When “Tracy,” an American then in her late 20s, started her career in Japan as a JET instructor at a high school in Kagoshima nearly 20 years ago, nothing in her training could have prepared her for what she witnessed.
The Japanese teacher she worked with at the school — one of the few women who taught there — would constantly be asked by her male colleagues when she would be getting married. Male students would call her anonymously and proposition her for sex. Condoms were left on her computer keyboard every morning, and every morning she would brush them into the bin in quiet humiliation as the other teachers chuckled.
Soon Tracy too became a victim of harassment. At a bonenkai (end-of-year party), one of the vice principals sat next to her and grabbed her breasts. “Why do you hide these?” he said, as all the men burst into laughter.
She responded by gesturing towards his crotch and asking, “Why do you hide this?”
This time there was no laughter, just a stunned silence. The administrator refused to speak to her for the remaining two years she worked at the school.
While there has been much progress in combating sexual harassment since the issue first entered the public consciousness in Japan in the late 1980s, sekuhara remains a serious and widespread problem for both Japanese and foreign women living in Japan.
The first successful litigation against sexual harassment was in 1992, and by 2000 more than 100 cases had been filed, including 10 that were heard by Japan’s highest court. One of the most famous cases was against former comedian-turned-mayor of Osaka, “Knock” Yokoyama, who was forced to resign after being successfully sued by a university student he molested while she was working on his campaign.
More recently, Rina Bovrisse, formerly a senior retail manager at Prada Japan, filed suit against the Italian company for sexual harassment and discrimination, alleging that the company demoted female store managers for being “too short, too old or not cute enough,” and that she herself received the same discriminatory treatment after she raised objections to the policy.
While the Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL) was passed in 1985, it was not until 1999 that revisions to the law included definitions of sexual harassment and legal penalties for employers. These penalties, however, only allow for making the names of the offending companies public. They do not allow for the government to assess fines, nor for plaintiffs to seek punitive damages against the employer — something the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) raised concerns about last year.
There has been, however, an increase in public awareness of sexual harassment in Japan. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, 8,120 women filed sexual harassment complaints with equal employment opportunity offices in 2008, compared with 7,706 in 2004 and 2,534 in 1997.
Public support for women’s employment rights in Japan has increased since the passage of the EEOL, says Chika Shinohara, a professor of sociology at Momoyama Gakuin University in Osaka. In addition, younger workers have entered the work force at a time when the concept of sexual harassment has already begun permeating the legal and cultural framework of Japanese society, and are therefore much more aware of what constitutes sexual harassment. Younger women are also more likely to report incidents than their older colleagues.
Yet despite this increase in awareness, relatively little is known about how sexual harassment affects foreign women living in Japan. The government does not disaggregate data on sexual harassment complaints by nationality or ethnicity, and there is little research or data regarding foreign victims of harassment. Foreign women themselves are often hesitant to discuss it for fear of it negatively affecting their employment, or their social relationships. This means that incidents of sexual harassment and assault often go unreported.
One such incident — or rather, a series of incidents — happened to “Kristine,” a young American woman now in her early 20s. When she arrived in Japan as an exchange student in 2006, she soon realized she would have to get used to men staring at her.
“Being a natural blonde, I stand out a lot, and lots of Japanese men at least give me a second glance,” she says. However, the worst that happened to her was having been asked on one occasion if she wanted to work as a hostess.
When she returned to Japan recently to work as an assistant language teacher in Saitama Prefecture, her experience would be altogether different. At the junior high school she worked at, the verbal harassment began almost immediately. The boys asked her what her bra size was and when she first had sex. They even asked if they could touch her breasts.
When she wore additional layers of clothing in an attempt to hide her figure, boys would yell from across the classroom or the hallway that they thought she was getting fat. When she wore collared shirts, they complained that they could not see her chest well enough and asked if she could unbutton her shirt so that they could touch her breasts.
She didn’t complain to her supervisor about the harassment at first, hoping it would eventually die down. “The first forms of sexual harassment were mostly verbal, and I assumed that if I ignored their inappropriate questions and told the students to knock it off, they would stop,” she explains.
The harassment only became worse, however, when the new semester began. As she ate alone in the lunchroom one day, two boys began touching their groins and asked her if she wanted to watch. Another day, two girls grabbed one of her breasts and exclaimed, “So soft!”
