For most people, most of the time, it’s a cliche that’s hard to argue with: Japan is a safe country. But what safeguards are in place for women when it isn’t?

In fiscal 2015, 1,167 rapes and 6,755 cases of indecent assault were reported to the police across Japan. That might not sound like a lot. After all, the number of rapes reported in the United States and United Kingdom (excluding Scotland) in 2015 were 124,047 and 36,312, respectively. Adjusting for population, these figures suggest a person is around 40 times more likely to be raped in the U.S. or U.K. than in Japan.

However, the Japanese government’s own figures show that more than 95 percent of rapes are not reported to the police. Working from these numbers, the real figure for rapes in the country could be more than 27,000. Until July, Japan’s legal definition of rape also excluded anal or oral penetration, meaning many female victims of these kinds of attacks — and all male victims — were counted as victims of indecent assault rather than rape.

The stories of female sexual attack survivors and their supporters suggest that women can feel less safe after reporting their experiences to the police than if they don’t. Secondary victimization — victims being subject to behavior that worsens their suffering — at the hands of police officers can in some cases be as much of an ordeal as the attack itself. Victims and the NGOs that deal with them say that although much has improved in recent years, a lot still needs to be done before women can feel safe approaching the police and confident that sexual attacks will be taken seriously.


Reluctance to report

A 22-year-old American who asked to use the pseudonym Elizabeth says she was raped by a colleague while working as an assistant language teacher on the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme. The alleged attack occurred in early August after a night out with fellow ALTs.

At the end of an exhausting day, having had only a couple of drinks, she invited one man, whom she considered a good platonic friend, to stay over and sleep off his heavy drinking, as he had done without incident in the past. The friend, she says, raped her in her sleep. She recalls waking up briefly and refusing his advances before falling back into deep sleep.

The next morning, in pain and shock after realizing what had happened, Elizabeth contacted friends in Japan and the U.S. for advice. She was afraid of the perpetrator and lacked the courage to go to the police. On the advice of one friend, she reported the matter to her JET prefectural adviser.

She says she was told by the JET adviser that Japan had vague rape laws, and while she could go to the police, it was fairly pointless because it had been more than three days since the attack. Nevertheless, she decided to report it to the police, hoping this would put pressure on her employer to terminate the alleged attacker’s contract or transfer him to another prefecture.

Her experience turned out to be a drawn-out and painful affair. In an email, Elizabeth reeled off a number of concerns.

“First, I felt that an entire day of questioning, which included the visit to my apartment, was unnecessary,” she explains. “My story isn’t that long or complicated; questioning could’ve last a couple hours at most.”

One female officer was assigned to the case, along with two male officers. None suggested any counseling services.

“Second, the pictures taken of me were pointless and traumatizing. They took pictures of me with my bloody underwear and the used condom my rapist used. It was humiliating.”

Third, Elizabeth says, “They had some ridiculous questions like ‘Have you ever had anal sex/anything put up your butt?’, ‘Do you think he thought you were attractive?’ and ‘If a woman is unconscious and her friend/boyfriend/husband has sex with her, do you consider it rape?’ They didn’t seem to have a concept of ‘unconscious is unable to consent.’

“Lastly, I thought it was entirely inappropriate and victim-blaming that they offered me advice: ‘If you don’t want to get raped, you shouldn’t invite men in your apartment.'” she says. “They made me feel as if it were completely my fault that I was raped.”

Elizabeth says the JET prefectural adviser refused to fire, transfer or even suspend the alleged attacker because he had not been convicted. Feeling she was getting nowhere with the police or JET, Elizabeth returned to the U.S. in late August. The accused ALT continues to work with JET in the same prefecture.

Elizabeth’s experience is far from unique. Hiromi Nakano, founder of Shiawase Namida (Happy Tears), which supports victims of sexual violence, has dealt with a number of cases since starting the NGO in 2012, most involving Japanese women.

“In a survey conducted by the Cabinet Office, only 4.3 percent of women who were victims of rape consulted the police. In the survey, Reasons why they did not talk to anyone included ’embarrassment,’ ‘I thought I could stand keeping it to myself,’ ‘I do not want to recall it,’ ‘I was also in the wrong’ and ‘It’s pointless to talk about it,'” Nakano says. “About 75 percent of the perpetrators are also known to them, such as relatives, colleagues or acquaintances. This is also a big factor in why they avoid consulting with the police.”

