Photo/IllutrationA room in a shelter to support domestic violence victims in Okayama (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Even though measures were put in place 15 years ago to protect victims of domestic violence, there were at least 46 cases over the past decade in which local governments leaked their addresses to their assailants.

Such careless errors occurred in at least 41 municipalities in 26 prefectures, according to an Asahi Shimbun investigation.

The leaking of personal information has occurred eight times this year, already surpassing last year’s total of seven.

Victims of domestic violence who fled from home have too often been “found” by their assailants after local authorities leaked their whereabouts to them. This has put some of the victims in danger and even resulted in fatal consequences.

Under the internal affairs ministry's measures to support victims of domestic violence, sufferers of stalking and child abuse can ask local governments to restrict the issuance of copies of their residence and family registries’ documents to their assailants and others.

The measures were put into effect in 2004. Still, they have proven to be less than foolproof.

HUSBAND SHOWS UP AT NEW ADDRESS

A woman in her 30s was about to go grocery shopping for dinner several years ago. When she opened the door of her new apartment, a familiar face struck fear in her. Their eyes met, but the man didn’t say a word, and he glared at her hard.

“I felt the blood draining from my entire body,” she recalled.

She quickly shut the door and locked it. It was her husband, whom she thought she had escaped from after she moved.

The abuse started immediately after they got married, she said. She had been abused both physically and verbally.

When she made a mistake in doing the household chores, he rebuked her, “You are useless!”

Sometimes he kicked and even strangled her. She was not allowed to sleep in their bed, so she slept on chairs arranged side by side.

Her children were also physically and verbally abused by him. That made her resolve to seek refuge.

She moved out and filed for legal protection at the municipal government as provided in the ministry’s measures.

The woman thought, “I am safe for now.”

But the local government issued a copy of a residence registry that included her new address to a lawyer representing her husband. Local officials said when the lawyer requested the copy, they thought, “It can't do any harm” because “a lawyer is supposed to handle such matters carefully.”

Such a misguided assumption led to a case with tragic consequences.

In November 2012, officials of Zushi, Kanagawa Prefecture, disclosed the new home address of a woman who had been recognized as a stalking victim and under the protection of measures against her assailant.

She had been stalked and threatened by her ex-boyfriend. The man hired a private detective who identified himself as her husband, called the city government and obtained the woman’s address.

On the following day, the stalker showed up at the woman’s home and stabbed her to death.

Her bereaved family sued the city in October 2016 asking for compensation. A court in January 2018 ordered the city to pay, concluding that the city “betrayed an expectation that the (victim’s information) would be managed properly and illegally used its governmental authority and violated the victim’s privacy.”

PLAGUED WITH BUREAUCRACY

The internal affairs ministry has repeatedly alerted local governments to take precautions against disclosing the addresses of victims of domestic violence.

In 2014, the ministry notified local governments nationwide that they had failed at information sharing and missed warning signs among other issues.

The ministry urged them to assign a responsible official who decides whether to issue a document and re-examine the manual to take safeguards with paperwork.

Furthermore, the ministry proposed to institute an easy-to-understand manual to prevent officials from making mistakes right after a personnel reshuffling. The ministry also requested that officials working at a main government building and those at a branch office communicate in writing, not by phone, to share information and reduce the possibility of errors.

Every year, ministry officials have toured all prefectures and held an orientation meeting for those in charge of the resident registry network system at municipal governments.

However, a ministry official admitted the limitation of the ministry’s notices: They have no binding force.

“The only thing we can do is to ask,” the official said.

The process of handling paperwork has been overhauled as well. The parties involved in a domestic violence case usually have an ongoing divorce suit and other related matters.

However, there have been cases in which spouses have been unable to obtain their partner's address, which is required to file a lawsuit, and got into trouble with the municipal government.

In response to such problems, the ministry consulted with the Supreme Court. As a result, the Supreme Court in 2018 notified all lower courts that when the case involves parties connected to domestic violence, it is the court’s job to ask municipal offices about the parties’ home addresses, urging them to treat such information as strictly confidential.

Thus, lawyers no longer need to obtain a certified copy of a resident register from local governments. The ministry has also notified local governments about the high court’s decision.

Nevertheless, such data breaches have continued to occur.

'INCONSISTENT' RELEASE OF RESIDENT REGISTERS

A Tokyo-based general incorporated association that supports victims of domestic violence called “A-plus” said it receives about 500 consultations annually.

The association in 2018 conducted a survey of 97 major cities and core cities and the capital’s 23 wards.

In the survey, about 40 percent of the municipalities said the criteria by which to judge when to issue a copy of a resident register of a domestic violence victim is “inconsistent.” They said, “(The criteria) needs improvement as soon as possible.”

Different ministries having authority over different documents is another problem.

Resident register and income certificate are handled by the internal affairs ministry. Family registration is managed by the Justice Ministry, while the child tax benefit payments statement is handled by the Cabinet Office.

Masao Yoshizaki, who heads A-plus, said, “Each ministry and government agency needs to coordinate on establishing an integrated system.”

Kaori Ishii, a professor at Chuo University, an expert in protection of personal data, advocates introducing legislation.

“There needs to be a system in which every record involving the information of domestic violence victims is highlighted and all employees recognize that,” Ishii said.