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Reading the headlines can sometimes leave a woman feeling numb. We’re reminded constantly that there are threats to our safety, an anxiety that’s likely felt by any member of a minority group in a society.

Overseas headlines in recent weeks have been particularly tough. In Britain, the murder of Sarah Everard — for which a police officer was charged — prompted an outpouring of grief from women who held vigils in Everard’s name, which were then met with a problematic response by police in London; in Australia, rallies were held to protest sexual harassment and assault amid a scandal unfolding in the country’s parliament; and in the United States a man killed eight people in a shooting spree in Atlanta, seven of whom were women and six of whom were of Asian descent.

Every time one of these headlines pops up in our social media feeds, it only reminds us of what we as women are sadly aware of on a daily basis. We all know the fear of walking down the street, and the need to watch our backs and send text messages to let others know we’re safe.

However, while my friends overseas still engage in this conversation, I find that I’m less vigilant when it comes to my surroundings in Japan. It’s safe here, I tell them. Women can walk home from the station alone after dark, as I have done many times.

Statistically it’s true, fewer violent crimes are reported here than in the U.K. But even though the statistics show that crime levels are lower, that doesn’t necessarily paint an accurate picture of how it feels to be a woman in this country. It ignores the issues that many of us contend with every day — often in silence.

An everyday problem

On trains, in the workplace and in their own homes — women in Japan are the victims of sexual harassment and abuse. According to the Justice Ministry, there were 410 reported cases of sexual harassment in 2018, which rose to 445 in 2019. These were cases in which victims sought redress. However, the labor ministry reported 7,323 sexual harassment consultations in 2019, and thousands more complaints related to issues such as maternity leave harassment.

In 2020, the Justice Ministry reported a dip in sexual harassment cases (to 256), likely due to the move to work from home during the pandemic. However, one statistic’s decrease is another one’s gain. In the period from April to November last year, the total number of reported cases of domestic violence stood at 132,355, an increase of almost 10% against the same time frame two years ago and a record high for Japan.

Chizuko Ueno
Chizuko Ueno

Chizuko Ueno, a professor emeritus at Tokyo University and prominent feminist figure in Japan, believes that sexual harassment is starting to be taken more seriously in this country, citing a rise in sexual harassment lawsuits and an increase in the number of cases in which the victim wins, as well as increased compensation.

“Women are affected by the fact that they suffer from molestation when they commute to work, and have to be cautious when walking on the road at night,” Ueno explains. “Sexual harassment at work and school is also a problem.”

The increase in awareness surrounding harassment in recent years follows in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which produced a Japanese #WeToo offshoot. But women still have to edit the way they work, dress and live their lives.

“Sexual harassment deeply affects every woman in Japan. Being reminded of the fact you’re a woman, but in the most disrespectful way possible, is exhausting,” says Wakako Fukuda, a former member of student activist group SEALDs who founded and writes for the Fem Tokyo platform. “It gets worse when there’s not enough people or safe spaces you can run to.”

Fukuda became the target of harassment as a member of SEALDs, whose protest against former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s security bills on Aug. 30, 2015, was thought to be the largest in Japan since the 1960s.

“Most of it (was) sexist comments, such as ‘Women don’t belong in politics,’ ‘Why would you jeopardize your future marriage by doing something like this?’ ‘Nobody is gonna want you after this,’” she says. However, as she continues down the list, the comments get darker: “‘I’d rape you,’ ‘You’re too ugly/too fat/too skinny,’ ‘Why can’t you act as women are supposed to?’

“Of course, compared to the female members, male members (of SEALDs) rarely got backlash mentioning their looks or age.

While more victims of sexual harassment are coming forward, speaking up in Japan remains difficult. Through Fem Tokyo, Fukuda hopes to inform more women about their rights.

“There are laws to prevent sexual harassment but, as important as they are, it doesn’t mean they always help,” she says. “People aren’t educated enough on this topic to know what is harassment and what isn’t. And even when they know they’ve been harassed, it’s never easy to speak up, especially risking your career or place in your community.”

