Shifting attitudes toward sexual violence in Japan

The arrival of 2018 shouldn't bring the discussion of issues surrounding sexual violence to an end.

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

“Have you been a victim of sexual assault in Japan?”

It was a question that I stumbled across on social media by chance.

My first reaction was to dismiss the query, sparing a quick thought for the victims of such violence before turning to other matters.

As I did, however, I began to reflect on my own past.

When I was in junior high school, a young man who lived in the same apartment building flashed me in an elevator, blocking the entrance as he did so.

When I was in college, a middle-aged man cornered me in the box seat on a train and masturbated in front of me.

When I was in my mid-20s, a man pressed himself against me in the aisle of a convenience store and then followed me home. I had to call my father for help that time.

And, of course, I have been groped on trains many, many times.

Until recently, I never considered these incidents to be sexual assaults, nor did I ever view myself as a victim. I told myself that such things happened all the time and I was never physically hurt. I compared my experiences to those of other women and I considered myself lucky.

Yet, to this day I feel uncomfortable in elevators with strange men and will never sit in a box seat on a train. What’s more, I avoid standing near the doors of crowded trains because it’s a well-known spot for gropers to operate.

This was the lesson I had learned from my experiences in Japan: I had to protect myself.

Millions of women worldwide used the #MeToo hashtag late last year to share their experiences of sexual abuse and harassment and, in doing so, denounce sexual misconduct.

Time magazine named these “silence breakers” Person of the Year in 2017, with the campaign bringing down dozens of high-profile predators in entertainment, media, politics, business and sports.

In Japan, meanwhile, the #MeToo campaign hasn’t really captured the same attention. Last year, however, one woman did speak out about her own experience with sexual violence months before the movement began. Her name is Shiori Ito.

Victim blaming

Shiori Ito

Ito is a 28-year-old journalist who accused another journalist of rape in May last year.

“People often call me courageous, but in reality I felt I had no other choice than to speak out about my experience,” Ito says. “I was terrified about what would happen … and the backlash was greater than I could have ever anticipated.”

Ito was savaged online after making the accusation public, with people calling her a “prostitute” and one person even suggesting that she “should have been strangled and killed (during the alleged attack).”

The comments that affected her the most, however, appeared to have been sent by other women.

One woman said she felt embarrassed as a woman that Ito had spoken out about the incident, while another woman said she felt sympathy for her alleged attacker’s public plight.

“I was told that I didn’t behave as a woman should behave: I was going out and drinking with a man or I was wearing the wrong clothes,” Ito says. “I was told what goes around comes around and yet I’m talking about sexual violence, not women’s manners.”

In a book published in the 1970s titled “Blame the Victim,” the late psychologist William Ryan defines victim blaming as “justifying inequality by finding defects in the victims of inequality.”

Ryan explains how victims are distinguished as being different from the general population and blaming them serves as a function to maintain the status quo. The psychologist stresses that victim blaming is “systematically motivated — but unintended — distortions of reality.”

Although Ryan was primarily talking about racial and social injustice against the black community, the term is now often used in cases of sexual assault.

Victim blaming stems from the fundamental idea that women need to protect themselves to avoid becoming victims, says Sachiko Nakajima, a 54-year-old survivor of domestic violence and founder of Resilience, a nonprofit organization to raise awareness against various types of trauma, including domestic violence, abuse and moral harassment.

“Men and women often blame the victim but nothing good comes from it and, as a result, victims become too scared to speak out,” Nakajima says. “When considering all of the consequences of speaking out, you decide it’s better to bear it, to pretend it didn’t happen, to stay silent — because it takes so much energy to accept what happened.”

According to a 2014 survey on violence against women compiled by the Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office, just 4.3 percent of the 117 female respondents who had engaged in a sexual act through force contacted the police after the incident.

Nakajima founded Resilience in 2003 to help other survivors of abusive relationships heal and regain their lives through a 12-step program.

Resilience has also implemented a facilitator training program, overseas study tours and holds more than 100 lectures nationwide every year.

The organization now also runs a SAFER (Sexual-Assault Free Environment and Resilience) program for supporters of people who have experienced sexual violence.

It took Nakajima more than 15 years before she could openly discuss the physical and emotional violence she suffered over the course of a 4½-year relationship with her boyfriend at the time, but it took her even longer to talk about the sexual abuse she experienced.

