She just snapped. That's what Yu Inoue told the officer on duty when she walked through the doors of a neighbourhood police station in the Kita ward of Sapporo, northern Japan, late into the night on Dec 23.
The 57-year-old confessed to repeatedly punching her 82-year-old mother in the face, then stomping on the older woman's body as she lay prone on the ground, after the two got into an argument about the family dog.
Kiyomi Inoue died at some point during the assault, which took place between 6.20am and 10.30pm on the same day that her daughter eventually handed herself in to the police.
"I lost my temper at the way my mother talked to me," Yu Inoue was quoted as saying in the police report.
Though distressing, the Inoue case is far from the only example of elder abuse in Japan. A survey released at the end of December by the country's health and welfare ministry found 17,281 incidents of elderly people being physically assaulted by family members in 2020 — a record high — with 25 deaths occurring as a result.
The surge in violence against some of the most vulnerable in Japanese society has been linked by observers to frustrations and fears brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, as similar spikes have also been reported in cases of domestic and child abuse.
A growing problem
Japan's population peaked in 2010 at 127.32 million and has since been in a slow, but inexorable decline. By 2100, statisticians estimate that about one-third of the country's 83 million people will be 65 or older: an ageing trend other Asian societies, including Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea, also face — albeit at a slower pace.
Rising elder abuse, then, is a growing concern for Asia's ageing populations, as Japan's experience shows that not only is it already happening, but it is set to become an issue that other societies will have to grapple with more frequently in future.
On Dec 22, Hiroshi Usui was arrested on suspicion of stabbing his 79-year-old father with a kitchen knife in the chest and abdomen at their home in Hitachinaka, Ibaraki Prefecture. Kensuke Usui was rushed to a nearby hospital but died two hours later. His son refused to answer the police's questions.
Ten days earlier, police in Hyogo Prefecture arrested a 49-year-old man for killing his 88-year-old mother at their home. The suspect, who was detained the day after the murder, told police he "doesn't remember" anything about his mother's death.
The day before, a man in his 60s called police in Tokyo's Ota ward and said he was going to kill himself after strangling his mother. Police found the woman, in her 90s, at her apartment — bleeding but still alive. The son's body was only found later, near a railway crossing for one of the Japanese capital's many rail lines.
"We are seeing similar trends in terms of suicides, domestic violence cases and incidents of child abuse… it is part of the same pattern," said Vickie Skorji, director of the Tokyo-based TELL Lifeline and counselling service.
"People already had sufficient stress in their day-to-day lives before the pandemic — the pressures of work, concerns over money, the car needing a service, it can be anything - but we have been living with this health crisis for nearly two years now and people are just feeling completely burned out," Skorji told This Week In Asia.
"Add in the isolation that has been forced upon many people due to the pandemic — people not being able to do ordinary things like seeing friends or family, or even just talking with colleagues at the office - and many people's tolerance has just gone."
In response to this trend, Skorji said TELL was shifting focus in the support it offers towards building resilience and managing soaring stress levels in people who feel that they are at the end of their tether.
For Makoto Watanabe, a professor of communications at Hokkaido Bunkyo University, the rising tide of violence against Japan's weak and vulnerable is indicative of the huge, mostly negative, changes that have swept Japanese society in recent years.
"In the old days, old people were the very core of every community — particularly in the rural parts of Japan — as they were respected for their knowledge of the seasons, the crops and the area in which they lived," he said. "Now, life here has been transformed and anyone can Google any information they might need. The value of old people to the community has decreased."
The pandemic had only served to make the situation worse, Watanabe said.
"People are frightened and they are feeling stress because they are afraid of losing their jobs, of not having enough money to pay the bills, of getting sick," he said. "We all had worries before, but now we cannot even go out and speak with our friends, get their advice and find a solution to some of our problems."
Further frustrations appear to be born of the concept of filial piety, or respect for one's elders, that is deeply embedded in East Asian cultures such as Japan's.
"We have people living in close proximity to elderly relatives who need their help but are also a source of frustration, and that is why there has been this explosion of violence," Watanabe said. "I fear Japanese society has gained so much through technology, but we seem to have lost so much of our empathy."
- Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444
- Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
- Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800
- Institute of Mental Health's Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222
- Silver Ribbon: 6386-1928
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.