Know your rights

Akiko Takenaka, an associate professor of history specializing in the social and cultural history of modern Japan at the University of Kentucky, agrees that many women simply don’t know how or don’t feel able to respond to sexual harassment when it happens.

“Even if a woman decides to report a case of sexual harassment or assault, the system is not set up in a way that makes the reporting process easy,” she says. “Victim shaming and the resulting resignation (women thinking it’s somehow their fault) also exacerbates the situation.”

There are risks to speaking up. Reporting harassment or other violence can result in victims putting their job at stake; the perpetrator, as is often the case, could also be known by the victim. A lack of awareness surrounding the issue only confounds the problem.

The issue “is still seen as ‘taboo’ to bring up simply because Japanese society really is patriarchal,” Fukuda says. “There’s definitely a huge lack of education, too. We learn little to nothing when it comes to practicing our own rights — from protesting to going to vote.

“When you don’t learn about your own rights and how to practice them, you also wouldn’t know when you’re stripping somebody else of their rights, either.”

This gap in awareness isn’t just a problem women face, according to Fahreen Budhwani, founder of the feminist platform Super Smash Hoes.

“I think men don’t have an understanding of what actually constitutes sexual harassment,” she says. “They might simply think that sexual harassment is one extreme, i.e., nonconsensual touching, but there isn’t an understanding of the very pervasive ways in which sexual harassment occurs, and that’s where education really needs to be targeted.”

Describing one of her own experiences while studying in Japan as “weird,” Budhwani relays a time that she was the victim of a sexual crime.

“We were approaching our dorm and there was this man sitting on a bike rack. He looked a little bit odd just standing there,” she recalls. “The closer we got to this man, I realized he was actually not wearing any pants and he was touching himself. I was in utter shock, and stopped and stared, but he didn’t flinch. He looked dead in the eye of two teenage girls and just continued touching himself.

“(It was) something so innocent, trying to walk home from the train station five minutes from our house. Nothing violent happened, but it was such a disturbing experience.”

Take to the streets: Protesters rally in response to the treatment of women in politics following several sexual assault allegations, as part of the Women's March 4 Justice rally in Canberra on March 15, 2021. | REUTERS
Take to the streets: Protesters rally in response to the treatment of women in politics following several sexual assault allegations, as part of the Women’s March 4 Justice rally in Canberra on March 15, 2021. | REUTERS

A change in perspective

The objectification of women in Japanese media could be one reason why sexual crimes take place, a problem that isn’t unique to this country. More unique, according to Takenaka, is the possible role that language may play.

“The term ‘sekuhara’ also contributes to the problem,” she says, referring to an abbreviation of the English term “sexual harassment.” It is written using katakana, the script for foreign loanwords, which can convey the idea as a foreign one.

“Since the term was never translated into Japanese, those who are not interested in solving the issue could pretend that it’s a foreign problem, not something Japanese people need to deal with,” she says. “The abbreviation makes the problem sound more mundane than it should, resulting in many people not taking the situation seriously enough.”

It’s worth noting that “domesutikku baiorensu” (domestic violence) is also written in katakana and often abbreviated to “DV.”

In order for women to be able to live without the threat of sexual violence, the frame of reference needs to shift. For example, one solution to the problem of groping on crowded trains was to implement women-only carriages.

“It’s forcing women to adjust our behavior, but it doesn’t address men’s behavior,” Budhwani says, adding that “it’s not only in Japan where we see women’s behavior targeted as what needs to be changed.”

Takenaka is currently involved in building awareness of Asian American history in the Kentucky education system. By planting the seeds of information in her students’ heads now, she believes that will bring positive results in the future.

“Something similar can start in Japan with regards to gender issues,” she says. “Education, policy changes and having more women in higher political offices is the way to start.”

Zanete Zujeva contributed to this article.

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