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Rape allegation against high-profile journalist, dropped by prosecutors last year, returns in civil suit

by and

Staff Writers

A female journalist who is suing a high-profile journalist over an alleged rape in 2015 expressed hope that the truth will come out in open court as the oral hearings of her civil lawsuit began at the Tokyo District Court on Tuesday.

In September, Shiori Ito, 28, filed the suit against Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a former Washington bureau chief for Tokyo Broadcasting System, whom she accuses of sexually assaulting her at a Tokyo hotel in April 2015. Ito claims that Yamaguchi dragged her into a hotel room and raped her after the two met at a restaurant to discuss a job opportunity. Ito says she lost consciousness while they were at a sushi restaurant.

In court on Tuesday, Ito was present with her team of lawyers, but Yamaguchi’s side skipped the hearing. His lawyer instead submitted a document asking that the case be dismissed.

A day after the start of her civil lawsuit, a group of opposition lawmakers held the third session of a hearing to investigate her case.

In June 2015, Yamaguchi avoided arrest at the last minute after Itaru Nakamura, who at the time was the head of the criminal investigation division at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, urged that the warrant be suspended. Nakamura admitted the warrant suspension in an interview with weekly magazine Shukan Shincho in May.

A National Police Agency official summoned to a Diet committee meeting on judicial affairs did not deny the way in which Nakamura handled the case at the time — a move that lawmaker Michiyoshi Yunoki, of Kibo no To (Party of Hope), called a virtual police admission that Nakamura was indeed behind the suspension of Yamaguchi’s warrant.

In Wednesday’s hearing, where police and ministry officials were summoned to explain Ito’s case, opposition lawmakers sought to establish the eleventh-hour warrant suspension as a questionable break from standard police protocol.

When pressed to explain how common it is that a court-issued warrant receives a stay, NPA official Junichiro Kan refused to provide details, saying it is “difficult” to go over all relevant records in the past and draw any conclusion.

Ito went public with her case in May. It’s extremely rare in Japan for people to come forward, by name and on camera, with rape allegations.

She filed the civil suit days after a Tokyo Committee for the Public Inquest of Prosecution in mid-September rejected her petition to overturn a 2016 decision by prosecutors not to charge Yamaguchi with incapacitated rape. She is seeking ¥11 million in damages.

Inquest panels, comprised of 11 citizens, meet behind closed doors and provide no explanation as to why decisions are reached. Ito said the suit is the only way for her to find out why her case was dropped by the prosecutors and her appeal rejected by the inquest panel.

“Since the inquest panel rejected my appeal, the civil case is the only option left,” Ito told reporters after Tuesday’s hearing. “I feel that I have finally got a chance to talk about the facts. I’d like to examine those facts presented by both sides and discover where the differences are.”

Accounts of what happened on the day of the alleged rape by Ito and Yamaguchi remain sharply at odds.

Ito claims in the suit that she passed out halfway through a meal and drinks at a sushi restaurant, and that when she woke up, she found herself being raped in a hotel room. Yamaguchi, in an open letter to Ito carried in the December issue of the monthly magazine Hanada, denied he forcibly dragged her into the hotel room and claimed that Ito simply drank more than she could handle.

The case also drew wide public attention because Yamaguchi is a high-profile journalist known for his close ties with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Ito, who at times struggled to hold back tears, told the lawmakers that rape is not as uncommon a crime in Japan as many believe.

“In Japan, rape tends to be considered something that only happens in movies or faraway places,” Ito said. “But lots of unexpected things happened to me in what I thought to be the safest country in Asia.”

Ito said her recovery was significantly delayed by a lack of available rape crisis centers and the thoughtless way in which police officers grilled her over the tiniest details. She said the line of questioning made her feel “as if they thought I was lying.”

The Japanese media’s tendency to use euphemisms in referring to “rape” and “molestation,” she alleged, has also played a part in the misguided public perception that sex crimes here are rare occurrences.