Catherine Jane Fisher and Michael O
Catherine Jane Fisher and Michael O’Connell | COURTESY OF CATHERINE JANE FISHER (IAMJANE.ORG)

Learning from ‘Jane’

Catherine Jane Fisher, an Australian known simply as “Jane” in media reports until she revealed her full name in 2012, has been fighting for victims of sexual violence since she was raped by a U.S. serviceman in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, in 2002. In her case, after notifying the Japanese police immediately following the attack, they refused to take her to a hospital for an examination and so physical evidence could be collected.

Fisher was then forced to accompany the police as they drove around looking for her rapist. This was followed by a long, emotionally and physically tiring interrogation, including a re-enactment of the ordeal for the police photographer, right when she needed mental and physical care the most.

“I was made to feel like a piece of trash and I knew that the police withholding medical treatment and keeping me captive was a grave infringement of my human rights,” Fisher wrote in her book, “I Am Jane.” She felt the policemen were controlling her just like the man who had just raped her.

During her long fight for justice, Fisher met Michael O’Connell, Australia’s first commissioner for victims’ rights. He now serves as secretary general of the World Society of Victimology.

“The offender’s crimes were despicable but her treatment by authorities was deplorable,” O’Connell says. “If you ever wondered why so many victims choose not to report rape or why so many people prefer to put the blame for crime on its victims, then you should read Catherine’s book.”

Fisher’s case brought the issue of secondary victimization of sexual crime victims in Japan to international attention. Fifteen years on, the police now have guidelines in place that suggest they have learned at least some lessons from the harrowing experience of Fisher and hundreds like her.

“In the National Police Agency and at each prefectural police service, we conduct various types of training for senior officials and investigators engaged in sex crime cases to improve their professional abilities,” the NPA said in a faxed reply to questions. “Also, we have a specialized supervisor at each prefectural headquarters in charge of giving guidance to police stations.”

In cases involving women, the NPA guidelines say, “Female officers interview victims, collect evidence, accompany victims to hospitals, update victims on the progress of investigations and perform other functions involving direct contact with victims.” In addition, the police last month set up the #8103 Heart-san phone service (8103 can be read hāto-san in Japanese), which connects victims to their nearest Sex Crime Victims’ Counseling Corner.

In the crucial area of evidence collection following sexual crimes — a step botched in Fisher’s case — the guidelines state that each prefectural force has a system and equipment in place to make the process as prompt yet sensitive as possible. To ensure female physicians are available, “police are building networks and strengthen working relationships with organizations of obstetricians and gynecologists.” And whereas Fisher was made to re-enact her rape, the police guidelines suggest that now, “dolls are also employed to lighten the emotional burden of reconstructing the crime.”

“Granted,” says Fisher, “that since I began my grass-roots movement almost two decades ago I have seen changes in archaic laws, but there is still so much more work to be done.”

Police progress patchy

Despite recent reforms, victims’ accounts suggest that the current police guidelines are not always followed to the letter.

Laura Curtis, then a researcher at a university in Tokyo, says she was attacked one night in June last year while walking home. She asked that her real name be partially anonymized for this article for professional reasons.

Curtis says the man tackled her and groped her before she managed to escape. A personal account of the attack and her experiences with the police was published on the Japan Subculture Research Center site in May.

Having since seen the police guidelines for dealing with sexual crime victims, Curtis says that in her case few were followed.

“I was never offered the support this report actually does claim police forces offer, such as a local visit to check in regarding my concerns and the case, information regarding counseling, or knowledge of how police and court proceedings would operate,” she says. “The first officer at the police box did, to his credit, put me on a phone line … with a woman — an officer? A counselor? — to fully explain what had happened to me so, I assume, they would know how to handle it.

“A female officer was also present when I was being questioned by several officers crammed into the back of the police box. She was again present when I was forced to undergo the horrible reenactment of my attack. While they knew it would be inappropriate to use a man, they clearly had little sense of how traumatizing it might be to make a woman tangle her body up with a stranger to recreate the nature of her attack only an hour later, while male officers snapped photographs and asked invasive questions.

“Did these officers know what secondary victimization is? I have my doubts.”

Lighthouse is an NGO that fights human trafficking and therefore regularly deals with cases of sexual violence. Secretary-General Arata Sakamoto agrees that implementation of the guidelines is patchy.

