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Sexual harassment at bōnenkai, inept handling, a suicide

Case shows how far Japan still has to go to safeguard women's rights in the workplace

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Bōnenkai season is upon us. For many workers, the end-of-year party season is a welcome chance to let their hair down and celebrate or commiserate over the highs and lows of the past 12 months. But for some women, it can be a troubling time, as the risk of sexual harassment increases, fueled by alcohol, the loosening of inhibitions and the presence of large numbers of inebriated men.

At last year’s bōnenkai for the General Affairs Department of the Hokkaido Shimbun’s Hakodate branch on Dec. 8, a 40-year-old nurse who worked part-time at the paper was reportedly sexually harassed by a vice-chief of the department and his subordinate. Two months later, in the early morning of Feb. 21, the woman died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a fire at her home. A day before her death, she sent documents criticizing the paper’s insensitive and unsympathetic handling of the case to 13 organizations, including eight newspapers and TV stations in Hokkaido.

A handwritten memo that said simply “Please do not hold a funeral for me” was found in the barn next to her house. Her family are convinced that their daughter committed suicide as a result of the sexual harassment and the company’s inadequate countermeasures.

In May, the family filed a criminal complaint against the two employees for violating a Hokkaido anti-nuisance ordinance and violent conduct. On June 26 the Hokkaido Shimbun finally answered her family, who soon after the death had asked the paper to undertake a thorough investigation into whether the woman had been sexually harassed at the party. The result of the probe: “No evidence of sexual harassment has been found.”

According to the accusations, the vice-chief, who is married, harassed the victim, including touching her body and making obscene suggestions. The subordinate, also married, is alleged to have abused her verbally. For instance, he was said to have asked, “Why don’t you become the vice-chief’s mistress?”

Studies have linked experiences of sexual harassment with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. The woman’s behavior in the months before her death suggest the woman was deeply traumatized by events of Dec. 8, and she visited a psychosomatic specialist following the incident, believing she had PTSD.

It took 10 days after the bōnenkai for the victim to summon up the courage to call the harassment consultation desk at Hokkaido Shimbun Press headquarters in Sapporo. Following company procedure, the victim expected the complaint to be dealt with properly — in other words, that the alleged offenders would be punished. After speaking with the victims and the two alleged offenders on Jan. 8, the staff at the harassment consultation desk concluded that the claim was highly reliable.

On Jan. 23, a meeting was arranged at a hotel in Hakodate, where the two alleged offenders apologized both verbally and in letters they handed over to her. On a recording of the meeting the victim made on her mobile phone, the alleged harassers can be heard explaining that they had drunk too much and were unable to control themselves; she replies firmly, saying that this is not an acceptable excuse.

After the apology, the company offered the woman, who had been working on serial six-month contracts, open-ended part-time employment. On the recording, she seems relieved and pleased not to get fired.

At this point, it seems the company considered the matter resolved. The victim, however, was not satisfied, because her requests — such as that the alleged offenders be transferred to another branch — were not accepted.

On Feb. 5, the victim was told she would be required to attend a meeting about health care at the headquarters in Sapporo with one of the alleged offenders. She would have to be in the same room as him for more than four hours. The staffers on the harassment consultation desk would also be present.

“My anger exploded into an uncontrollable rage,” the woman wrote in the letter sent the day before her death. After being told about the meeting, she took a period of leave from work. On Feb. 16, she sent a letter to the director of the General Affairs Department to explain about her health problems and complain about the insensitive attitude of the company.

The reply to this letter by the vice-chief of the General Affairs Department in Sapporo may have triggered her suicidal behavior. In the letter, received on Feb. 18, he said that the company believed it had dealt with the problem appropriately and repeatedly asked for an opportunity for a discussion.

“It is useless to discuss this again,” she said in the letter sent Feb. 20. “No matter how much I demand something be done, nobody has responded.” The morning after this letter arrived, she was found dead.

The woman severely criticized the Hokkaido Shimbun in her final letter.

“Hokkaido Shimbun does not seem to realize that its remarkable lack of proficiency in risk management could inflict significant damage on the reputation of the company. With its articles supporting the common people and the weak, it pretends to stand on the side of justice, but the Hokkaido Shimbun does not qualify as a news organization that pursues and reveals injustice.”

It seems the woman had great respect for the ideal of what news media should be, and it was these high expectations that compounded her disappointment in the company.

However, Hokkaido Shimbun is a male-dominated company, many of which routinely fall short when it comes to dealing with sexual harassment in Japan.

The 2006 revision to the Act on Securing, Etc. of Equal Opportunity and Treatment between Men and Women in Employment was intended to provide new enforcement measures to tackle sexual harassment. In accordance with this act and the guidelines based on it, employers are obliged to establish measures to prevent sexual harassment of both men and women in the workplace.