Although it has been 30 years since Nakajima managed to break free from her abuser, she still suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I don’t think I’m alone in saying that it’s extremely difficult to talk about sexual violence,” Nakajima says. “Sexual violence always has an element of shame attached to it. We’re surrounded by a concept of victim blaming and feel shame because we blame ourselves. If anything, it’s the perpetrator who should be struck down with shame.”

Rape myths and stigma

Sachiko Nakajima
Sachiko Nakajima | MASAMI ITO

Consent is a concept that is a genuinely misunderstood by some in Japan when sex is involved, with phrases such as “Iya yo iya yo mo suki no uchi” (“No doesn’t always mean no”) used in conversation as if they’re commonplace.

Experts say victims are typically perceived as “asking for it” by going for a drink with perpetrators, wearing suggestive clothing or acting provocatively. This is especially the case when victims and perpetrators are acquaintances.

“The concept of consent in Japan is far from understood,” Nakajima says. “Consent is a definitive yes, not silence. What’s more, that consent has to continue — any agreement to engage in sexual activity ends as soon as a person changes his or her mind.”

A 2015 video by the British police explains consent in simple terms: Think of sex in the same way as a cup of tea — don’t force others to drink it.

Clouding the issue further are the various rape myths that exist.

The National Center for Neurology and Psychiatry issues a pamphlet on sexual violence that rejects such beliefs as “only young women are sexually assaulted,” “consent had been given because the victim had not resisted” and “all perpetrators are strangers.”

The pamphlet outlines a more accurate picture: Victims are both men and women, young and old and typically not wearing anything provocative. Most victims don’t resist due to fear, intimidation or intoxication, and about 80 percent know their perpetrators.

Gender issues expert Hiroko Goto, 59, says rape myths typically prevent many victims from speaking out. The backlash against Ito is a clear example of this in action.

“Women are constantly trying to decide whether their victimization is something that is OK to make public … because the reality is terrifying,” Goto says. “There is no support for them to identify the perpetrator, nor much empathy toward them.”

Legal barriers

If a victim of sexual assault goes so far as to file a complaint with the police, indictment rates are low. In 2014, for example, only 37.2 percent of all suspects processed by the prosecutors were indicted for rape.

Goto says it is easier for prosecutors to charge suspects of rape when the victims are children or strangers, because in those cases consent is less of an issue.

Ito filed a criminal complaint in April 2015, less than a month after the alleged incident. In July 2016, however, prosecutors decided not to indict her alleged attacker. She then filed an appeal with the Committee for Public Inquest of Prosecution, which rejected it in September. Ito has now turned to the civil courts and is suing her alleged perpetrator for damages. Her alleged attacker denies the allegations.

Hiroko Goto
Hiroko Goto | MASAMI ITO

Goto, a board member of the Japan Association of Gender and Law and a professor at Chiba University, says prosecutors often struggle to collect sufficient evidence to prove a suspect’s culpability in cases of sexual assault.

“If prosecutors drop charges, it doesn’t necessarily mean the accused is innocent. It just means that prosecutors have not been able to collect sufficient evidence to hold up the indictment,” Goto says. “However, we need to reevaluate the meaning of an inability to prosecute — not having enough evidence to press charges doesn’t mean the victim is lying.”

The World Health Organization defines sexual violence as “any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work.”

Japan revised legislation related to sexual violence in the Criminal Law for the first time in 110 years in June.

The amendment expanded the definition of rape, broadening the criteria from only vaginal penetration by a penis to include forced anal and oral sex. This also effectively recognizes the possibility of men as rape victims.

The minimum term of imprisonment was raised from three years to five, and victims no longer need to file criminal complaints for their cases to be investigated and tried.

However, experts say other sections of the Criminal Law also need amending, including Article 177, which stipulates that “violence or intimidation” must be established to determine whether or not a victim has been raped.

“The amendment is better than nothing but, to be honest, I don’t think the victims are being listened to,” Goto says. “Victims still need to prove they tried to run away, scream or ask for help to be recognized as victims under the law.”

Overturning patriarchy

Although Japanese society doesn’t appear to be ready to listen to victims of sexual violence just yet, slowly but surely more women are making their voices heard.