She finally complained to the supervisor at the local board of education, which had assigned her to the school. He brushed it off as boys being boys, and suggested that her dress may be causing the problems — even though her principal had told her on more than one occasion that she always dressed professionally.
The breaking point finally came when several boys pulled on her shirt and looked underneath, announcing to the class what color bra she was wearing. She left the school building, rode her bicycle home, contracted into a fetal position and cried for the rest of the afternoon. Despite her formal request for an immediate transfer, the board of education forced her to finish her term at the school before the request was granted.
“Elizabeth” came to Osaka from New Zealand in her early 30s to work for the Nova English-language teaching chain, before its much-publicized bankruptcy and relaunch under G.communication. She had heard the oft-repeated mantra that Japan was one of the safest places in the world. For Elizabeth, however, life in Japan was anything but safe.
The company had housed her in a men’s hostel in Osaka. On her first day in Japan, a man grabbed her arm and pulled her towards him. She spoke no Japanese at the time, and could only understand one word he said: “hotel.” She eventually managed to break his grip and escape.
The harassment and assaults came on an almost daily basis — in the elevator, on the street and on the train. Strange men would ask for her panties — or simply climb up to her second-floor balcony and remove them from her drying rack. Men constantly approached her and asked her to accompany them to hotels; with her long, blond hair, they would assume she was a Russian prostitute, even after she attempted to convince them otherwise. Being molested on the train was a common occurrence — as it is for many women in Japan — and on one evening a man masturbated on the seat in front of her.
Her work at Nova offered no respite. She was assigned to work an 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift, providing lessons over the Internet. Men would engage in behavior ranging from taking her photograph to masturbating on live camera. Her complaints to her managers — both Western men — went unheeded. They were clients and they could do what they like, they would say.
On her way to work, a man on the train stuck his hand up her skirt and molested her. She had reached her breaking point. She arrived at her office in tears and told her managers of the assault.
“That’s going to happen a lot to you here,” one of them said, laughing. “You’d better get used to it.”
She had never in her life suffered the level of harassment and humiliation she experienced in those four weeks.
“I never felt so pimped out as I did at Nova,” she says. “The whole system was geared to put white women on show.”
Then Lindsay Hawker, a Nova teacher from Britain, was murdered, making headlines in Japan and internationally. The parallels between her life and Hawker’s were chilling, she says. She started to have panic attacks on trains, and was often too afraid to leave her apartment. To make matters worse, the company wasn’t paying her what they had promised, and she was having trouble paying her bills. Finally, she had had enough, and quit.
At that point she would have returned home if she could afford it, yet neither she nor her family had enough money to purchase a plane ticket. She was stuck in a foreign country with no job, little ability in the language and few viable options.
She found jobs bartending at establishments frequented by foreign clientele, and at times would go drinking with friends in the area. On one occasion, her drink was drugged and she started vomiting — she smelled a bleach-like substance, she says. She remembers little from the night and was unable to leave her apartment for two days.
One morning she found that the air valve on one of the tires on her bicycle had been removed, and she was unable to use it due to the flat tire. A few days later, she found that a new valve had been installed and the tire inflated. In her mailbox she found the parts of the old valve. She had a stalker, and he knew where she lived.
One of her friends at the bar she worked at knew a police detective and called him for assistance. The middle-aged detective came to meet her and she explained the situation.
“You should be flattered,” he said. “You’re beautiful. It’s a compliment, of course.”
“But if it would help you feel safe, I can stay at your apartment overnight,” he added, smiling. She moved out soon after.
Yet even this was not her most frightening experience in Japan. As she was leaving the bar where she worked, a man attacked her on the street. “You’re so pretty,” he said, “and you smell so good.” As she struggled to break free, he became more excited, and she could feel his erection pressed against her. She cried out for help, but people continued to walk by without stopping. She was eventually able to push him away and escape.
“Japanese men have this idea that I get up in the morning and go out in the street for their pleasure — that I was put on this Earth for their pleasure,” she says. “They’re like children — they want what they want and the culture supports them. There are bad people, like there are bad people everywhere. The difference is the apathy of the good people in Japan who are allowing this to happen, who don’t say it’s wrong.”
And it’s not only Japanese individuals. “Every time there has been a foreign man in a position to help me, they haven’t.”
