National / Crime & Legal

Lawmakers hold hearings into whether the rape case against journalist was dropped due to Abe ties

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

A group of opposition lawmakers on Tuesday kicked off the first in a series of hearings where they will question police and ministry officials over a high-profile case involving an alleged rape by a former television journalist with close ties to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The case grabbed nationwide headlines in May when freelance journalist Shiori Ito, who at the time disclosed only her first name, came forward with the claim that she had been sexually assaulted by Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a former Washington bureau chief for Tokyo Broadcasting System, at a Tokyo hotel on April 4, 2015.

It is extremely rare in Japan for a rape victim to face TV cameras and publicly recount the experience of sexual abuse.

Based on a criminal complaint filed by Ito, police at the time investigated the case and handed it to prosecutors that August. But the prosecutors dropped the case in July 2016 because of insufficient evidence, according to Ito.

Her appeal of the 2016 decision by law enforcement not to indict Yamaguchi was officially rejected in September this year by what is known as a committee for the inquest of prosecution — a panel comprising 11 randomly chosen citizens tasked with reviewing decisions not to indict. The rejection of the appeal formally ended the criminal case against Yamaguchi, leaving a civil lawsuit as Ito’s only possible option to pursue redress.

“Many people have since urged us lawmakers to thoroughly scrutinize this case in the Diet,” chief organizer and Upper House lawmaker Yuko Mori, of the Liberal Party, said at the opening of the hearing.

Lawmakers hailing from a wide range of opposition parties, including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, Kibo no To (Party of Hope), the Japanese Communist Party and Nippon Ishin no Kai joined Tuesday’s hearing.

Aside from the dropped case, lawmakers also are raising questions over the “bizarre” way in which Yamaguchi evaded detention at the last minute in June 2015 — two months after the incident — when a court-issued warrant for his arrest on suspicion of “quasi-rape” was suspended at the urging of a top police official.

Itaru Nakamura, then head of the criminal investigation division at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, admitted in a May interview with the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho to having ordered a halt to the probe involving Yamaguchi, without elaborating.

“Was it because Mr. Yamaguchi had a close relationship with Prime Minister Abe that the case was brought all the way up to, and rejected by, the division head himself?” lawmaker Michiyoshi Yunoki, of Kibo no To, questioned an official from the National Police Agency.

The official responded by claiming the decision not to arrest Yamaguchi had nothing to do with his personal relationship with Abe and that there was no sontaku — a Japanese word for acting preemptively by surmising a superior’s wishes — at play on Nakamura’s part. The official also insisted that “it is not uncommon at all” that a warrant for arrest receives a stay.

Accounts offered by Ito and Yamaguchi over their interaction on the day of the alleged rape remain starkly at odds.

Ito claimed in her recently published tell-all book that she suddenly passed out while drinking with Yamaguchi on the night in question. When she woke up, she said she found herself lying on a hotel bed with acute abdominal pain. Yamaguchi then “pinned down my body and head against the bed with such forcefulness that I couldn’t resist” and “tried to force open my legs,” she wrote.

In an open letter to Ito that was carried in the latest issue of the monthly magazine Hanada, Yamaguchi asserted that he neither drugged her nor forcibly dragged her into the hotel room. Even once alone together, “I did nothing against your will,” Yamaguchi said, claiming that Ito, who he said had prided herself in being a “strong drinker,” simply made the mistake of drinking more than she could handle.

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