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


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.

    • skillet

      The press is full of women’s issues articles. That is a fallacy.

      However, I do have some sympathy for journalists like Ms. Kimura as there are some things that it would perhaps be better to change.

      I had to call a dude at my wife’s workplace in Japan 25 years ago and threaten to kick his a.. for saying some things to her. At one point, the dude threw an ashtray at another male colleague that almost hit my wife. No apology to her. I was going to meet the dude outside the company and pound his face into the pavement but she talked me out of it. I had just left the military and was in prime condition, but she was afraid I would get arrested.

      Thiings got better for her after that. The problem often is not laws and legal policies but rather unchecked aggression. People out of control need to be put in their place.

      Sometimes it is just the threat of violence against a pervert that is enough. It is good if a woman has someone willing to stand up for her. With the demise of the traditional family structure and LGBT marriages, fewer women have that luxury.

      • blondein_tokyo

        You just completely misconstrued what I wrote. That’s called a “strawman” and is indeed a fallacy.

        You, ex-military, in prime shape, threatened to beat up a man. And you believe that’s something to be proud of, to brag about.

        Then you go on to say that women can overcome threats of violence to their person by having a man threaten violence on the perpetrator of that violence.

        Nothing about educating men to treat women with respect, nothing about women achieving equality so that they aren’t threatened in the first place. Nothing about teaching women to be more assertive so they can stand up for themselves and get more respect.

        Nope. Your answer is violence.

        You’re a cretin.

      • blondein_tokyo

        You just completely misconstrued what I wrote. That’s called a “strawman” and is indeed a fallacy.

        You, ex-military, in prime shape, threatened to beat up a man. And you believe that’s something to be proud of, to brag about.

        Then you go on to say that women can overcome threats of violence to their person by having a man threaten violence on the perpetrator of that violence.

        Nothing about educating men to treat women with respect, nothing about women achieving equality so that they aren’t threatened in the first place. Nothing about teaching women to be more assertive so they can stand up for themselves and get more respect.

        Nope. Your answer is violence.

        You’re a cretin.

      • skillet

        Who is going to educate men ? Angela Marcotte and the feminazi brigade. And what are they going to teach. Guilt and castration ?

        No, we moved away from self-flagellation about 700 years ago. After the Inquisition. Feminist “feninazi re-education camps” are not the answer.

        When women are ladies and men are dudes, things function pretty well. There once were women worth dying for. Or going to jail for.

      • blondein_tokyo

        You just completely ignored every criticism I leveled at your approach, and instead used your reply to critisize straw feminism.

        Is that because you aren’t able to defend your position, and so instead try to re-direct the dialogue by presenting criticisms of an argument that I haven’t even made?

        I ask you: do you think violence is the best way to handle a dispute like the one your wife experienced? Is it moral or right for an ex-military with defense training to threaten violence on an office worker who is likely much smaller than him?

        Do you think violence is how to solve the problem of violence against women? Or is educating men to respect women a better plan? How that would be implemented is another question that can be explored after you answer that. Because if your answer is “no, violence is better than education” then we’re done.

      • skillet

        I believe in chivalry. And am appalled that you appear to be on the side of sexual harasser ashtray thrower . But now I understand. Feminists just hate Western traditional judeo-Christian culture, even if it is the one where women get freedom and equality. That is why the left is always for letting in waves of immigrants who will put them in a hajib. Maybe that is secretly what they want.

      • blondein_tokyo

        Does chivalry mean beating up someone who’s smaller than you are? Is that morally defensible?

        And once again, you’re dodging the question and criticizing something I never said or even implied.

        You are not only a bully, but dishonest and immoral.

        You also don’t seem to know anything about Japanese culture, if you believe the way to solve a problem in the office is through a display of temper and threats of violence.

  • 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 ?

    • blondein_tokyo

      If you followed the link, you’d know.

      But as usual, you aren’t really asking a question as a way to understand better. You’re only trying to poison the well , which is another thoroughly dishonest tactic you use.

      • skillet

        No, I am following a moral code. Defend the family and the homestead. That’s my job. If someone dishonors my wife, they are dishonoring me.

        That is the only acceptable and moral way to think in a free society. Where people are citizens instead of subjects.

        It is honor and morality which motivates me to go to work in the morning, grow my food, and hone my 2nd amendment skills.

        Cultures like Sodom and Gamorah trusted central authorities like Nimrod to safeguard them. Overly feminized societies see liberty die and ultimately collapse.They lack structure by moral code..

        The men lack the honor to defend their families and way of life. And the female culture degenerates and produces lower quality women because of promiscuity.

        Some of what I said does not apply in the east exactly as they have a village culture which I respect. (Just don’t throw ashtrays at my woman.)

        Asians can make it work with everybody carrying their load and having collective responsability. But when westerners abandon enlightened self reliant individualism, they become degenerate cry-bullies who make demands upon society but have nothing to contribute.

        Like the freak show on today’s college campuses which tends to gravitate around gender studies departments.

      • skillet

        OK, but the World Economic Forum is a hotbed of cultural marxism. Where Japan gets a raw deal because of the Fortune 500 sponsored “leftist”feminists in the west.

        They are targeting Japan because Japan is perceived as a soft target. No need to criticize Saudi Arabia as the latter holds the key to propping up the petrodollar. They will not change anyway.

        But Japan is a place where the message of the American Empire gets through. And in all the institutions like the UN, PC is the predominant ideology.

        I just hope the Japanese manage to defend the traditional aspects of their culture.

      • blondein_tokyo

        Traditional aspects, like throwing ashtrays at office ladies, and sexually harassing them? :)

        Dude, Japanese culture has both good and bad points. You can’t pretend it’s only all good whenever it suits your narrative, and in the next complain and threaten to beat up salarymen who target your wife.

      • skillet

        Yes I can. Japan is great. If they had a 2nd amendment, I would move back. Buy me a rice paddy and have me some chickens. (Although I am more interested in growing veggies than rice.)

        I love Japan and am often overcome with sadness that I am not there any more. Even if Dixie Land is nice too as it is still fairly conservative. I miss sitting tracing beautiful kanji in coffee shops and studying the language. And watching the pretty girls walk by after I get tired of studying.

        Just the other month, I bought a WW2 Japanese rifle. Even had anti-aircraft capability. Arisaka 99-shiki. A true Imperial Crown Jewel !! Got it at the Dixie Gun and Knife Spectacular. Fires huge bullets. Some of the largest I have ever seen. Great to have if ISIS gets drones. Hard to find one in such good conditon as the Japaanese soldiers dragged most of them through hell and back in the Pacific theater. A piece of history. A valued possession. Heritage ! Something to revere ! Heads were turning when I carried that baby to the shooting range. Even if the recoil left my shoulder sore.

        Showed it to my father in law on SKYPE. He cried tears of joy as it brought back memories of his childhood during WW2. They trained on Arisaka’s at school.

        Now that’s tradition !

        Actually, my son and I were excited that they are loosening up regulations to allow hunting of wild game that is damaging crops. Hope so, as hunting is another fine tradition.

        I would love to hunt wild boar. In Japan. With an Arisaka 99-shiki
        A dream of mine.