law degree from Lewis and Clark before moving to Tokyo, but then returned to Portland to earn a master's degree in social work from PSU.

While working on her master's degree, Nakajima undertook a one-year internship working on domestic violence issues for Washington County. She counseled victims, assisted them with filing restraining orders, and visited jails to educate inmates about domestic violence.

When Nakajima returned to Tokyo to continue working on domestic violence issues after finishing her degree, she encounter a vastly different situation from the one she left behind in Washington County.

Until 2001, most forms of domestic violence were not considered a crime in Japan. A law passed that year established a restraining order system and made spousal abuse a crime, but the law only applies to married and divorced couples.

Government and nonprofit agencies treat each other as if they do not exist. Victims seeking help are bounced from agency to agency only to reach dead ends. Domestic violence counselors are poorly trained. There are no services for children.

Culturally, cases of domestic violence are something people simply do not talk about. The prevailing attitude is, 'What happens in a family should be solved by the family,' Nakajima said. The Japanese media refers to domestic violence simply as 'DV,' because no accurate word for it exists in the language.

Nakajima, who experienced the pain and suffering of an abusive relationship in her twenties, saw a society that prided itself on being one of the most advanced civilizations on earth, but on the issue of domestic violence, had fallen disturbingly behind.

'Japan's system for working with domestic violence is much behind the system in the U.S.,' she said.

Attitudes are changing, however, especially after the passage of the 2001 law brought the issue to the forefront, and Nakajima saw an opportunity to educate and raise awareness of domestic violence in Japan.

If domestic violence workers in Japan could see the system in the United States, Nakajima thought, 'they could have some idea where they could be in the future.

'I thought I could do more in Japan than I could do here,' she said. 'I could be sort of like a pipeline.'

Since forming in 2003, Resilience has sent three groups of about 10 people who work with domestic violence cases or have been personally affected by domestic violence to Oregon. Nakajima connected with services in Washington County because of her intern experience here.

The trips benefit more than just the people who come, Nakajima said.

'What we learned during the week can be conveyed to people who couldn't come.' Nakajima said.

After each trip, the group publishes a report on what they learned. The report from the first trip in 2004 has sold more than 600 copies in Japan, Nakajima said.

Nakajima has also had domestic violence related texts translated into Japanese, and brought a worker from the Dougy Center, a Portland-based family grief counseling center, to do a one-month lecture tour in Japan.

To the visitors from Japan, the system in Washington County seems lavish compared to what they have at home.

The kind of coordination that exists between the non-profit Domestic Violence Resource Center and the county government's Center for Victims' Services is unheard of in Japan. The resource center has rent-free space in the county agency's offices. The two organizations work so closely together that 'the distinction is kind of blurred,' according to Peter Korchnak, interim executive director of the Hillsboro-based Domestic Violence Resource Center.

Coordination with law enforcement also comes easily, he said.

'Domestic violence is a crime, so connection to law enforcement is almost automatic,' Korchnak explained.

Several of the Resilience trip members said they had never felt comfortable in a police station until visiting the Hillsboro Police Department July 24.

When the Resilience group visited, 'they were very attentive, and very amazed,' he said.

Korchnak said he was surprised to learn just how vast the disparity was between the resources available in Japan compared to the U.S., where he says services are still inadequate (see sidebar). 'It is good to share our experiences,' he said, 'because it seems that in many ways we have a lot to share.'

'It's really an eye-opening experience for them,' said Hwa-Mi Park, a translator for a Japanese financial company who has volunteered as a coordinator for Resilience for three years. 'Now they can believe that change is possible.'

The visit is more than just a chance to learn, it is also an opportunity for those who work in an often frustrating, beleaguered system to get some encouragement and a badly needed break.

'They are on the verge of burning out,' said Park.

Seeing the dedication of the Washington County workers, Park said, can be revitalizing for the often exhausted Japanese women.

'Every participant is impressed by their devotion,' Park said.

'It's a lot of learning, but it's about relaxing too,' Nakajima explained. For just a little while, 'It's good to be in a different frame of mind.'