Survivors such as photojournalist Junko Oyabu and office worker Mika Kobayashi have spoken out about their experiences and have penned books. Jun Yamamoto, who was molested by her own father as a teenager, heads an advocacy group calling for the empowerment of sexual abuse victims.

Although she wished to remain anonymous, one high school girl’s campaign against groping on trains has led to the establishment of an Osaka-based nonprofit organization called Chikan Yokushi Katsudo Center (Groping Prevention Activities Center).

In this context, Kanoko Kamata, 39, feels the time is now right to come forward about her own experiences.

Kanoko Kamata

Kamata was assaulted by a supervisor at the age of 22, having just started working for a company after graduating from college. She later told the supervisor she hadn’t consented, but he told her that she was to blame. The man held a powerful position at the company, so she decided to keep the incident to herself.

For more than a decade, Kamata tried to block the experience from her memories. However, she struggled to put the incident behind her and began to lose confidence in herself.

“I blamed myself for a long time because I thought it was my fault for accepting everything that he said and did,” Kamata says. “But when I eventually told my friends, they told me that it wasn’t my fault — he completely abused his power. The important thing is being able to tell someone about the incident and understanding that it wasn’t the victim’s fault.”

Kamata founded Chabudai Gaeshi Joshi Action (Turn Over the Table Ladies Action) with several others in 2015.

Chabudai gaeshi is a phrase describing a situation in which a Japanese father flips over a low table bearing a meal cooked by his wife in a fit of anger.

The group uses a chabudai made of cardboard at its workshops and participants take turns energetically flipping it over and shouting their anger. The women then sit down to discuss positive actions they can take to improve their environment.

“We chose chabudai gaeshi because we want to overturn patriarchy,” Kamata says. “We thought that by flipping over tables, we can practice raising our voices and empower ourselves to speak out. … It’s hard to speak out as an individual but, together, it’s easier to accomplish.”

The group also holds consent workshops at a number of universities in Japan, including the University of Tokyo. The workshops hold role-playing games in which participants are asked to discuss the ways in which male students can change their behavior to prevent sexual violence.

Through these workshops and other activities, Kamata says she hopes to initiate change in society and the way people think in order to create a safe environment for everyone.

“What’s wrong is wrong and we have to stop women from being hurt,” Kamata says. “People become wary when women speak out but nothing will change if we don’t. … I’m engaged in a social movement because the people at the top can’t change society. Each and everyone of us is part of society and we can support each other in making change.”

Speaking out for change

Nakajima believes it will take time for women’s attitudes toward sexual violence to change dramatically, noting that Japan lacks an influential female figurehead to inspire other women.

“A tipping point will occur when numerous dots are connected to illustrate the bigger picture,” Nakajima says. “In Japan, we are still increasing the number of dots. And when those dots are connected, that’s when a major shift in balance occurs like it has in the United States. That, however, takes time.”

Returning to my own experiences, I was too scared at the time to stand up to my attackers. Instead, I pretended that it wasn’t a big deal.

I didn’t want to be seen as a woman who was too sensitive or overly dramatic. I wanted to feel empowered and equal to the men I knew.

By dismissing my own past, however, I have come to realize in recent times that I was unknowingly dismissing sexual violence against other women.

However, women such as Shiori Ito, Sachiko Nakajima and Kanoko Kamata have been brave enough to break the silence. Others, such as Hiroko Goto, are actively trying to challenge misconceptions.

In October, Ito published a book titled “Black Box” that recounted her story — and revealed her full name for the first time. She says she didn’t want her case to be treated as unique and had been extremely reluctant to include a photograph of herself on the book’s cover.

However, the photographer said something to her that made her change her mind.

“He said, ‘I’m not going to photograph you as a portrait but as an object, because I also want to photograph the faces of those behind you who cannot appear,'” Ito recalls. “It could be you, it could be your daughter, it could be anyone. You don’t have to believe me but please take a look at what is going on now.”

As far as Ito is concerned, the consequences of her speaking out about her experience have been severe. It has driven a wedge between her and her family. She cannot leave the house without wearing a disguise. She had to abandon her home, her country and move overseas. By living abroad, she is currently free to be just another woman and not a “rape victim.”

And yet, she has no regrets.

“We can’t wait any longer,” Ito says. “Now’s the time to change. We have to talk about it now.”