I have just finished my exchange year at one of Japan’s national universities. It has been a wonderful year filled with a wealth of new experiences, amazing encounters with Japanese people, a lot of studying hard for kanji tests and eating plenty of delicious food. It is with sadness that I leave soon for my home country to finish my studies.
However, something I was certainly not planning for did happen during my exchange. This is something that the international coordinator at my home university did not prepare me for when she was handing out brochures about Japan. Nor was it something my exchange university advised me about when they had their orientation week about life in Japan. That was all about earthquake safety drills, scholarship arrangements and health insurance. Table manners, course descriptions and student discounts.
Never did I expect that I would get raped in Japan. The story I am about to tell unfortunately belies the image of the “world’s safest country” that often gets trotted out when people enthuse about Japan.
In brief, here’s what happened: In a situation where I had several times told a new acquaintance that I did not want to have sex, my rapist — another non-Japanese resident — took advantage of the fact I was wearing a skirt and — with both of us still fully dressed — penetrated me so quickly and unexpectedly that I did not have time to react or fight back. Neither did he need to resort to violence. As soon as I realized what was happening, I pushed him away and ran out of his apartment as fast as I could, screaming. He did not follow.
I felt disgusted and dirty. I told my roommate and she promised to accompany me to the police station, but I was certain that my story would not be believed or taken seriously, and so I decided not to go. I had heard stories about the lack of legal support for sexual assault victims in Japan, and that many women chose to suffer in silence.
However, the feeling of disgust combined with intense lower stomach pains still haunted me several days later, so I decided to go to see a gynecologist. The nurse at reception asked me why I was seeking help and I told her the whole story. I was met with sympathy and was offered advice about the police system. She even printed out a map to the nearest police station. I felt a glimmer of hope: Maybe my story would be taken seriously after all?
From the clinic, I walked straight to the police station. I was afraid I would change my mind if I didn’t do it right away.
At the reception there were two police officers. I told them in correct Japanese that I had been raped, and asked whether there was someone who spoke English around, so that I could explain what happened without the need to worry that something would get lost in translation.
They looked perplexed. “Raped?”
“Yes, raped,” I answered.
Nobody was available, but one of the officers called somebody who could speak English. I picked up the phone the officer gave me.
“So you wanted to report some stolen luggage?” the person at the other end of the phone asked.
When I told them my reason for coming to the police station, the other end of the line went quiet. This was not what they had been expecting on a regular Wednesday evening.
“Could you wait a little bit?” he asked.
Suddenly I was surrounded by a group of police officers. Someone handed me a map and asked me to point out the crime scene.
I was taken to a room separated from the main office and interrogated for an hour or two. The police officer seemed understanding and compassionate, but the questions he posed gave a different impression. Among other things, he asked me what I was wearing (a skirt, a blouse and a cardigan); how much I had drunk that night (a beer and two cocktails); whether I, in fact, had wanted to have sex with him (no); whether I had told him no in the first place (I had told him, repeatedly), and whether he thought that my no, uttered several times, actually meant yes.
It was made clear that my case did not match the image that the officers had of rape in general.
“If only he was a stranger who attacked you on the street . . . it would be a lot easier to investigate,” the officer sighed. It felt as if the slightest deviation from what was acknowledged as “real rape” would be used against me to determine that my case was less serious and therefore less worthy of further action.
The common narrative and perception of rape is that it is a crime perpetrated by a violent stranger, but that it is not how a considerable number of rapes happen. Many victims are raped by somebody they know. My perpetrator was not a complete stranger, and the fact that he did not fit the stereotypical image of a rapist seemed to matter more than what had actually happened.
Later I got to know that in Japanese, there are words for these different kinds of rapes. The common narrative is called tsūjō (common/usual) rape, a violent rape perpetrated by somebody who was not known to the victim. My rape account was closer to something called a fushizen (unnatural/unusual) rape. In a fushizen rape the offender is already known to the victim in some way, and overt physical violence is often lacking.
