Business

With resignations at NH Foods, has #MeToo finally reached corporate Japan?

by Shoko Oda

Bloomberg

The #MeToo movement may have finally made its way to corporate Japan: The president of a blue chip company has resigned after a subordinate he was traveling with made sexually explicit remarks to an airline employee.

The junior executive from NH Foods Ltd., a Nikkei 225-listed company with more than 15,000 workers, resigned last month, as did President Juichi Suezawa.

Suezawa was present during the exchange between the subordinate and an airline worker at Tokyo’s Haneda airport in October. While he was not directly involved, media reports linked his resignation to complaints over the comments.

The junior executive, who had been drinking, asked the airline employee explicit questions about her sex life in an airport lounge, according to media accounts of the incident. She reported the remarks to her superior, which led to the airline filing a complaint with NH Foods.

Osaka-based NH Foods is a household name in Japan as a maker of bacon and sausages, as well as the owner of the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, the baseball team where Shohei Ohtani and Yu Darvish rose to fame.

Suezawa’s resignation in January was attributed to “personal reasons,” with the background only coming to light after a magazine report last week.

A spokesman at the company, who declined to be identified citing internal policy, confirmed that the executive had made inappropriate comments and that Suezawa was present but didn’t participate in the exchange.

The spokesman also denounced the remarks, calling them “very regrettable” and “offensive” to women, though he wouldn’t elaborate on the content of the exchange. The spokesman also wouldn’t comment on the resignations beyond the Jan. 29 statement, and didn’t identify the junior executive or the airline.

The incident could be considered one of very few examples of the ongoing #MeToo movement making its mark in Japan. While testimonies of sexual harassment and assault have led to the downfall of American film producer Harvey Weinstein and casino billionaire Steve Wynn, the movement appears to have left the Japanese corporate world largely unscathed. A move last year by a freelance journalist to publicly accuse a former boss of rape was widely noted in media reports as rare — testimony to how few victims of sexual assault or harassment come forward in the country.

“This is a rarity in Japan. Usually companies don’t go this far to protect their employees,” Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, said about the airline worker in the NH Foods incident.

However, Nakano doesn’t see it as the start of something big, or think that the scale of #MeToo in Japan will reach that of the U.S.

“The corporate structure in Japan makes it difficult for people to reveal these incidents,” he said.

Japanese women have been guaranteed equal opportunity in the workplace for more than 30 years, but their active participation outside of traditional roles has made little headway.

Recently, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been trying to boost productivity as the population shrinks with his “womenomics” policy to try to increase female participation in the workforce.

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