When former Olympic chief Yoshiro Mori made comments last February that women talk too much in meetings, the international media was shocked. Japanese women weren’t.

Mori, who is known for his regular gaffes and sexist comments, was espousing a viewpoint that women in Japan encounter much too often: A “good” woman is polite and should remain silent in the company of men. This time, however, Japanese women did not stay silent.

Black Box, by Shiori Ito
Translated by Allison Markin Powell
288 pages

Domestic and international backlash, spurred in part by the continuing impact of the #MeToo movement, and possibly the frustration of living in a pandemic, forced Mori’s resignation. He was even replaced by Seiko Hashimoto, a former Olympian.

One Japanese woman, however, began speaking out years ago. Journalist and documentary filmmaker Shiori Ito became the face of Japan’s #MeToo movement after talking about an alleged sexual assault that took place in 2015. Ito’s account of the experience, “Black Box,” was published in Japanese in 2017 and is set to be released in English from Feminist Press on July 13. Ito sees this new edition as an opportunity to push for more than cultural change.

“Now in Japan there is much more cultural awareness surrounding women’s rights and we’re definitely talking about the issues more openly,” she tells The Japan Times, pointing out the recent popularity of Shiori Onuki, better known as Shiori-nu, a sex educator on YouTube who provides information on topics that are typically not publicly discussed in Japan — from practical advice on using condoms to wider issues such as defining consent. “I’ve also noticed a change in the way the Japanese media covers sexual violence, but I don’t know if it’s reaching the people who actually make the decisions, which is quite sad.”

Rise up: Journalist and documentary filmmaker Shiori Ito became the face of Japan’s #MeToo movement after speaking out about an alleged sexual assault that took place in 2015. | HANNA AQVILIN
Rise up: Journalist and documentary filmmaker Shiori Ito became the face of Japan’s #MeToo movement after speaking out about an alleged sexual assault that took place in 2015. | HANNA AQVILIN

To that point, Ito refers to another recent gaffe from Japanese politician Hiranao Honda who, when addressing a working committee discussing revisions to the criminal code on sexual assaults in May, sparked outrage after he claimed it was “absurd” for a 50-year-old to be punished for a consensual sexual relationship with a 14-year-old. The age of consent in Japan, currently at 13 years old, is part of the suggested revisions under debate. National backlash forced him to make a public apology, but Honda’s comment barely made a ripple outside of Japan. Ito hopes the translation of “Black Box” will bring more international pressure on Japan to enact legal change.

“Real change is now in the hands of (the Diet),” Ito says. “After the global #MeToo movement, other countries are also updating their laws. So hopefully, we’ll do the same.”

According to translator Allison Markin Powell, “Black Box” is not so much a memoir as a “‘tear down the system’ manifesto for change,” a sentiment Ito endorses.

“Typical memoirs are personal, but I deliberately kept ‘Black Box’ as impersonal as possible,” Ito says. “That’s how I faced what happened to me, researching and gathering the information as a journalist, trying to focus more on understanding the systems in place at the time.”

In “Black Box,” Ito recounts meeting journalist Noriyuki Yamaguchi in Tokyo for dinner and drinks to discuss a job opportunity. At some point in the night, Ito lost consciousness at a sushi restaurant. Hours later, Ito awoke to discover herself in a hotel bed, with Yamaguchi on top of her.

In cases of sexual assault in Japan, the victim must not have consented, and they must prove violence or coercion in order to legally meet the definition of a crime. In Ito’s case, her unconscious state — called “jun gōkan” or “quasi-rape” at the time — made proving a lack of consent even more burdensome.

Although her pursuit of criminal charges ultimately failed, she refused to remain silent. Ito went public with her allegations in May 2017 in order to support a landmark resolution before the Diet that would amend antiquated sex-crime laws. The resolution passed, expanding the definition of rape and extending the minimum sentencing for rape cases. In 2019, the Tokyo District Court awarded her ¥3.3 million in damages in one of the most high-profile cases of the #MeToo movement in Japan to date.

Powell’s translation of “Black Box” lays out the events of 2015 as Ito remembers them, but also recounts the traumatic process that followed as she sought to report the alleged incident and seek justice.

“Because she’s a journalist, Shiori was able to very meticulously and methodically go through all the institutions that failed her and detail how they failed her and why,” Powell says. “The book highlights the changes that need to be made within these various systems so that what happened to her in the aftermath will not happen (to others) in the future. That’s what’s so important about ‘Black Box.’ She’s taking a stand for the next victim.”

As Ito explains in the introduction, her aim is to “shine light” on the shadowy corners — or “black boxes” — of the Japanese systems that allow sexual crimes to remain hidden. Later in the book, she outlines the wider issues surrounding sexual assault in Japan, including instances of groping on trains (chikan) or the responsiblity of proving consent falling on the survivors in rape cases. “Black Box” portrays a country in which legal and social systems are falling short of helping survivors.

In Ito’s case, the criminal investigation was riddled with inconsistencies, if not outright corruption. And although Ito eventually won the civil suit against Yamaguchi, she says there were many times she wanted to simply give up on her quest for justice.

“I first hoped there was a space for me to speak and talk and seek help. It is normal to speak your truth,” Ito says. “At some point I felt like I did enough and I didn’t want to do anymore. So I wanted to stop, but then I realized I would be a bad example if I just stopped pursuing the truth.”

Ito’s efforts to stand up on behalf of those who feel they can’t speak out against the system — in 2019, the Justice Ministry found that sex crimes continued to be significantly underreported — led Time Magazine to name her as one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2020 for her activism. When she initially released “Black Box” in Japan, she became the target for a lot of right-wing attacks — including from female politicians such as Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Mio Sugita.

To many more women, however, Ito is a hero. She continues her activism, raising awareness on the age of consent and the many legal burdens remaining on the survivors, and campaigning for more accessible rape kits and compassionate care. But these days, she prefers to tell other people’s stories. In 2018, Ito launched Hanashi Films based out of London with Swedish journalist Hanna Aqvilin to make documentaries highlighting social justice issues. The pandemic has temporarily shifted Ito’s homebase back to Japan, and she has been using this opportunity to tell Japanese stories, partnering with Yahoo Japan to create 10-minute films.

“I am writing as well, but I think creating a documentary to highlight what’s happening in society, or what has happened in history, is a very powerful way to tell a story,” Ito says. “By creating good documentaries on stories in Japan, people will hopefully become more interested in them. You know, what you used to see on TV here was about people who are suffering and that was it. But a documentary can be much more nuanced and as interesting or entertaining as fiction.

“Even in elementary school, I always questioned why I had to be like everyone else and not stick out. If we all stick out, we cannot be nailed down. I’m so grateful for all my friends and family who were willing to stick out with me.”

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