In fact, when the Tokyo Rape Crisis Center compared the information on these two types of rape narratives with official statistics, it was found that tsūjō rapes were reported and prosecuted way more often than fushizen rapes. In other words, it seems I was not alone in being concerned about not being taken seriously. However, the investigation seemed still to be proceeding.
After the interrogation, already late in the evening, the police made me show them the area where I had been assaulted. I had to pose for pictures (with and without a face mask, for some reason) at the police station, in front of the police car before leaving, and close to the place I was assaulted. Even though I was treated compassionately, it felt more like I was the one being accused of something.
After I had pointed out where the assault took place, I was told that the location was outside the jurisdiction of the police station I had initially gone to. Phone calls were made and I was told to go to another station the following day for another interrogation. It was close to midnight and I just wanted to go home.
The next day, I obediently went to the second police station. I was met with similar questions and asked to tell the whole story again.
After retelling all the details about my attire and conduct, the officer asked me: “Do you really want him to be convicted? Do you really want him to serve a long sentence for what he has done?” It was clear she did not think the possible punishment fitted the crime.
Had I had the energy to speak up at that point, my answer would have been: “No, I would prefer it if he had not done it in the first place, and that my ‘no’ had been respected. I had rather wanted someone to recognize that I had been wronged. For me it is not about revenge, it is about justice. I wonder whether there is any other crime for which you ask the victim whether they think the punishment is justified.”
Instead of telling her all that, I said I needed time to think.
There was a reason why the police officer asked me whether I wanted my attacker to be convicted: In Japan, the prosecutor does not start investigating a rape case until the victim decides to press charges (Article 180 of the Penal Code).
In some other countries, including the U.K. and Sweden, rape falls under public prosecution. This means that the prosecutor proceeds with the criminal investigation whether or not the victim gives their consent. For me personally, it would have been a relief if someone else had made the decision for me. Instead, I was given a week to think about whether I wanted to press charges.
Before that, however, I did get a brief introduction to the Japanese legislation dealing with rape, courtesy of the officer. What I found was that my rape would most likely not be considered as such under Japanese law. In fact, not respecting my ‘no’ was not regarded as sufficient grounds to warrant punishment.
The definition of rape according to Japanese law (Article 177 of the Penal Code) is as follows: “A person who, using violence or threats, has sexual intercourse with a female person over the age of 13 shall be guilty of rape and shall be punished with imprisonment of at least three years. The same shall apply to a person who has sexual intercourse with a female person under the age of 13.”
In my case there had been no direct violence or threats, but neither was there consent, a definition upon which rape legislation is often built. In Japan, not wanting to have sex with somebody seems not to be enough. The use of threats or violence also needs to be present.
The problem with this approach is that the evidence of violence can easily become overemphasized, as it is something that is considered to be easier to measure objectively. Furthermore, with legislation hanging on the presence of violence, physical resistance might also be considered the only way for a victim to legitimately resist. My case did not seem to fit the description.
Also, I came to know that penetrating someone without a condom without permission, or knowingly transmitting an STD, is not punishable by any law in Japan. This means that you can, for instance, freely and intentionally transmit HIV to a partner, something that is a crime in many EU nations and U.S. states, for example.
This, combined with my knowledge of the lack of sexual education and steadily rising rates of STDs and STIs (sexually transmitted infections) in Japan, made me feel very uncomfortable. Not only did it seem that my rape was not considered a “real rape,” but my perpetrator could have infected me with something there was no legal nor medical remedy for.
It was made clear from the outset of my dealings with the police that any evidence would be hard to get hold of, and that my account did not match the scenario that would easily lead to a conviction; however, the police officer did not tell me outright that they would not investigate my case.
I wanted to press charges. I wanted to get justice. I wanted to challenge the paragraph in the Penal Code that did not, by any means, correspond with reality or offer enough protection for many victims of rape. But this turned out to be much more complicated than the simple question the police officer posed made it sound: “Do you really want to get him convicted?”
The week I was given passed. I was anxious and having second thoughts. My friends warned me not to ruin the last months of my exchange over “something like this.”
I know they had my best interests at heart. This was not a decision I wanted to make. But when it was time to go to the police station again, I went with high hopes, having already decided that I wanted to continue pursuing the case.
