When you find criticism of your country disturbing, the best way to dismiss it is to find a flaw in the critique and use it to justify dismissing the rest of the evidence as well. Sometimes it works, but only if people don’t really do their homework.
Take, for example, sukūru sekuhara, which means “school sexual harassment” and refers to academic staff acting lewdly toward their students. Such behavior ranges from inappropriate touching and sexual assault to photographing students naked.
According to the education ministry, 205 faculty members at public schools were disciplined or fired for such offenses in fiscal year 2013, the most recent year statistics have been made public. It’s the first time since the survey began in 1977 that the figure has topped 200. It has hovered around 150 for the past decade.
All academic employees who were disciplined were men and almost 70 percent of the harassment occurred outside of school hours. The offenses ranged from inappropriate physical contact, sexual intercourse, hidden filming, voyeurism, kissing, sexually offensive comics and literature, lewd photography, molestation and exposing private parts. The most common offense — in 56 cases — was inappropriate physical contact followed by taking unauthorized video footage and voyeurism. Thirty faculty members had sexual intercourse with their students. Two teachers were disciplined for selling and/or distributing pornographic videos.
Two academic employees were disciplined for taking lewd photos of students in 2013. The Metropolitan Police Department recently arrested a 38-year-old elementary school teacher in Mitaka, Tokyo, for a similar offense. According to the Sankei Shimbun, the teacher had been suspected of inappropriately touching female students and, as a result, had been put in charge of a class of male students this year. The teacher was arrested on suspicion of taking a male student off school grounds in May and taking lewd photographs of him.
The Mitaka City Board of Education faces public criticism for not disciplining the teacher earlier, but this does not appear to be unusual. The 2013 statistics show that inappropriate behavior was only discovered after the police contacted the school in almost a third of all cases of sexual harassment.
The failure of academic institutions to recognize the abuse of children reflects a wider problem.
In October, Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, special rapporteur for the U.N. on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography condemned the country’s failure to address the sexual exploitation of children at a news conference in Tokyo.
“We have in Japan many forms of sexual exploitation of children, (some of) which are not necessarily criminalized,” she said.
In particular, de Boer-Buquicchio pointed to the phenomena of enjo kosai (compensated dating), in which female high school students offer a range of services, such as going on walks, posing for photographs or performing sexual services in exchange for products or cash.
De Boer-Buquicchio did welcome recent moves to criminalize the ownership of child pornography — the kind of material that was allegedly taken by the teacher in Mitaka. However, she said convictions typically result in suspended sentences or minimal penalties such as fines.
“Even if the criminals are convicted, the sentences are extremely low,” she said. “The whole atmosphere of impunity needs to change.”
The government statistics on sexual harassment in schools are very solid, but they may only be the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, however, de Boer-Buquicchio quoted an unnamed source as saying that some 13 percent of the schoolgirls in Japan were involved in compensated dating.
The Foreign Ministry immediately protested the remarks and called for the comment to be retracted. In response, de Boer-Buquicchio said she had referred to estimates in open sources to highlight the problem. A short time later, however, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said de Boer-Buquicchio had sent the government a letter in which she effectively retracted her earlier claim. Numerous attempts to contact de Boer-Buquicchio have yet to confirm this.
The government may be able to refute a number but not ignore a problem altogether.
Japan needs to improve sex education in schools so that students can recognize healthy sexual relationships without selling their bodies or accepting abuse.
Japan’s public spending on education as a percentage of GDP was the lowest among OECD countries in 2012, the sixth consecutive year it sat at the bottom.
Sexual harassment in schools may be just another sign of getting what you pay for: If you don’t fund education, don’t pay enough to hire good teachers and don’t tackle abuse, you could learn a few unpleasant things.
Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.