As every large Japanese company should, Hokkaido Shimbun has a detailed procedure in place for handling sexual harassment claims. It involves steps to clarify the details of any workplace sexual harassment, measures to punish perpetrators that are outlined in the company work rules, and the establishment of a dedicated service that workers can turn to for advice and consultation on the subject.

“Despite the enactment of the legal framework, the practice of preventing sexual harassment in the workplace has not worked in Japan,” points out Yoko Koyama, chief secretary of the Hokkaido Women’s Union.

Private companies have tended to treat this act as a guideline rather than a law. No penalties are imposed when the guideline is not obeyed. Hokkaido Shimbun is no exception. In this case, says Koyama, “The consultation desk may have been used, but it also inflicted secondary damage on the victim.”

Although companies have to designate certain staff as being responsible for receiving sexual harassment complaints, the person in charge is often an executive who tends to stand on the company’s side, not with the victim. Moreover, these people do not always have enough experience or knowledge about sexual harassment. A source at the paper said that the employees dealing with sexual harassment at Hokkaido Shimbun, for example, were ex-newspaper reporters.

“I know of the existence of the harassment desk, but … I wonder if anyone actually uses the consultation service,” said one female reporter at the Hokkaido Shimbun, a sentiment echoed by other women at the paper.

On July 1, 2014, the Amendment of the Ordinance for Enforcement of the Act took effect, changing the guidelines regarding sexual harassment. It stressed the necessity of mental care for victims. But at the Hokkaido Shimbun, it appears obvious that appropriate measures for reducing psychological stress were not taken in this case.

Removing the alleged offenders from their positions may have resolved the situation. But instead, the victim suffered anxiety and stress because her appeals for action were basically ignored.

“Nonregular employment has many disadvantages in terms of sexual harassment,” says Kaori Sato, chair of the Purple Union, a labor union formed to fight for women’s rights in the workplace. Sato herself was sexually harassed while working for a firm through a dispatch agency, and set a precedent in Japan by winning worker’s compensation for her ordeal in a case against the government. “Nonregular employees have no choice but to be quiet and put up with it because they are worried about their contracts not being renewed.”

According to a survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, women accounted for 56.7 percent of Japan’s 24.36 million nonregular employees in 2014. Of Hokkaido Shimbun’s 1,408 regular employees as of May 2015, only 178 were women, almost all of whom were reporters. Many more are working on fixed-term and temporary contracts in other sections.

Women’s empowerment has been touted as a key plank of the government’s Abenomics plan to boost growth, but there has been little sign so far of much progress toward gender equality on the ground in Japanese workplaces. Sexual harassment is still endemic in the media industry. “Try not to take it so seriously — that’s the only way to survive in the news media”: This is a cynical refrain I have heard countless times over the years from female reporters. Sexual harassment is an organizational and structural problem in Japan, and thus remains an unfortunate fact of life for a large number of women.

If the government is serious about “building a society in which women can shine,” as the prime minister has claimed, this needs to mean more than just increasing women’s participation in the workforce. The government needs to take enforceable steps to safeguard women’s human rights — not just the right to work just like men do, in workplaces run according to their rules.

Kayoko Kimura is a freelance journalist. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion on issues related to life in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp


Correction, Jan. 20, 2016:

This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that neither the sexual harassment of the nurse nor the link between that sexual harassment and her suicide have been proven.

  • blondein_tokyo

    I haven’t checked to see if this has been published in any Japanese-language media, but it needs to be. I admire Ms. Kimura for taking a stand, which must have been a very difficult thing for her to do considering that she is a freelance writer. She’s taking a real chance with her career by writing a story on a topic that the male-dominated media would rather see swept under the rug and ignored.
    Abe’s policies so far haven’t worked because they were never realistic, and he isn’t actually serious about empowering women. It’s clear he’s only paying lip service to the idea of workplace equality in order to make himself look good. His policies so far have fallen so incredibly short of what is actually necessary to achieve equality that they are a joke. To say nothing of his failure to address things like sexual harassment, maternity harassment, equal pay, and other issues such as domestic violence and other violence against women.

  • Hendrix

    As i have said many times before on comments around here, Japan has to undergo a huge shift in mindset and culture and drop the disgusting chauvanism, racism, sexism and general ignorant backward comfort zone that they are so comfortable operating in…. until the Japanese own up to this and really reform their culture then nothing will change.

  • skillet

    Who did the ranking ? The Arab League ? OPEC ? ISIS ? Muslim Brotherhood ? Al Queda ?