This time, for the first time, a translator was provided so that I would not have to worry about not understanding the legal terms. However, it was very clear from the start that the purpose of the meeting was not to hear my decision; it was to persuade me not to press charges.
A bunch of reasons were brought up: Investigating my case would be too difficult, too time-consuming, too traumatic for me. The police officer was afraid I could not handle the questions posed by the defense lawyers and judge.
“It is best for you to just try to forget about it,” she said.
I felt angry and frustrated. I did not feel that I wanted to entrust them with something as painful as my ordeal if they did not believe that the case was worth pursuing. Reluctantly, I decided not to press charges and left the police station crying.
The police officer walking with me to the elevator seemed uncomfortable. “Please, don’t hate Japan for this,” she said. But the reality of not being protected in “the safest country in the world” made me feel sick.
The question haunted me: What might have happened if the police had been willing to take further action? What I found out was that, in Japan, prosecutors have the right to drop a case when the prosecution is considered “unnecessary” based on the “offender’s character, age and circumstances, the seriousness and circumstances of the crime itself, and the situation subsequent to the crime” (Article 248, Code of Criminal Procedure). In 2005, 6.8 percent of the rape prosecutions, according to the Ministry of Justice, were abandoned due to this clause, which certainly leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
Furthermore, prosecutors are under pressure to drop cases that would most likely end in the accused not being convicted, as it would bring disgrace to the prosecutor and potentially hinder their future career. Taking into consideration the circumstances of my rape and the current state of Japanese legislation, it seems unlikely that a prosecutor would have wanted to take the risk. Looking at the statistics, many of the rape cases are dropped even before the prosecution stage. In 2005, only 65.8 percent of the rapes reported were prosecuted, according to Justice Ministry figures.
Japan being constantly ranked among the safest countries in the world will not help my recovery. Instead, it will continue to feed the myth that sexual assault is not a problem here. But data suggesting a phenomenon is happening at a lower frequency than somewhere else does not mean that it is not happening at all.
Actually, there seems to be a major issue with hidden statistics. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, in 2012 only 1,240 rapes were recorded by police in Japan (1.0 per 100,000 people). This is only slightly more than the number of recorded rapes in the whole of Finland (1,009 cases, or 18.7 per 100,000 people), even though the country has a population 20 times smaller than Japan’s.
However, I have a hard time imagining that the real number of rapes could differ this much between the two countries. In support of this, I found that I was part of the 3.7 percent of female victims in Japan who decide to report their rape to police (according to a 2011 Cabinet Office survey). Almost 70 percent told no one about their ordeal. And even for those who do report, their cases are unlikely to lead to a conviction, as the general rate for arrests of reported crimes in Japan is around 30 percent.
I am aware that rape is a crime that is hard to prove and get justice for. I am not blaming the police for not being able to find proof if there is little evidence in the first place. But that does not mean there should not be proper legislation and support in place to aid victims.
Thousands of rape cases in Japan go unreported every year. What’s more, there is often nowhere to turn for support when the laws as they are written do not offer sufficient protection. The social support for victims is sparse, especially in languages other than Japanese. For instance, I did not get any kind of contact information for any sexual assault victim support network from my gynecologist, nor from the police. This left me in a very vulnerable position: I felt like I was being assaulted again by the rigid legal system, with no help available from outside of it either. Also, being an exchange student, this was not the first thing I wanted to ask my university adviser to help me with.
How my case was treated left me filled with anxiety, and with lingering questions: Was I really raped? Maybe I should have done something differently — dressed differently, talked differently? Am I to blame for what happened?
Victims are afraid to talk because of this stigma, and I am no exception. I wish I could feel at ease writing this using my real name and picture, as many victims of other types of crimes do routinely. However, this is not yet something I feel comfortable doing.
The notion that crimes like this will continue to affect the lives of not only me but thousands of women and men makes me feel terribly helpless. Better protection and legal support has to be made available to the victims. I hope that explaining what a victim of a sexual assault in Japan still has to go through will help raise awareness and eventually change the outdated beliefs and ideas that do not correspond with reality.
Rachel Halle is a pseudonym. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.