Tokyo office worker Kyoko Igarashi, in her 20s and living alone, noticed that a man who'd been hanging around her neighborhood had started to loiter outside the door of her second-floor apartment -- just beyond the peep-hole.

Igarashi (not her real name) was terrified and reported her problem to the police. But every time the man reappeared, she'd have to tell the whole story again. Then finally, two weeks later, an officer confronted the man and he disappeared for good. But now, six years on, bad feelings remain. As Igarashi puts it: "It's all still with me."

Women's groups have long complained that police routinely brush off allegations of molestation, sexual intimidation and even rape, often refusing to follow up complaints or doing so only halfheartedly. Sometimes, they say, ham-fisted investigations have left victims feeling more humiliated than vindicated.

To such groups and many others, the working of the Japanese system obviously needed fixing: Women's rights were being ignored.

I long wondered whether anything was being done about it. Then first-hand experience taught me how much is actually going on, in several sectors, to make Japan a more civil society for women. This happened not long ago when I accompanied a female friend, who had been sexually harassed that morning, to the police to help ensure her case was handled correctly. Past interviews with women victims had prepared me for a bitter reception.

Model of professionalism

To my surprise, the officer on duty was the very model of professionalism. He spoke soothingly as he noted details of my friend's complaint point by point. If any criticism were to be made, it would be that the interview took half a day to complete. "I am sorry," I recall him saying. "I just don't want the suspect to get off on a technicality."

Was this civil servant a rare example, or part of a new breed? I posed the question to Makiko Sasagawa, a social worker and clinical researcher who also conducts seminars at the National Police Academy on interacting with sex-crime victims.

"There's an obvious change," said Sasagawa, citing her courses at the academy as proof. "Every year, there are more questions from officers on how to communicate with victims, how not to hurt their feelings."

Sasagawa attributed the greater sensitivity to a strongly worded -- yet barely reported -- 1996 National Police Agency directive that law enforcement officers should spare no effort to safeguard the rights of victims of sexual crime.

The directive, titled "Higaisha Taisaku Yoko (Outline of Measures to Help Victims)," acknowledged allegations of "secondary victimization" by police and spelled out concrete ways to better help victims, "while trying to see things from their perspective." Experts say that, in retrospect, the document affected a catalytic change in the way police think about sexual crime.

The command from on high struck home.

"During these past few years, I've had seminar participants say, 'I want to help victims, but until now there's been no system in place. Please teach me how I can be of greater assistance,' " said Sasagawa, whose students there are nearly all men.

In today's Japan, heightened consciousness of victim support extends far beyond the police. An important factor is the proliferation of counseling centers across the country, such as the Japanese Union for Survivors of Trauma, a non-profit organization run by survivors themselves. Like many similar organizations, it offers a free hotline where victims can seek emotional support and information on legal and other services.

Ground-breaking drama

Then there's the media. Many women still talk about a ground-breaking 1997 television drama called "Sutoka, Nigekirenu Ai (Stalker, The Inescapable Love)." That 10-program series dramatizing the terror of being followed by a stranger is credited by many with creating a social atmosphere unaccepting of police indifference.

The bad news is that sex crimes appear to be on the rise. According to the NPA, in recent years the reported number of both rapes and sexual assaults -- which includes molestation and exhibitionism -- have surged. Police haven't been able to keep up, and arrest rates have slumped in both categories.

Sasagawa has no doubt that actual incidences have increased, partly due to the prolonged economic stagnation that has seen crime levels rise across the board. However, she also believes that the surge in sex-crime figures paradoxically reflects something positive, too. That is women's increased willingness to overcome embarrassment and place their trust in the police by reporting to them what happened.

So now, as long as police succeed in catching perpetrators, more victims can come forward, confident that their cases will end up where they belong -- not in some dusty police-box cabinet, but in court.