“Our experience has been different in different police stations,” he says. “Some officers would help and support us to the best of their ability, and there are also those who are hard to deal with. But until now, most of the time the police have been very supportive of Lighthouse.”

In terms of police attitudes over the years, “there has been a little change,” Sakamoto says. “But even that change is also a result of pressure coming from the top. It is more like they are doing their duty, their job, but the way they look at things, their conscience has not changed much.”

Lighthouse’s Aiki Segawa and Arata Sakamoto | TOMOHIRO OSAKI

Wait and see on legal reforms

The police, however, would argue that change is happening at the top. In July, Japan’s Penal Code was amended for the first time in more than a century to expand the definition of rape beyond vaginal penetration — meaning men can now be considered victims — increase sentences for perpetrators and allow for prosecutions even in cases where the victim does not file a formal criminal complaint.

The change to allow prosecutors more leeway to seek a conviction “seems to be an effort to minimize the burden on victims by removing the early-stage decision as to whether to pursue a case,” says Colin P.A. Jones, a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto and Japan Times columnist. If and how these measures affect the number of rapes reported or prosecuted will be closely watched.

In conjunction with the law change, the NPA released a circular to police forces around the country titled “Promoting sex crime investigations that consider victims’ feelings,” which it says is being used to train officers. Issues covered include: measures to preserve the privacy of victims; how to sensitively help victims file damage reports; the importance of fully understanding and explaining the law change regarding filing criminal complaints; and training all officers to better understand the psychology of victims, including by using role play, with officers placed in the position of victims.

“Since recalling the situation puts a heavy mental burden on victims, an officer should be appointed to try to limit the number of interviews to as few as possible,” the circular says.

Although the Penal Code amendments go some way to meeting the demands of lawyers and NGOs representing victims, one clause tightly bound up with the issue of secondary victimization remains firmly in place.

In Japan, prosecution of rape and indecent assault requires proof that “violence and intimidation” were used — usually evidence to show the victim put up some resistance. Without this, victims are likely to be dissuaded from filing a complaint and prosecutors are unlikely to take cases further.

But as Aiki Segawa of Lighthouse points out, this definition ignores the facts of how the human body can react in moments of terror.

“A lot of people, or the police, tend to think that you can run away, scream, pinch the attacker — a lot think that they could do that, but in reality when you are being raped or sexually assaulted, people usually freeze and cannot do anything,” she explains. “Because they do not want any more harm, they freeze or they just obey the perpetrator or the offender. If people understood these simple facts, maybe it would change how they see it. Maybe they would not ask victims why they did not run away.”

In contrast, under U.K. and federal U.S. law, for example, lack of consent is the key criterion defining rape. This means that cases can be prosecuted without the need to prove physical violence.

Segawa believes a wholesale change of culture is needed in the way the police treat victims, who are often made to feel like the guilty party.

“The police need to believe the victim and not judge them without hearing their story. Many people listen to the victim through the lens of judgment and ask them ‘why’ questions as if they are criminals: ‘Why were you walking outside that late at night? Why were you wearing such an outfit?'” she says. ” I think we need to shift our focus more to the perpetrators, not the victims. We try to know about the victim but we are not looking that much into the perpetrators, and that is where we need to look and ask ‘why’ questions.”

Laura Curtis began studying Japanese 15 years ago, around the time that Catherine Fisher was raped in Yokosuka. Curtis’ doubts about whether to contact the police after being attacked herself in Tokyo were colored by the stories she had heard about the way sex crime victims in Japan are treated, such as Fisher’s.

“On the night of my attack, I came home and called a friend in America before I went to the police. The first and only thought I could blurt into the phone was ‘I don’t even know if I should go and report it. I know the police won’t do anything about it here.’ As someone who loves Japan, who has studied it for 15 years and lived there numerous times, I can confidently say this was my opinion before the attack, and continued to be my opinion after my experience with the police.”

Until women can approach the police after cases of sexual assault with confidence that their stories will be heard and action taken, Japan’s fabled safety will always come with a caveat.

“Victims should be told that they are safe now — they are not to blame — that people, including the police, are there to help,” says O’Connell, who served 25 years as a police officer in Australia. “It is helpful when those tasked to help victims validate victims’ experiences and reactions believe them, not blame them, listen to them and respond in a nonjudgmental way. Victims are entitled to feel safe.”

Shiawase Namida: www.shiawase namida.org
I Am Jane: www.iamjane.org
Lighthouse: lhj.jp/english
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