It has been nearly four years since Elizabeth first came to Japan. During that time, she has been harassed, stalked and assaulted repeatedly. She was forced to teach men that masturbated on camera. No one would help her — not Japanese bystanders, not foreign men, not the police.
“The attitude was always the same — I was a pretty, young, blond, blue-eyed white woman, so of course this would happen to me, what did I expect?” she says. “If you fit a certain profile, then your life will be a lot more difficult in Japan.”
Now she is working as a teacher again, this time at a high school. She has learned Japanese, and has also learned to be more forceful in dealing with the men who continue to harass her.
She is more careful about where she walks, where she goes and whom she goes with. Occasionally she still gets panic attacks, such as when there was a large group of intoxicated men riding the train in the evening. But she won’t give up.
“This country won’t turn me into someone I don’t want to be,” she explains. “I won’t be a victim. I either have to live here and be me, or go back home. And I decided that I didn’t want to lose.”
While she doesn’t have as many problems now as she did when she first arrived, the problems do continue. Recently, a 16-year-old boy entered her faculty room, took off his shirt and asked her, “You like this? You want this?”
“He likes you,” a female teacher said, smiling. “He thinks you’re pretty.”
In addition to Japanese males harassing foreign women, there is also the reverse: foreign men harassing Japanese.
After spending over six years in Canada, Midori Hirayama returned to Japan to work for Koekisha, a funeral home chain in Osaka. Among her duties were translating and interpreting for one of the company’s star employees, an American recruited for his cutting-edge embalming techniques.
The harassment started almost immediately.
“He would come out of his office and sit across from me at my desk, just staring at me,” Hirayama recalled. “He would ask me out to go drinking at least every week,” even though she always declined. In meetings he would often lean over and caress her arm.
Another Japanese employee would always pretend not to see it, so she asked another coworker to come to the meetings to witness the behavior — which he did. Still, she could not muster the courage to report his behavior — particularly since she reported directly to him.
“He had been headhunted by the company,” she explained. “The president really liked him. They were very close. They would go on trips together.”
She dreaded coming into work. Her stress increased and her health worsened. The staring and the touching continued. Then, following a company end-of-year party, he followed her, grabbing her arm and kissing her hand. She pulled away, rushed back to the station and washed her shaking hands for several minutes before returning home.
Ironically, a short time after, she was asked to translate the company’s newly adopted sexual harassment policy into English. It was at that time that she fully understood that she herself was the victim of harassment. She finally confronted him directly. He became enraged, yelling and cursing at her in front of the staff.
Soon afterward, she found herself transferred to another branch, much farther away from home — just for two weeks, the president said, while they investigated the situation. Her harasser denied everything, and the president openly questioned Hirayama’s truthfulness, suggesting that she was interested only in financial gain.
The two weeks became a month, then two months, and her requests to return were denied. She was on an annual contract and the time to renew was approaching. She was offered a new contract, this time reclassifying her as a part-time worker, with a significant cut in pay and benefits.
She was told that the company was transitioning all the full-time translators to part-time status as part of cost-cutting measures — even though Hirayama knew that another full-time translator at a different branch was being kept on full-time.
It was clear retaliation for reporting the harassment, and she refused to sign. At the end of her contract period she was let go.
She could have gone quietly, like many women in Japan before her. Instead, she chose to fight. She contacted a lawyer, protested through her union and met with representatives from several women’s rights organizations, including the Working Women’s Network in Osaka.
She started talking to the media about her case, both to pressure the company and to offer encouragement to other women who were in her situation. Despite the protests and the media attention, the company refused to back down — so Hirayama filed suit.
The court case began in April 2004 and lasted a year and nine months. In the end, Hirayama received a monetary settlement and a commitment from the company to conduct annual seminars on sexual harassment. They also set up a confidential telephone hotline to take reports from victims.
The case was an ordeal for her — many of her coworkers lied in court, she says, for fear of losing their jobs — but Hirayama has never regretted her decision. For her, it was not only a question of principle; it was also a way to make a stand on behalf of other women who have suffered harassment in Japan.
In fact, one woman read about Hirayama’s case in the press and contacted her about a similar situation she was enduring at her company. Through Hirayama’s encouragement, she decided to take action — she got her union involved and filed a lawsuit.
When she protested with her union in front of her place of employment, Hirayama came and stood with her in solidarity.
“There are so many women out there who are quiet but are crying out for help,” Hirayama explained. “I want them to know that they are not alone.”
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